journalism

The Agony of Corrections (because there is no Ecstasy about them).

About a year ago, I reviewed a show at the Woolly Mammoth Theater. The monologist, who I had interviewed the week before, emailed me the day the story ran to tell me that I had gotten a couple of details* wrong. I have to admit, I had taken very limited notes during the show, so I accepted what he said, ran the correction and moved on.

Nine months later, This American Life turned this monologist’s show into a one-hour episode. My roommate had seen the live show with me and told me about the podcast. I figured I’d get around to listening to Mike Daisey’s take on Apple’s working conditions in China later, after I caught up with other TAL episodes. I’d already seen him live, so there was no rush to relive the play.

As it turns out, I won’t be listening to that episode. In the last week, TAL has retracted it and done a one-hour show on the retraction. The details that Daisey exaggerated or made up are numerous, and I doubt there’s any need for me to enumerate them here.

I’ve been reading stories about the retraction for the last few days, but I didn’t think about my own review and correction until last night, when I was reading NYT columnist David Carr’s take on the matter. It ended with this quote from Jayson Blair:

“All the good editing, fact-checking and plagiarism-detection software in the world is not going to change the fact that anyone is, under the right circumstances, capable of anything and that journalism is essentially built on trust.”

Trust. I had trusted that Daisey had sent me good information for the correction in that review. But… what if he hadn’t?

I sat down and listened to the podcast. Eventually, I got to the 13-year-old worker bit. Daisey details how this child swiped the phone out of his hand to clean the screen and how he was amazed that this girl was only 13.

Daisey: And I say to her, “You seem kind of young. How old are you?” And she says, “I’m 13.” And I say, “13? That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re–” She says, “Oh, no.”

That’s a detail that I got wrong, Daisey told me in that email he sent. I had written that the underage worker was 14. My only explanation for my error is that just a few sentences later, he mentions that the workers are 14, 13, 12.

His translator remembers it differently. As in, she doesn’t remember this 13 year old at all.

Cathy: I think if she said she was 13 or 12, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. Then I’d be remembering for sure. But there is no such thing.

Daisey disputes this during his interview with TAL’s Ira Glass and Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz, saying he clearly remembered talking to a 13-year-old girl. He spoke to her in English. Cathy had been busy dealing with other people, so maybe she hadn’t been paying attention.

And then it goes back to Cathy, who says, again, there were no young workers and that if there had been, they wouldn’t have been able to speak English anyway.

It’s a he-said, she-said deal. I’ve been there when reporting a story. And here’s how I look at it: even if Cathy’s memory isn’t that good, she has no reason to lie, whereas Daisey is trying to salvage what’s left of his monologue.

I wish I still had the email he sent me about this (I have since switched jobs, so that email is lost in the Internet ether), just to see exactly what he said. I remember he was very adamant that the worker was 13. But if you’re going to fabricate something, you may as well be consistent, right?

*The other detail I got wrong was where he had seen the four iPhone photos of Chinese factory workers. I’ve been trying to find these photos online since all of this stuff started going down to see if at least this part was true, but have had no luck so far. Daisey says in the show that he saw them on an Apple news website. Does anyone know what this website is or have a link to these photos?

UPDATE: Freelance journo Robert Janelle sent along this story, which appears to be what Daisey was talking about. Thank you, Robert!

Also, I’m not trying to say I’m not at fault for getting Daisey’s facts, even if they were made up, wrong. Based on the show, I did mistakenly write a couple things that were incorrect.

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