Q&A: Adam Minter on the 'This American Life' Retraction

What were the holes in Mike Daisey’s Foxconn story?

From left: Adam Minter and Mike Daisey
Popular US podcast This American Life has retracted the episode ‘Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory’ after discovering not just inaccuracies but fabrications in what its author, Mike Daisey, presented as a factual account of terrible work conditions in Shenzhen manufacturing plant Foxconn. The falsehoods were confirmed by suspicious Marketplace journalist Rob Schmitz, who tracked down and spoke to Daisey’s translator, Cathy Lee (Li Guifen).
Several people expressed skepticism over Daisey’s account, including, eventually, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, and This American Life did try to fact check the story. So what went wrong? Adam Minter, a Shanghai-based journalist who specialises in Chinese environmental issues, immediately questioned Daisey’s account on his blog, Shanghai Scrap, and later debated the issues with Daisey on LA TV talk show To the Point. We asked Minter what he saw in Daisey’s account that This American Life didn’t.

On your blog, you wrote, ‘The picture [Daisey] paints is not pretty (nor is it, I believe, accurate much less journalism)'. What parts of his account struck you as inaccurate/unlikely?
I sensed something was off when he suggested, early in the monologue, that he was warned off going to Foxconn's gates by veteran journalists in Hong Kong, because ‘That's not really how we usually do things in China.’ Of course, that's precisely how journalism is done in China, every day. You go to the factory gates, you wait for the shift change, and you interview the workers!

No veteran Hong Kong journalist would think to say such a thing. More directly related to Foxconn, I knew that there weren't gun-toting guards at Foxconn's gates, and – having recently toured a Foxconn competitor in Zhongshan – I knew that high-tech manufacturers prefer not to employ children as young as 12 and 13. They're just not good employees for that kind of environment. Also, his description of the bunks in worker dorms sounded as if it were lifted from a cramped nuclear submarine, not any of the dozens of worker dorms I've visited. Above all, I knew that his description of union organizing meetings occurring Guangzhou Starbucks was false, and absurd.
Given your scepticism and the scepticism of others about his account, why do you think This American Life (TAL) got things so wrong?
[Host] Ira Glass made it clear in interviews that he was interested in Mike Daisey's monologue as a means of humanizing what he already believed to be a problem. So, rather than commissioning journalism for the purpose of getting at facts, he in effect paid for a monologue that confirmed what he already believed to be facts. That's the only way that I can explain why he didn't drop the story after Daisey claimed he could not provide TAL with the contact information for his translator in Shenzhen. At any other fact-checked news organization, that'd be enough to kill the story. But TAL wanted this story badly, and so drifted away from the normal standards of a fact check.
How did Daisey's discussion of his one man show in news forums colour your impression of his initial account? Did more cracks appear? Did he start to backtrack?
I appeared with Daisey on a Los Angeles radio show in February. When I challenged him during the course of it, he reacted really erratically and seemed on the verge of losing his temper. It struck me at the time as the behavior of a man who either didn't know his subject, or who was hiding something. In retrospect, it was both. In other public forums it was clear that, far from backtracking, he was actually ‘doubling-down,’ further exaggerating his experiences in Shenzhen.
You've expressed a favourable opinion about work at Foxconn and factories like it. To what extent do you think employment practices/labour conditions need to be improved, and how much has Daisey done (and now undone?) to effect changes?
My expertise is not in high-tech manufacturing, but rather recycling facilities like scrap yards, and raw material processing facilities like aluminum smelters. I wouldn't want to generalize either of those industries, but I can tell you that companies engaged in raw materials are far more dangerous, unhealthy, and unpleasant places to work than somewhere like Foxconn. Indeed, I can think of a range of industries that are more dangerous than Foxconn: textile dying, batttery manufacture, paper making, the list is endless.

The goal should not be raising the standards of Foxconn, but rather the much more difficult task of raising up China's other industries to the level of a Foxconn. Responsibility for that, however, belongs to the various levels of the Chinese government, ultimately. I don't think any amount of consciousness raising on the part of foreigners can make a bit of difference.
I don't think Mike Daisey has had any impact on China's labor situation, and I don't expect his current troubles to have an impact either.

Sam Gaskin