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This has been a humiliating week for Mike Daisey. Now that he has confessed on public radio (Marketplace and This American Life) that parts of his monologue, ?The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,? were fictionalized to ?get through to people emotionally,? he has to wonder if anyone will trust him again.
For Daisey, there are ?different languages for what truth means.? What he does is theater not journalism. But for TAL?s Ira Glass, ?When we present something as true, we believe in its factual accuracy.?
When TAL began to fact-check the story told in Daisey?s monologue, parts of which were aired in early January 2012, Daisey said he was conflicted. He came close to confessing that it wasn?t literally true. No, he didn?t see the workers a thousand miles away damaged by using hexane to clean iPad screens. No, he didn?t document that a worker he met at the Foxconn plant was 12. No, he didn?t go to ten factories, only five. No, there were not 25 or 30 workers organizing against Foxconn practices, may five, or less.
While he was tempted to ask that his story not be aired, his nerve failed. Because, Mike Daisey believed that the monologue is ?the best work I?ve ever made.?
And I believe him, because I was moved. And, I admit, it fits the narrative in my head. He didn?t have to persuade me that horrendous labor practices that we would never allow in the United States exist in China and other industrializing countries. Nor did I have to be convinced that if Apple is the most powerful company in the world and that it makes a 20 percent profit on every item that it markets, it can afford to treat people well. After all, with the death of Steve Jobs, we had learned how he drove and, yes, short-changed Americans who worked hard for him and for Apple. I can understand why a man like Daisey, whose singular talent is to absorb the world around him and weave it into narrative, was tempted to take liberties. Goliath was his adversary.
And when offered a single sheet of paper that theater personnel passed out after I saw Daisey perform this winter, I used it to construct a blog in which I uncritically amplified his views. I knew that the New York Times had just published (on January 26, 2012) an article that was triggered by staffers who heard the monologue and met with him. In ?The IECONOMY; In China, the Human Costs that Are Built into an iPad,? Charles Duhigg and David Barboza wrote with the help of researcher Gu Huini that, ?the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious ?sometimes deadly?safety problems.?
They?re not retracting that.
Duhigg appeared on the show co-produced by TAL and Marketplace, whose reporter Rob Schmitz documented the inconsistencies in Daisey?s story. Duhigg puts Chinese manufacturing problems into two buckets. In one, are labor practices deemed harsh by American standards: coercion to work more than 60 hours a week, workstations with backless chairs or standing room only, overcrowded dormitories, work in factories still under construction. These may be unacceptable here, but given the rapid pace of industrialization, perhaps they should be acceptable in China, he argues.
In the other bucket, we have life-threatening safety conditions, such as the two explosions in Apple factories caused by an accumulation of aluminum dust from polishing iPad cases. Causes of the first explosion in Chengdu were largely ignored, and the second explosion in Shanghai killed four people and injured another 77. The remedy? Ventilation by fans. These problems, Duhigg maintains, are the ones we should not tolerate.
I?m not entirely convinced. Not many people can stand in one place even for an eight hour shift without extreme discomfort, and I wouldn?t want to return to a room with 20 or 30 other people at the end of a reasonable shift, much less two 12-hour back-to-back ones. I know Chinese workers are younger, hungrier, and have fewer choices than American workers, but I also want to remember that they are equally human.
But on to the issue of the truth, I have to side with Ira Glass. The ?traditional? meaning of truth is factual. Accuracy counts, especially in public media. And how many lies recycled from the right (Obama is a Muslim. Unrestrained free markets lead to more wealth for all. God wants women to obey men. Poor people are lazy.) are the deep conviction of the people who repeat them? Why is it that Fox News viewers are less informed than people who watch no media?
Public radio and television are beacons in our society. However imperfect we may find them, their struggle for survival is crucial. Glass must have known his neck was on the chopping block as soon as he heard that Marketplace had located the translator Daisey said was unreachable. No one can afford to broadcast disinformation about the most powerful corporation on earth without consequences. He got an apology from Daisey and an admission that he misrepresented the facts. You could tell he wanted Daisey to call himself a liar, but he didn?t.
Progwoman is about opinion. I gather information from a wide variety of sources filter it through a variety of lens and try to give it shape. I don?t confuse blogging with investigative reporting or with theater, and I hope you won?t either. I?m only as good as what I read, see and hear, and I want to acknowledge errors, because it builds trust with my readers.
Regardless of Daisey?s liberties, Chinese workers are assembling the new iPad as I write. You might want to tell Apple CEO Tim Cook that you haven?t forgotten about them at email@example.com