In the December 2011 issue of Extra!, an article on Steve Jobs cited playwright Mike Daisey’s account of his investigation into conditions for workers making Apple products at China’s Foxconn plant. Daisey’s investigation was also cited in a March 2012 piece on Apple’s labor practices.
Thanks to the public radio show Marketplace (3/16/12), we now know that Daisey fabricated parts of his story, though it was presented as fact on the January 6, 2012, edition of public radio’s This American Life (which promptly offered a retraction—3/16/12) and in a New York Times op-ed (10/6/11—subsequently re-edited to remove a dubious paragraph).
Daisey exaggerated the number of workers he talked to and pretended he had met people whose stories he had only heard secondhand. He also appears to have made up some details of his report—most seriously, claiming he interviewed several workers at Foxconn who were 12, 13 or 14 years old, an assertion disputed by the interpreter who translated his interviews.
Extra! of course regrets passing along accounts that turned out to be untrustworthy. As we necessarily depend on the reporting of other news outlets to provide an alternative perspective to the corporate media accounts we critique, it’s worth asking ourselves why we were drawn to Daisey’s unreliable account.
Part of the appeal of Daisey’s story came from the fact that as a professional storyteller, he well understands the power of putting a human face on an abstract reality. That’s why he claimed to have met Apple workers who were poisoned by hexane, rather than just hearing about them.
It’s not that there aren’t U.S. reporters in China who could be telling the stories of workers injured making products for Americans. Almost by definition, though, journalists covering factories in China are assigned to the business beat, and are therefore expected to see workers primarily as sources of profitable labor, not as human beings.
It’s that business lens that gave Daisey’s most significant distortion—his exaggeration of the prevalence of underaged workers at Foxconn—the impact that it had. The business reporter’s perspective was epitomized by New York Times tech writer David Pogue’s defense of Foxconn (2/23/12), based on the fact that Chinese workers know how horrible the working conditions are there: “And yet here they are, lining up to work! Apparently, even those conditions, so abhorrent to us, are actually better than these workers’ alternatives.”
It’s as if the natural question, when you hear that one of the wealthiest corporations in the world has employees who toil for a pittance under oppressive conditions, is not, “Why is the wealthy company paying so little?” but rather, “Are those workers nuts?” And when you find out that, no, those workers accept that pay and those conditions because they’re desperately poor—then there’s no story there. The assumption that governs capitalism, and thus the business press, is that any free choice is a fair choice.
By lying about the age of workers at Foxconn—pretending that they are 14 or 12, rather than 16, which is the legal working age—Daisey did an end run around the excuse that Foxconn workers are making a free choice, because 14-year-olds are considered too young to choose.
Because it was effective doesn’t make it excusable; to address the real exploitation at Foxconn, we need reporting that tells us what the conditions there really are. But we also need to reflect on why it took Daisey’s dishonesty to make people care about that exploitation in the first place—and why some seem more interested in exposing his deceits than in exposing the truth.