American journalism stands offended. This week the radio show This American Life took the unusual step of retracting one of its most popular programs, MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY, an episode based around Mike Daisey’s The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs – a monologue juxtaposing Steve Jobs’ development of Apple alongside shockingly harsh working conditions in Chinese manafacturing plants.
The show’s host and executive producer, Ira Glass, in a press release wrote:
Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn’t excuse the fact that we never should’ve put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.
We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors – our friends and colleagues – have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.
Popular online tech magazine TechCrunch – which has had its own ‘issues’ in the past regarding bias and presentation – carried three pieces about the retraction on its Apple news page, including a highly indignant article by John Biggs who thundered:
He [Daisey] was outed as, at best, a bad journalist and at worst, a fraud. To be clear, he’s a monologist and playwright and had no business telling this story (just as he really had no business telling Amazon’s story way back when) but he, like so many creatives, riffed on science and technology for popular effect and got both drastically wrong
So, when a journalist [...] says that Daisey, as a monologist, had ‘no business’ telling the story in the first place, it begs the question who does, and are they telling it correctly?
Thanks be to the vigiliant tech journalists, sigh thousands of Apple devotees (incidentally, Daisey describes himself as one of them) – there’s nothing to worry about ethically then, when we rush out to buy the new iPad; all those tales of worker suicides, harsh and dangerous working conditions are fabrications then, right?
Hold on, though, as things are much more complicated than that.
The inaccuracies picked up by American journalist Rob Schmitz, who writes for business magazine Marketplace, relate to Daisey’s eyewitness status for his account. In the monologue Daisey tells us of his trip to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, where he interviewed workers outside the gates of the Foxconn plant, and bluffed his way into several other actories; Schmitz, after tracking down Daisey’s translator (whom Daisey had effectively hidden from the This American Life producers) worked out that a number of scenes in the monologue did not take place, like his meeting with victims of hexane poisoning, and perhaps his meeting with underage workers (Daisey has admitted to dramatic licence in various parts of the monologue, but insists that he met a girl who said she was 13 at the Foxconn plant).
In particular there’s a highly dramatic moment when Daisey describes meeting a man whose hand was mangled in a metal press, who was then fired for working too slowly – Daisey hands him an iPad to look at, something he’s never actually seen though it played such a dramatic part in his life; it’s a moment of high-drama and no-doubt helped produce reviews that have included comments like ‘Anyone with a cellphone and a moral center should see this show’(Charles Isherwood, The New York Times), but unfortunately it didn’t actually happen…
Or rather it didn’t actually happen to Daisey, because as the offended journalists at This American Life admitted, during their factchecking the main thing they were concerned about was “whether the things 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, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports”
So dramatic licence was certainly taken by Daisey, but while you consider the ethics of that, or the ethics of buying an iPhone or iPad (or, to be fair to Apple, other devices by major Electronics and Computer manafacturers who use plants in China) keep in mind a number of points highlighted in Daisey’s monologue that are verified facts (from Apple’s audit report from 2011):
- In various audits of factories underage workers have been found()
- Workers in a factory producing iPhones were poisoned with neurotoxin Hexane*
- Double shifts and dangerous levels of overtime have been found consistently in audits on factories
Not in Daisey’s monologue, but a fact, is that within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, killed four people and injured 77; the student activist group SACOM have claimed that they warned Apple and Foxconn about poor health and safety conditions prior to one of the blasts; speaking to the New York Times, Nicholas Ashford, an occupational safety expert, who is now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said “If it were terribly difficult to deal with aluminum dust, I would understand. But do you know how easy dust is to control? It’s called ventilation. We solved this problem over a century ago.”
What’s truly astonishing about this episode is that some, Foxconn included, have taken the retraction of the radio program as some sort of vindication despite the horrific facts that have been established by advocacy groups, journalists, and Apple’s own audits. For example, Foxconn through a company spokesperson commented to Business Week , in a piece headlined ‘Foxconn’s Woo Says Truth Prevails After Retraction’:
I am happy that the truth prevails, I am glad that Mike Daisey’s lies were exposed. But I don’t think that the reports about this have gone far enough to find out what exactly is the truth [...] People will have the impression that Foxconn is a bad company, so I hope they will come and find out for themselves
Well, in 2011 SACOM did visit Foxconn factories – not that Foxconn appears to welcome attention – judging from this CNN piece, and this is what they had to say:
SACOM visited Foxconn’s production sites in Chengdu, Zhengzhou and Shenzhen in 2011 and we found a very different story from Foxconn’s public claims of humane treatment. Workers invariably experienced excessive and forced overtime. If they could not reach the production target, workers had to skip dinner or work unpaid overtime. Workers were constantly exposed without adequate protection to dust from construction on factory sites. Even worse, they were at risk of poisoning and other occupational diseases in various departments.
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