The NYT’s David Barboza on Mike Daisey and This American Life

On Friday, I posted a few thoughts on This American Life’s [TAL] retraction of its episode devoted to Mike Daisey’s The Agony & The Ecstasy of State Jobs. The full post is available here. In it, I point out that Daisey and his partisans have, in part, built a defense based upon citing The New York Times’ recent, high-lauded ieconomy series that includes extensive reporting on Foxconn. The series was co-authored by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, and that led me to wonder why neither the NYT itself, or Duhigg or Barboza, had objected to this frequent citation:

I can understand that the NYT doesn’t want to send out an official release telling Mike Daisey and his delusional supporters to stop citing its ieconomy series as factual backup for Daisey’s lies. But it sure would have been nice if Ira Glass, during his interview of ieconomy co-author Charles Duhigg during the retraction episode, had asked him even one question about Daisey. Did that material hit the cutting room floor? No idea. Does Duhigg think that his work supports Daisey? Surely, he could say something. And so could, for that matter, Duhigg’s co-author, David Barboza in Shanghai.

Over the weekend, David Barboza sent me an email in which he responded to these observations and questions. With his permission, I’m publishing it, below.

I read your column about Mike Daisey today and thought you’d like to know my own impression. I was supposed to be interviewed by Ira Glass. But after they talked with my colleague Charles Duhigg, they cancelled my session saying they had plenty of material. What I would have said is that Daisey’s fabrications were utterly ridiculous. He should never have been treated as a journalist.

I heard large parts his performance on This American Life. He’s a talented story-teller, but I was a bit surprised they used his segment as a piece of journalism. I did not hear the entire show, but what I heard sounded far-fetched. He mentioned, for instance, meeting a 12 and 13-year-old at Foxconn’s gates. That just seemed highly unlikely to me. I’ve been to Foxconn gates in Shenzhen (and also got an official tour of the facility and its dormitory complex) many times and you can’t easily meet 12 or 13 year old there. And if you did, it’s unlikely they’d admit to being an underaged worker. I mentioned some of this in a Facebook chat I did shortly after our Apple i-Economy piece was published.

Rob Schmitz of Marketplace certainly produced a piece of first-rate journalism. I wish I had done that work myself, since I too had suspected that Daisey fabricated large parts of his story.

Anyway, you posed good questions in your essay. Ira Glass and the producers of This American Life should have asked Daisey whether he had photographs of his visit? How exactly did he find a translator? Were there any emails with his translator? What factories did he visit? What about hotel receipts? I don’t know what questions they asked, but I would have pushed him on those details and others. Editors don’t generally ask such questions of journalists they trust, but when the person is not a journalist, and the story just sounds a bit too good to be true, it would seem natural to ask.