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Analysis: Apple, China, Foxconn and the fabulist

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
March 19, 2012 -- Updated 1732 GMT (0132 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A popular U.S. radio show has retracted an episode on Apple supplier Foxconn
  • Several dramatic claims by Mike Daisey have been found to be fabricated
  • Claims of talking with underaged and injured workers disputed by translator
  • Show helped fan the flames that sparked numerous protests against Apple

Hong Kong (CNN) -- A story that helped catapult the issue of poor work conditions for Chinese workers at Foxconn -- a primary maker of iPads and other devices for Apple Inc. -- back into the spotlight in January has unraveled.

An episode of "This American Life," a wildly popular U.S. radio show distributed by Public Radio International that is regularly the most downloaded podcast on Apple's iTunes store, broadcast an hour-long radio version of monologist Mike Daisey's "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he details a 2010 trip he took to meet workers at Foxconn in Shenzhen, China.

That episode -- which broke records as the most downloaded show of "This American Life" -- has now been retracted for numerous fabrications, many of which were repeated by Daisey in subsequent interviews, including one with CNN International.

The power of Daisey's storytelling, coupled with a New York Times investigative series of stories in January, fanned the flames that launched a number of off-and-online protests, including a petition on Change.org that seeks to "protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories" that has nearly 250,000 signatures.

CNNMoney: Apple and the Daisey affair

But several of Daisey's dramatic claims, some of which he repeated to CNN's Zain Verjee, have been retracted after Daisey's Chinese translator was found by a reporter from "Marketplace," distributed by American Public Media, and disputed his version of events, including:

Reporter: Daisey story didn't ring true
Playwright targets Apple

* Meeting workers with shaking hands that were poisoned by the chemical n-hexane. Apple itself acknowledged there were incidents with the chemical at two plants, but not at Foxconn.

* Found workers who were as young as 12 years old. The translator told public radio they interviewed no underage workers, although some may have looked young. Apple's 2010 audit found 10 suppliers who hired 91 underage employees out of hundreds of thousands of employees.

* In one of the show's most dramatic moments, Daisey said he interviewed a former worker now handicapped from repetitive stress injuries seeing an iPad for the first time, describing it as "a kind of magic." The translator said that never happened.

Questions raised about work conditions at Foxconn are nothing new. The electronics supplier -- who also makes electronic goods for Sony, Microsoft, Nokia and other household brands -- came under intense scrutiny by CNN and other media outlets in 2010 after a series of suicides at its Chinese plants. Daisey told public radio that after seeing the news story slip away from public attention, he wanted to create a story that would help sustain interest in the work conditions for overseas makers of popular electronics goods.

"And everything I have done in making this monologue for the theater has been toward that end -- to make people care. I'm not going to say that I didn't take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard. But I stand behind the work," Daisey said. "My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it's not journalism. It's theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc."

But purporting as truth the fabrications of his show in dozens of media interviews has raised a number of questions about the line between drama and journalism. "The net result of Mike Daisey's efforts to put self-promotion ahead of the facts has badly muddied the waters, and has probably done more harm to the people he sought to help," wrote Arik Hesseldahl, senior editor for All Things D.

"Everybody who has touched Mike Daisey in the past three to four months has been tainted and they need to go back and re-examine their archives," Hesseldahl told CNN's Howard Kurtz.

Kai Ryssdal, host of "Marketplace," which broke the story, said Daisey's account mixed fact and fiction. "Mike Daisey is a great, great story teller and when you have a guy who spins a web like that and gets you involved, it's really difficult to take it apart and say, wait a minute, let's think about this for a second ... what doesn't work here?" he told CNN.

"Also, there are parts of Mike Daisey's story that are true -- it does happen that Apple has had underage workers (at its suppliers); it does happen that people have n-hexane poisoning and all that," he said. "But the bottomline is Mike Daisey tells a great story and people suspended their disbelief."

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