Not long ago, Mike Daisey was heralded as a modern muckraker, plumbing the intersection of Apple consumer products and Chinese workers’ rights. Now, he’s another poster boy for fabulism. Earlier this month, the public radio show “This American Life," distributed by Public Radio International, retracted its popular story “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory’’ - a tale of Daisey’s supposed visit to a manufacturing plant in Shenzen, China, adapted from Daisey’s stage monologue “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.’’ Another public radio reporter uncovered the truth: Daisey had invented many details of the story, including guards with guns, a 13-year-old employee, and factory workers gathering, implausibly, at a Starbucks.
To its credit, “This American Life’’ issued a sincere apology. Daisey took longer to come to terms with his deception, first insisting that his theater background gave him special license to invent, and that the attention showered on his misdeeds was distracting people from the serious issues at hand. There, Daisey missed a key point. “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory’’ hit a nerve because it reflected listeners’ growing ambivalence about the human costs of low-priced consumer goods. Legitimate journalists have uncovered troubling stories about the working conditions in Chinese factories. But Daisey’s fabrications get in the way of holding factory owners accountable. The truth is damning enough.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misidentified “This American Life” as an NPR show. The show is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio international. The editorial also mislabeled a reporter for American Public Media as working for NPR.