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This American Life retracts episode on Apple and Foxconn

Chicago Public Media retracts a January story on Apple's manufacturing practices based on Mike Daisey's one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read
Apple workers in China
Apple workers at a supplier facility in Shanghai, China. Apple

The makers of the popular public radio program "This American Life" are now retracting a January episode that contained a damning monologue on Apple and its manufacturing practices in China.

That monologue came from actor Mike Daisey, who penned his one-man play, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," after traveling to Shenzhen, China, to visit a handful of factories. That trip included Foxconn, where most of Apple's hardware is manufactured.

"Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast," Ira Glass, the show's host and executive producer, wrote in a blog post this morning. "That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake."

As a result, the group is retracting the episode, as well as airing a new one tonight that promises to detail facts that the group found didn't jibe with Daisey's original reporting.

In a statement, Chicago Public Media said that Marketplace China correspondent Rob Schmitz raised doubts following the program. Schmitz reached the interpreter Daisey used while researching the work that went into the show, and began fact checking.

"(Schmitz) located and interviewed Daisey's Chinese interpreter Li Guifen (who goes by the name Cathy Lee professionally with westerners). She disputed much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio," the group said.

One of those claims was that Daisey interacted with some workers that had been suffered health problems by n-hexane, a chemical used for polishing screens that turned out to be toxic. Schmitz noted that said incident involving the chemical actually took place in a completely different part of China, and more importantly not the one Daisey was visiting.

Other disputed points include meeting underage workers and talking to a worker with an injury that occurred while at Foxconn in the creation of iPads, PRI said.

In a post on his personal blog, Daisey defended the episode:

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

Nonetheless, Daisey added that what he does is "not journalism," and that "This American Life" operates under a "different set of rules and expectations."

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Apple under a microscope
Apple and its supply chain have been under intense scrutiny in recent months. Shortly after publishing its latest annual report on supplier responsibility, which the company said was based on more than 200 audits, Apple was the subject of a pair of investigative reports by The New York Times. Those reports lambasted Apple for poor labor and safety issues in its supplier facilities, as well as for using cutthroat business practices that prohibited those manufacturers from making improvements. In its own report, Apple said it found issues with working hours and compliance with environmental standards.

Alongside its supplier responsibility report, Apple joined the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit labor rights organization that was originally formed to create labor policy and an auditing system for companies that made clothing and footwear. Apple became the first and--and so far only--technology company involved, joining names like Adidas, Nike, Patagonia, and Hanes.

Following the stories, Apple's CEO Tim Cook announced that the company had asked the FLA to conduct an immediate, special audit of these facilities where more than 90 percent of the company's products are produced. Those audits are still in progress, and will eventually include other suppliers like Quanta and Pegatron. In an interview with Goldman Sachs the next day, Cook said that results from those reports would be published monthly, as opposed to annually.

The retraction episode of This American Life airs tonight at 5 p.m. PT, and will also be available for downloading and streaming at the same time. Chicago Public Media said the original episode was "the single most popular podcast" in the show's history, grabbing 888,000 downloads and 206,000 streams.