Mike Daisey's This American Life

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for Martketplace, talks about his reporting on This American Life, fact-checking Mike Daisey's story about factory conditions in China. On The Media host Brooke Gladstone joins the conversation.


Rob Schmitz

Comments [33]

I clicked "thumbs up" on several comments here that are now showing "no thumbs up" someone is gaming this very board.

Anyway, I am listening to the entire show now and simply wanted to correct a comment in the beginning of the piece by Brooke -- this factory is not a Chinese factory. It is a Taiwanese one. Taiwanese factories are notorious.

Mar. 19 2012 07:14 PM
vladdy from Brooklyn

I am torn between both sides. Beyond all consideration of "journalistic integrity", I really feel for Ira because he was LIED TO HIS FACE. Anyone who's had that happen to them, even in a marginally important matter in their personal life, knows the kind of anger that can engender. And Ira Glass had it done in the context of his career, his passion, his show. His rage was palpable and I don't blame him.

On the other hand, I can empathize with the sleights of hand Mike Daisey felt he had to make to not only make his narrative more compelling (I at least think he's talented as a dramatic renderer) and more colorful as theater, but also to provoke scrutiny and a public debate about working conditions abroad. Most of the fabrications were not so much of facts that we know are not true but of facts that Mike himself did not eyewitness. Workers at Foxonn DID get injured from an explosion caused by aluminum dust. Mike Daisey just didn't meet them. Underage workers DO work at Foxconn and other sites. It's unclear whether Mike talked to them. And so much more.

Without shrugging off MD's transgression, it's amazing how easily we've slipped into bashing him without asking the more pertinent question--just how TRANSPARENT are working conditions in China anyway?? Oh sure, we can just ask the firm Apple hires to monitor conditions for them, right? To think that any "consulting" company, whose livelihood depends on drafting reports showing what a glorious job of world citizenry their various multinational corporations are doing, will actually do the real work of uncovering all the worst practices at the risk of their clients taking a public relations hit is naive at best.

In journalism, obviously, there's no room for the end justifies the means logic. Theater though...That's the rub.

Mar. 19 2012 06:39 PM

ah yes, as another commenter posts here -- "how free was "Kathy" to be candid?"

these are the questions the pros ask

Mar. 19 2012 02:48 PM

Oh well, I certainly hope NPR and possibly Ira Glass are not intimidated by actually breaking the still-untold story of how America's manufacturing sector was rebuilt in China -- by Americans.

Mar. 19 2012 02:45 PM

I heard both the original TAL episode and the retraction, and I was pretty appalled at Mike Daisey's conduct. There were several points when TAL staff double-checked facts with him (including some that turned out to be false) and stressed to him that they needed to be sure that Daisey's monologue met the standards of journalism. Daisey was clear on what TAL expected of him and lied, time and time again. His conversation with Ira Glass was excruciating because he was unable to simply apologize for lying and betraying the TAL staff. Frankly, it seemed to me that Daisey might have been lying to himself. He claimed that the reason he didn't come clean before TAL aired the story was that he was afraid that his amazing work wouldn't reach as many people and make them "delve". I am skeptical of that claim and believe his actions were more about his ego and desire for fame and appreciation. But maybe I'm biased . . . I actually can't stand the sound of his voice and was not at all impressed with his monologue in the first place, despite being sympathetic to the issue of worker abuses in China.

Mar. 19 2012 02:38 PM

@Miguel Macias from Brooklyn:

Let me know if this is the original TAL show you're looking for:
(BTW, there seems to be a transcript of the original show at -
but I'm the kind of cynical person who wonders why you need to compare anything to the cowardly, dishonest admissions of Mr Daisey.)

