false prophets

I thought I would break my silence to cop to being one of the many duped by Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, excerpted in This American Life. In January, when the episode aired, I made a little bit of hay with it, which I now regret.
You can find the transcript of TAL‘s “Retraction” episode here. The audio is also up here.
From Ira Glass’ blog post about the retraction:

I have difficult news. We’ve learned that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China – which we broadcast in January – contained significant fabrications. We’re retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s acclaimed one-man show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.
The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week’s episode ofThis American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.”
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.

James Fallowes, editor and China correspondant for The Atlantic, writes about his and other China reporters’ responses to the original story and the revelation of its fabrication:

When I heard Daisey’s Shenzhen riff on C-Span late last year, I wrote to a longtime friend who is also a friend and supporter of Daisey’s and had been trying to get us together. I said: This doesn’t sound right. I also said that I was bleakly amused by Daisey’s presenting the far-off exotic territory of “Shenzhen, China” as some super-secretive realm that he alone had thought to unveil. I pointed out that I had done a gigantic cover story and on-line slide show about this unknown land back in 2007, plus later in a book and a video series; that the Wall Street Journal had done hundreds of stories with Shenzhen datelines before and since; that there had been countless books, picture shows, news features, etc, about the Shenzhen phenomenon; that “Foxconn” was hardly an unknown enterprise; etc.
What I didn’t do was push the point any further. Evan Osnos very well explains one reason why many reporters (other than Schmitz) failed to do so: the suspicion that in a place as big, chaotic, contradictory, and surprising as today’s China, Daisey could indeed have come across circumstances others had not discovered, or had stopped noticing. I also made a perhaps-craven “life is too short” calculation: I would spend my time trying to explain the China story the way I could, rather than devoting the time to picking apart an account I thought was wrong.

I thought I would also add a few words about why I think this whole incident is so unfortunate:
Chinese manufacturing is a sector of the global economy that is closed off to the average American consumer, is located at the intersection of incredibly powerful interests, and is covered by media outlets that make claims that are difficult to evaluate.
There are so many barriers to finding firsthand or reliable information about factory conditions. There’s a vast amount of difference between Chinese manufacturing plants and American factory farms, which also have an interest in keeping their operating procedures hidden from public view. One is the fact that it’s a hidden part of the supply chain for products that we use every day. Members of Apple’s design team at all levels are more accessible and have a larger public profile than the CEOs of the contractors and subcontractors that execute those designs. Then there’s the sheer distance between the consumer and the factories where the products are made, not to mention the language and cultural barriers that separate consumers and workers. Even if we had some grasp of the geographic and cultural dynamics of manufacturing in China, these are still closed factories, bound by secrecy policies.
And this information is extremely important. Large corporations in America, large corporations in China, and the Chinese government itself all have a great interest in keeping this part of global manufacturing hidden and keeping attention off of working conditions in these factories (not to mention the opposing interests of other electronics makers, domestic labor unions, and trade protectionists). None of these groups has a reputation for transparency, or ethics in any sense that a human being would understand. Yet these groups also have a tremendous amount of power to spread misinformation and competing narratives, as well as having open access to all of the information in order to strategically leak information and half-truths. Which makes it even more important that we have reputable reporters on the ground that have the expertise to sift through these competing claims for us.
And these media reports are not conclusive. Even the New York Times report on conditions in the factories of Apple’s supply chain, perhaps the most detailed reportage on the issue, makes it clear that it’s very hard to get a clear picture of the whole manufacturing ecosystem. And, as other journalists have noticed, the report did not even touch on the manufacturers for other tech companies or the conditions in the mines that supply raw materials for the electronics. I had heard about many of the things that Mike Daisey mentioned in his monologue. But I had no way to evaluate those claims, no one who was willing to stand up and vouch for the story.
The most appealing aspect of Daisey’s monologue was the idea that an average consumer–just like you!–might go to one of these factories and witness the conditions we’ve been hearing so much conflicting information about. There’s a tremendous power in saying “I saw these things. I witnessed these events.” And so it is tragic, and ironic, that the lasting effect of all the attention that Mike Daisey was able to bring to Apple might end up as another competing narrative spun from another web of truth and lies.

4 responses to “false prophets”

  1. Matt, this is another thoughtful piece. If you don’t mind, I’m going to reblog this as well, and I think this incident has given us even more opportunity to talk about the labor issue.

  2. […] Awhile back I reblogged a piece from one of my favorite bloggers, Matt Eilar, and he has now posted an update that I hope you read as well. The original piece highlighted a story done by Mike Daisey on […]

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