I was surprised today with some news about the subject of my last blog. Mike Daisey, the writer of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, who’s story was the focus of the NPR “This American Life” podcast that I wrote about in my last blog, fabricated much of his personal account of what happened in his time in China investigating (though that is probably a ironically inappropriate term, considering the deception) Foxconn, other Apple suppliers, workplace conditions, and the presence of illegal unions. Daisey’s account of the events was found to be incongruent with that of his translator, Li Guifen, or Cathy, on many counts. Some of these instances Daisey admitted to falsifying, such as the number of factories he visited, meeting 12 and 14 year old children working at Foxconn, and with workers poisoned by n-hexane. Other aspects of his story he upholds, such as meeting a 13 year old girl working at Foxconn, going into the dormitories at Foxconn, and various details about how many people were interviewed, and what conversations took place, despite all of these being disputed by Cathy. Why?
“All war is based on deception.”
These words from Sun Tzu might explain part of that question. Daisey’s account was essentially a dramatized, exaggerated version of what his translator said happened. Meetings with unions, and workers, and factory tours all took place. Just not on Daisey’s scale, and missing some of his heart-wrenching details (for example N-Hexane was reported in two Apple supplier factories, but not at Foxconn). Daisey says in the retraction that NPR released that he created these stories to portray hat was happening more broadly in China:
“I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. And so when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening, that everyone had been talking about.” -Daisey.
With that in mind, why did he do it? One answer is that he wants to get famous, and he picked the most controversial and high profile topic to tell his story with (and it worked, the man got people to download that episode of “This American Life” more than any other!). However, I find this explanation unconvincing and too simplistic to answer the question in full (though it undoubtedly played some part) and his allowing anyone to perform and modify his play speaks to the fact that there is more to it than that. Another answer might be this – he wanted a good story, and he found one. He had a problem with what was happening to workers in Shenzhen. He had a problem with what Apple wasn’t doing in Shenzhen. And it wouldn’t hurt if it ended up making him famous, but he wanted people to hear about it. Because that’s what he does. He’s a storyteller. A thespian waging an overly theatrical, beautiful, tragic war against a villain. Oh, yeah, Apple. They kind of get lost in all this shuffle, but lets look at that for a second. After all my first blog was not so much about Daisey or the more controversial details of what Apple did or didn’t do, but rather it was about sweatshops, globalization, development and the part that we play in all of it as consumers.
So, what I have to ask myself is does Daisey’s unreliability, and our bias and desire to pass judgement either on him or Apple cloud the waters here? I think it does. Lets look at two excepts from the beginning and the end of the retraction podcast. First this statement by Ira Glass:
“We did fact-check the story before we put it on the radio. But in fact-checking, our main concern was whether the things that Mike says about Apple and about its supplier, Foxconn, which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists and studies by advocacy groups. And much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports”
And this exchange between Glass and New York Times Journalist, Charles Duhigg:
To get to the normative question that’s kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is, like, wait, should I feel bad about this? You know what I mean? As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? And I don’t know that I feel so bad when I hear this.
So it’s not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not, right? I’m a reporter for The New York Times. My job is to find facts and essentially let you make a decision on your own. Let me pose the argument that people have posed to me about why you should feel bad, and you can make of it what you will.
And that argument is– there were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again.
And what has happened today is that, rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation. So should you feel bad that someone is working 12 to 24 hours a day in order to produce the iPhone that you’re carrying in your pocket–
Well, when you say it like that, suddenly I feel bad again. But OK, yeah.
I don’t know whether you should feel bad, right?
But finish your thought.
Should you feel bad about that? I don’t know. That’s for you to judge. But I think the way to pose that question is, do you feel comfortable knowing that iPhones, and iPads, and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions exist because of an economy that you are supporting with your dollars?
Right. I am the direct beneficiary of those harsh conditions.
You’re not only the direct beneficiary. You are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then those conditions would be different overseas.
So. Two last points- First point: Apple released the information. They told us, their consumers, that despite their apparently very flexible and lenient supplier code of conduct which is broken often, bad things were happening at these factories (most likely because of the “razor thin profit margins” that Apple is alleged to convince suppliers to agree to, as Duhigg points out elsewhere in the podcast). Yet, society at large (including myself) was pretty unphased. We kept lapping up Apple’s products and seeing them as flawless. That’s disturbing.
Second point: It’s was only with Daisey’s dramatic tale that our ears perked up. Flawed though it was.
Closing statement: this isn’t an Apple problem, or a thespian failing at journalism’s problem, it’s our problem.