I "too-much-loved" the way Ira Glass, Rob Schmitz, and their colleagues handled the unpleasant epiphany that TAL was "gulled" by a shameless professional self-aggrandizing fabulist as effortlessly as a "3 card monte" dealer steals from the credulous "out-of-towners" strolling 5th Avenue.
Whatever awards are earned by the expose-retraction should go to Mr. Schmitz who seems, under the "facts" as I understand them today, to have expended the energy to be, what I think the "normal" view of, what a "journalist" should be: he had a personal feeling that the "story" Daisey was selling was bogus as it related to Daisey, and he went out to see whether the "facts" would support him. {Would he want to publish the story had he determined that Daisey was honest and trustworthy. Would that story be an appropriate feature on TAL? One can have hope.}
Every day the media throws another similarly packaged story at us. Seldom does anyone check on the bona fides of the storyteller, if the story is "compelling", or "poignant", and supplies justification for a popular or favored public policy. "Joe the plumber", the phony who made the video about kony [ ]; Sandra Fluck; Barry Soetoro; the "house-flipping" debtors ruined by "profit seeking" bankers; the "three-pack-a-day" cigarette smokers who can't get health insurance for the same price as non-smokers [well, maybe they deserve to pay an increased premium].

So maybe you'll let us know how the original show compares with the retraction. (and maybe you'll find that check I sent you in your mouth or maybe not)

Tah ;-)

Mar. 19 2012 12:54 PM
Jr. from nyc

Fatal Flaws in Garfield's reporting, "Fatal Flaws"?

Reverse reporting/double standards ... I'm getting dizzy!

I was shocked and disappointed to hear Bob Garfield's ad hook that Invisible Children's video had, "Fatal Flaws" in their reporting.There was nothing in his piece that showed fatal flaws in the KONY 2012 campaign. Nit-picking about Kony's exact location, and downplaying the timeline on the 30,000 dead at the hands of the LLP?

On a later segment Garfield said that Pepsi is sugar water. In fact the first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. There's more caramel coloring in Pepsi than sugar. Let's nit-pick.
I consider it a fatal flaw when you lose a listener because a reporter reports, "Fatal Flaw".

Mar. 19 2012 12:27 PM

Today, all purported journalism is entertainment. At the same time, we have entertainment portrayed as journalism -- hence, events like this.

Mar. 19 2012 12:05 PM
Yvonne from Park Slope

Forced to sit in chairs with no backs??? I never sit back into the back of a chair and always sit in a chair as if the back was not there because not sitting up straight and NOT ALLOWING YOUR SPINE TO SUPPORT ITSELF is bad for your back ... ask any chiropractor! Leaning back into chairs THE WAY MOST PEOPLE DO encourages the spine to round out of alignment.

Mar. 19 2012 12:04 PM
Sandra from Brooklyn

It's interesting to hear your guests say these working conditions don't exist in this country. I thought FastFoodNation showed how the American meat-processing industry regularly violates standard working conditions, and many workers in the US are prone to terrible factory accidents.

Mar. 19 2012 12:00 PM

Had MD presented this as first person fiction based on real events the situation would have been quite different.

Mar. 19 2012 11:58 AM


Perfectly stated. That anyone tries to defend any of this scam is disgusting.

Mar. 19 2012 11:58 AM
Christine Boese from Brooklyn, NY

I've listened to all the shows, esp. this past weekend. Some issues I hope your broadcast today will address with your excellent guests:

#1: Fiction or not (Fair Comment and Criticism or not)-- Is Mike Daisey SERIOUSLY vulnerable to a libel suit? Even fiction presenting itself as "fact" -- even with pomo narrative theory that seeks to explore the constructedness of "fact," --SOME of the fabrications DO vilify Apple and the factories more in the fabricated bits than in the documented bits, even if documented outside of time and place.

#2: What no one is exploring just yet (shall we wait for academics to weigh in, or will On the Media get there first?), is HOW WELL Daisey actually uses and extends current postmodern narrative theory about the social construction of "facts" and the ways that fictions can seek after a "larger truth." We've been debating this back to Janet Cooke in the 1980s, through the constructions of "truth/memoirs" that are often more fictional than many short stories.

If we seek "larger truths" even within fiction, what struck me most while listening to this weekend's This American Life-- I FELT BETRAYED by Daisey's Public Theater show, which I saw last fall. At the end, Daisey made a call to activism. But I feel he also betrayed the "larger truth," even for dramatic effect-- not because of the fact-checking or omission of-- but because he DISTORTED the larger truths.

