How to be wrong.

Photo of Mike DaisyChristina here…

Back in January, I listened to a This American Life podcast called “Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory” which was based on the monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mr. Mike Daisy, who traveled to China to observe working conditions at the factories which produce Apple products.

On Monday, I downloaded This American Life and while making my rounds for my job, discovered that Mr. Daisy had fabricated many of the events and observations. I found out from TAL themselves.

This American Life issued a retraction.

They did not simply write a one-line retraction, buried deep within their website, as many newspapers are wont to do, should they bother issuing a retraction at all. Instead, they removed the audio of the original podcast (leaving the transcript for reference) and produced a full-length podcast detailing the retraction. That’s right – they devoted their entire program to a retraction.

In my mind, TAL’s retraction is nothing short of heroic.

The producers made no excuses. They reported on the retraction in the most transparent, honest way possible.

They could have simply retracted the story, with a little 30-second note during the next podcast, removed the offending original from the website entirely, and let their wrong disappear.

Yet, they did not do that. They put their mistake front and center. Drew attention to it instead of minimizing it. In fact, they’ve drawn more attention to their error than to the original story.

People hate being wrong so much that they will often concoct wild excuses and rationalizations, rather than admitting they were wrong and then changing so that they can be right. People think being wrong undermines their competency.

It doesn’t. What undermines competency is dismissal, denial, or rationalizations when you’re wrong. Everybody makes mistakes.

Exhibiting your mistakes, brandishing them for the world to see, shouting, “I was wrong, I fixed it!” – That’s integrity.


Learn more about Christina and follow her @ziztur.


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  • ash

    I missed all of this. What was it that Daisy originally said about conditions?

    • Brad

      Good summary here:

      Basically, Mike Daisey had a one-man stage production where he tells of a trip to China and the horrible working conditions of the workers in the Foxconn factory assembling Apple products. He’s re-told the story as fact to numerous media outlets, including to American Life on NPR.

      Unfortunately, while the stories he tells are “true” in the loosest sense (in that there are reports of some events like he describes), they were not actually witnessed by Daisey on his visit to China:

      A worker did indeed die after a 34 hour shift. But the truth of this fact isn’t enough for Daisey; he has to then attach to it some connection, however tenuous, to himself. A Chinese man didn’t just die; he died while Daisey was in China.

      Of course if Daisey wasn’t actually in China at the time of the death, his statement, as a whole, becomes false. And this is what appears to have happened with a lot of the “facts” of the Foxconn story, facts that were true until Daisey digitally inserted himself into the narrative. Foxconn has employed underage workers (true), but Daisey didn’t meet five of them on his first day. Workers were poisoned by n-Hexane (true), but Daisey didn’t meet them either.

      A good explanation of why the difference matters from

      Daisey’s story was this: Not only did those things happen, but they are all ongoing problems, right now, today, and they are so rampant, so commonplace, that a big white American wearing a Hawaiian shirt — a man who’s never before been to China and speaks neither Mandarin nor Cantonese — can simply travel to Shenzhen, China and stand outside the Foxconn gates with a translator for a few shifts and he will find workers as young as 12, 13, and 14 walking out. Any day, every day. That in the course of a single six-day trip, that same man could encounter a man who lost the use of a hand while assembling iPads and a group of workers poisoned by n-hexane, and that a man would drop dead after working a 34-hour shift. Just another week at Foxconn. That was Mike Daisey’s story — and it bears no resemblance to anything anyone else has reported.

      One more short quote from the same article:

      This is not about the “larger truth” that there have been child labor violations at Apple suppliers. This is about a big lie: that Apple as an institution, and its executives personally, have a callous disregard for the welfare of children and are either lying to us or looking the other way.

      The truth, so far as everyone else has reported — Apple itself, The New York Times, Nightline — is that underage workers at Apple suppliers are very rare.

  • pHred

    I agree – I wish more “journalistic” institutions would take such steps when they find out that a huge story they reported on was in error. TAS really set a standard with this. It would be nice if the goal here was truth and accuracy.

  • pHred

    Oops – hit submit instead of preview – sorry. I mean to say that truth and accuracy should be the goals of journalism, not insinuate that those were not the goals here on the blog or on TAL.

    Now I need to issue a retraction for my comment, sigh – I think I will opt for more caffeine instead.

  • B-Lar

    Aye, it is indeed refreshing. However, the cynic in me wonders if this was about journalistic integrity or to avoid a costly lawsuit. Maybe both.

    Cant fault their method though. This is a flawless template for admitting error.

  • Brad

    Longer comment with some links awaiting moderation.

    FYI, its “Mike Daisey”, not “Daisy”.

  • dfl42

    Retractions and the like generally get people points with me. Paul Ingraham, one of my favorite skeptics, shows how to do it right:

    Retractions, and asking for others’ opinions. One of the many things that’s made me respect Greta Christina is that when she’s not sure about what she thinks on an issue, she’s just as open to blogging about that (and asking what other people think) as she is blogging about things she does know.

  • Saint Gasoline

    Daisey himself is not being so good about being wrong. He refuses to admit he was wrong and is now blaming the media for overblowing the issue and making his lies seem bigger than they were. Or, in other words, he’s accusing actual journalists of doing what he did.

    What’s really funny is the original piece had lengthy parts badmouthing traditional journalism, acting like he was the first one to ever go to a factory and actually try asking people questions.