“The World” has removed Bruce Wallace’s story, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” from our website. The story was about Mike Daisey’s critically acclaimed one-man stage show and the response to it. In the monologue, Daisey describes what he saw and people he spoke with at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China that manufactures iPhones and iPads. Portions of Daisey’s story, however, have since been discredited by reporter Rob Schmitz of “Marketplace,” who covers China for that broadcast.
A similar story also aired on “This American Life.” Speaking on the program since these recent developments, Daisey expressed his regret to “the people who are listening, if they feel betrayed.”
We would like to also apologize to our listeners for presenting Mike Daisey’s story without proper corroboration. Below are reporter Bruce Wallace’s thoughts on the episode.
One person I wanted to talk to about these things was Cathy, the interpreter Daisey worked with in China. Listening to the TAL excerpt left me really eager to get her take on the whole thing. Daisey told me he was protecting her identity, so she wouldn’t be available.
I also wanted to talk to a Chinese person who’d worked at an Apple factory, and SACOM, a Hong Kong-based group that monitors factory conditions in China, put me in touch with Guo Ruiqiang, who’d worked for Chinese manufacturer Wintek and been exposed to the toxic chemical n-hexane that was used to clean iPhone screens. (This is the incident Daisey talks about in his show, although it now seems that he didn’t actually meet a anyone who’d been poisoned at Wintek.)
I think Guo’s brief message at the end of my story, “I hope fans of Apple will know that the products they use require us to make a sacrifice,” is easily the best part. For the record I thought that before I found out about Daisey’s fabrications.
I saw the show in early February, and it was as good as everyone had said. Daisey and I had emailed a bunch, but at some point he’d stopped responding and it didn’t look like an interview was going to happen. In fact the first draft of my script referred to him “going MIA on me.”
Finally, after deadline, he wrote me and apologized for disappearing and we set up a time to talk. I ran into Manhattan and interviewed him in his dressing room one evening a couple hours before his show. In the elevator on the way up to his dressing room I asked him something about what the past few weeks had been like—talk about Apple manufacturing was at a fever pitch and the company had announced a couple of concessions. Daisey said he felt like he was at war.
The thing that makes The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs so powerful—the thing that makes it altogether different from reading a newspaper article or NGO report about the conditions in an Apple factory in China–is simple: you’re sitting in a room with him, and he’s telling you what it was like when he was at that factory.
He tells you he’s standing outside the gate of Foxconn’s mammoth factory in Shenzhen with waves of workers coming forward to talk about how young they are and how long their shifts are. Later, he tells you, he’s sitting across a table at a restaurant talking to more workers–members of a union. They’re telling him stories about being poisoned by a chemical they used to clean iPhones. One guy, who’s made tons of iPads, touches Daisey’s and says it’s the first time he’s ever seen one on.
It’s powerful stuff, packed with immediacy and humanity, things that journalism strives for. Of course it turns out that, in the process of achieving those things, it sidesteps the main thing journalism strives for: veracity.
I was talking to my editor at The World, Aaron Schachter, earlier today, right as the news about Rob Schmitz debunking many of Daisey’s claims was coming out. Aaron wondered why Daisey would say that he met a guy poisoned by n-hexane, instead of just describing news accounts of that well-documented incident. My guess is because the latter approach wouldn’t have the immediacy.
It seems like this all gets at some of the same issues at play in the debate about Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video. Is it worth smoothing down the rough edges of fact, and forgoing context and complexity, in order to get a simple, moving message out to a wide audience? It’s one question I’d love to have posed to the outraged people I talked to as they were leaving The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs back in February.