Which is why I think Apple et al have grounds for a libel suit against Daisey's show.

Mar. 19 2012 11:57 AM
Larry Love

Brian, you should have John D'Agata (the author of 'Lifespan of A Fact') on your show to discuss what an essay is. He would not agree with your definition of it at all.

Mar. 19 2012 11:57 AM

So what is TAL going to do now? Vet everything submitted to 100% truthful accuracy. They'd better watch out if they air any reference to Shakespeare's history plays -- I've heard there's some question about whose "history" is to be believed. Calling Luigi Pirandello!

Mar. 19 2012 11:56 AM
Zenk from UES

China is a "developing" nation?! Uh, I think it's developed!

Mar. 19 2012 11:55 AM
Stephanie from Scarsdale

Does Brooke see some kind of parallel between Mike Daisy's Apple story and Jason Russell's KONY2012?

Mar. 19 2012 11:55 AM

I think that Brooke misses a KEY point here.

Daisy's narrative intentionally paints these issues as being common and easily uncovered.

The prevalence of these issues (e.g. underage workers) is a critical piece of this story. It is critical to how we understand the existence of these issues. It is critical to understanding what might be done, and what moral responsibility we have to address them ourselves.

Daisy accuses Apple of willfully turned a blind eye to the obvious. That is the moral condemnation. And that is plainly a lie.

Mar. 19 2012 11:53 AM
Andrea from Philadelphia

Thank you, Brooke! Exactly what I've been saying to my friends over the past couple of days.

Mar. 19 2012 11:52 AM
Doug Wheeler from UES

Excellent show Brian. Putting aside the issue of conditions inside of these factories, it is interesting that Daisey is sticking by his story so adamantly while admitting his fabrications (not that he would use that word). Interesting because he does not seem to have the common sense to understand that- while he may be posing a theatrical production- his willing and now patent fabrication and lying to TAL damagingly undermine the fact that working conditions at Foxconn are far from ideal. In adhering to his "word in the context of the theater," Daisey now just looks like a liar who has undermined his own cause. It is unfortunate.

Mar. 19 2012 11:52 AM

I have never listened to TAL as a "news" outlet -- most of their "stories" are personal memory pieces which may or may not be 100% accurate but they're compelling. It never occurred to me that TAL fact checks these 1st person memoires. So I was surprised at their investigative zeal concerning this one story. After listening to the "retraction" episode this past weekend I am still unconvinced that their approach was necessary in this case. Listening, I was extremely uncomfortable with the 3rd degree given to Mike Daisy by Ira Glass and the Marketplace reporter. I kept thinking who are these latter day Torquemadas to grill him? In the end, it seemed to the that TAL's mistake was to air a theatrical piece as a news story. Mike Daisy did not do a special "investigative" segment for TAL; TAL chose to excerpt part of his one-man show. TAL then attempted to vet the excerpt as if it was a news story. Why didn't they just issue a disclaimer that this was a theater piece and not a news story and TAL couldn't vouch for it's total veracity. Caveat Auditor.

Mar. 19 2012 11:51 AM
dan pupke from maplewood

i thought TAL's retraction show concentrated way too much on mike daisey's lies and not enough on TAL's own decision to air the show without properly vetting daisey (who has had his integrity questioned before)

The retraction show seemed like the attitude at the show was more 'can you believe what a liar this guy is' and not 'how did we let this liar take over our show'

Mar. 19 2012 11:51 AM
bob from flushing

The issue is with characterizing journalism as it is practiced on This American Life with journalism as practiced at the New York Times. They're not the same thing.

Mar. 19 2012 11:50 AM
desdemona finch from brooklyn

We've got to distinguish between infotainment and information. Actors and comedians are ultimately about make-believe not reality. That is why you need to take their "political" journalism with not just a grain but a mine of salt. Journalists, especially those who've racked up enough cred to be sent overseas, aren't about to have that kind of chutzpah. They know they'll ultimately be busted and blow their entire careers. Daisey will just move on with his life. Well done, Rob Schmitz.

