Separating the Baby From the Bath Water

The gist of Mike Daisey’s defense is the idea that, though the pieces of his story weren’t actually true, they combined to make for a story that painted a larger truth. Wrong. Daisey was not getting at a larger truth. He was instead painting a big lie.

Daisey, on his weblog yesterday:

In the last forty-eight hours I have been equated with Stephen Glass, James Frey, and Greg Mortenson.

That’s because, like them, Daisey fabricated sensational stories and passed them off as the truth.

Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components, or that I never went to China, never stood outside the gates of Foxconn, never pretended to be a businessman to get inside of factories, never spoke to any workers.

No one is disputing that Daisey went to China. No one is disputing he spoke to workers outside the gates of Foxconn. What is disputed are the sensational aspects of Daisey’s story: that he encountered several underage workers, that he met workers poisoned by n-hexane, that he met a man with permanently mangled hands who injured himself assembling iPads. This American Life and Rob Schmitz showed these claims to be fabrications.

Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made.

No one is gleeful about any of this. The outing of a serial fabricator is sad. No one, as a result of Daisey being outed as a liar, is now looking to ignore labor conditions in Chinese factories.

Given the tone, you would think I had fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before.

“Hoax” is exactly the right word, but the semantic dodge in the second clause of the above sentence is at the heart of Daisey’s defense of his work: that it matters not that he didn’t actually see the things he claimed to have seen, because all of those things actually happened, at some point, in some place. This is terribly misleading. The whole point of Daisey’s show, his status as a leading critic of Apple’s labor practices, was that he saw these things himself, first-hand.

The actual truth — that underage workers have been discovered, that over 100 workers had been harmed by exposure to n-hexane, that there were a rash of suicides-by-jumping and as a result Foxconn dormitories now have gruesome safety nets installed — has already been reported. And these facts were all reported by, among others, Apple itself. Now, you can argue that Apple’s reporting of these facts has been presented euphemistically, to present the facts in the company’s favor. But the fact remains that Apple itself has acknowledged and reported all that we know to be true about problems with the company’s Asian supply chain.

I would argue that the most powerful credible overview of the problems in Apple’s Chinese manufacturing is the reporting by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza for The New York Times, earlier this year. But after re-reading their story for the Times, as well as Apple’s own 2012, 2011, and 2010 “Supplier Responsibility” reports, I can’t find anything reported by the Times that Apple itself hasn’t reported. The Times’s report is more compelling; it adds color and punch and presents its conclusions more powerfully and emotionally through its use of a narrative. But factually, the Times’s reporting gives credence to the scope and accuracy of Apple’s own public reporting.

Daisey told an entirely different story. Daisey’s story was this: Not only did those things happen, but they are all ongoing problems, right now, today, and they are so rampant, so commonplace, that a big white American wearing a Hawaiian shirt — a man who’s never before been to China and speaks neither Mandarin nor Cantonese — can simply travel to Shenzhen, China and stand outside the Foxconn gates with a translator for a few shifts and he will find workers as young as 12, 13, and 14 walking out. Any day, every day. That in the course of a single six-day trip, that same man could encounter a man who lost the use of a hand while assembling iPads and a group of workers poisoned by n-hexane, and that a man would drop dead after working a 34-hour shift. Just another week at Foxconn. That was Mike Daisey’s story — and it bears no resemblance to anything anyone else has reported.

Not just implicitly but explicitly the point of Daisey’s “reporting” was, more or less, that Apple has admitted only to what it’s been caught doing, and that the truth is far worse than what the company’s own reports have acknowledged.

There’s a popular online petition at which has amassed over 250,000 signatures. It begins:

You know what’s awesome? Listening to NPR podcasts through an Apple Airport, playing through a Mac laptop, while puttering about the kitchen. Do you know the fastest way to replace awesome with a terrible knot in your stomach? Learning that your beloved Apple products are made in factories where conditions are so bad, it’s not uncommon for workers to permanently lose the use of their hands.

Last week’s This American Life shined a spotlight on the working conditions in the Chinese factories where iPhones are made. Just one example of the hardships there: the men and women in these factories work very long days spent repeating the same motions over and over, which creates amped-up carpal tunnel syndrome in their wrists and hands. This often results in them losing the use of their hands for the rest of their lives. This condition could be easily prevented if the workers were rotated through different positions in the factory, but they are not. Why? Because there are no labor laws in China to protect these people.

No one other than Mike Daisey has reported about such repetitive stress injuries. And he made it up. 250,000 people believed him — in no small part because of the credibility of Ira Glass and This American Life — and signed a petition. There is no larger truth here. This is not a mistake. This is simply a lie, a lie that was told to draw attention and create sympathy at the expense of the actual truth.

The most egregious of Daisey’s lies is the following bit from “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. You can read it on page 31 of the downloadable transcript. You can watch Daisey perform this segment by watching this report from CBS News, broadcast back in January, starting around the 2:00 mark. I recommend watching, because Daisey is indeed a talented performer.

But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were fourteen years old, I met workers who were thirteen years old, I met workers who were twelve.

Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?

In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just so, with the glass being fitted perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know?

This is not about the “larger truth” that there have been child labor violations at Apple suppliers. This is about a big lie: that Apple as an institution, and its executives personally, have a callous disregard for the welfare of children and are either lying to us or looking the other way.

The truth, so far as everyone else has reported — Apple itself, The New York Times, Nightline — is that underage workers at Apple suppliers are very rare. Apple’s 2011 Supplier Responsibility report cites 91 instances (out of around 500,000 total workers). Their 2012 report states:

We discovered a total of 6 active and 13 historical cases of underage labor at 5 facilities. In each case, the facility had insufficient controls to verify age or detect false documentation. We found no instances of intentional hiring of underage labor.

We required the suppliers to support the young workers’ return to school and to improve their management systems — such as labor recruitment practices and age verification procedures — to prevent recurrences.

The actual larger truth — underage workers, unsafe conditions, grueling hours, crowded dormitories — are all real problems, and all deserve our attention. But that’s exactly what Apple itself has been saying for five years. It’s also what journalists from the Times to ABC Nightline have been reporting for years.

Daisey impugned the integrity of Apple — and the journalism of ABC News — in order to work people up regarding problems that don’t exist. This only served to draw attention away from the labor, health, and environmental issues in Apple’s Asian supply chain that do exist.

He has hurt the true cause, not helped it.

Daisey, near the end of his “I’m not going away” piece yesterday:

I believe the truth is vitally important. I continue to believe that. I believe that I will answer for the things I have done.

If Daisey actually believed any of that, he’d never perform his show again. I think what Daisey really believes is that he deserves the attention his lies have brought him, and so he does not intend to stop telling them.