Mar. 19 2012 11:50 AM

How free was Kathy to be completely candid?

Mar. 19 2012 11:48 AM
Tom from Toronto

So all the Foxconn suicides were made up as well?

Mar. 19 2012 11:47 AM
akena in NY

How easily the media calls Mike Daisy a liar but never politicians. Cowardly.

Mar. 19 2012 11:46 AM
John A.

There is an easy-to-find past show from Mike: "All Stories Are Fiction: Yes, There Will Be Dancing", available as an audiobook. Since 2005. The man was not Dan Rather.

Mar. 19 2012 11:46 AM
Jon from Manhattan

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And TAL is all about story. TAL is NOT All Things Considered. Pity those who confuse the two.
As far as Daisey's piece goes, where there's smoke there's fire. Picasso's quote is so relevant here; Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.

Mar. 19 2012 11:46 AM

I would never try to pull one over on Ira after the listening to Mike Daisy being taken behind the woodshed!

Mar. 19 2012 11:44 AM
John A.

I listened to both episodes (the original, the retraction) Twice. I'll say I'm on Mike's side on this, but, I'm not a top fan of TAL - I've viewed that show as entertainment over journalism for pretty much its entire life. For Ira to pick this one episode and work it so hard seems to indicate some politics we're not privy to. Underwriters pulling their money out perhaps?

Mar. 19 2012 11:16 AM

the storyteller is miffed at the comedian for not being an experienced journalist... boo hoo...

i rooted for ira glass for identifying and exploiting a gaping hole in journalism: engaging business coverage... approaching the subject like the intelligent, curious amateurs they are, this american life put the debt crisis into perspective for millions of americans. for its next act, tal decided to go after the chattering class's warrior steed, the apple computer!

ira glass didn't fact check as would have the wall street journal or new york times. if there is egg on faces, it is not ira glass.

it is the established news media -- for running the story as fact without checking! i appreciate npr for many things, but original reporting is not among them, i think most would agree with that, you can tell the reporters are green and/or idealists and sheltered. but c'mon, you've got seasoned, experienced newshounds out there at newspapers and tv news programs, who should have done the legwork before reporting a word of what is running on npr and especially tal -- and an outsourced segment, at that! i haven't heard the entire mike daisey interview but from what i've heard daisey's point -- that he used fiction to draw attention to a real problem -- is valid. it's the news world's responsibility to decide how they wish to present such material.

special booby prize goes to apple for not detecting the lies themselves. real responsible to shareholders!

Mar. 19 2012 11:12 AM
Miguel Macias from Brooklyn

I was very pleased by the way Ira Glass handled the retraction
initially. But my feelings changed dramatically when I realized that
This American Life had removed the audio for the retracted show from
its website, and after I listened to last weekend "Retraction" TAL

Removing the retracted audio from its website seems to me like an
attempt to carefully control the message while pretending to be
transparent. Removing the retracted episode does not erase the fact that
this episode was aired, and it makes it impossible for the audience to
listen again and judge for themselves.

So... all we have now to analyze the facts is a long TAL episode
dedicated to the retraction. The episode starts with an apologetic tone.
But as it goes on it turns into a bizarre grilling of this one person
who is blamed for everything. Ira Glass has the nerve to ask Mike Daisey
why he lied when he was pressed about the veracity of all his claims.
Does Ira Glass really think that all his duty as a journalist was to rely on the word of a single source?
This American Life's retraction has been praised as a model one.
To me, this retraction has become an embarrassing display of
self-congratulation and hypocrisy. When you mess up your fact checking
so badly, you don't try to obfuscate the situation by airing an
interview with a single source that feels more like a crucifixion. I
don't care much for Mike Daisey, but he is not the person to blame for
This American Life's sloppy fact checking process.

Do you think that the media community is letting This American Life off the hook on this big mistake?

Mar. 19 2012 10:19 AM

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