Daisey, Changed

March 18, 2012

This has to be the week of progressives calling out their own. (Yes, poor “victimized” right-wing media, it does indeed happen.) First, Bill Maher airs a one-sided view of Mississippi and then compounds the error with an oafish election-night tweet. And Friday, the exemplary THIS AMERICAN LIFE radio program “retracts” the most popular story in its history, a piece by Mike Daisey about working conditions at Foxconn Technology in Shenzhen, China, where iPhones, iPads, and many of our other most prized devices are manufactured – mostly by hand.

The TAL piece was an excerpt from Daisey’s highly successful one-man show THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, ending its encore run today at the Public Theater (the closing date is a coincidence unrelated to this incident). We saw it down there last December. The heavyset Seattle-based monologist employs a cadence, and dynamics, that remind you of DAILY SHOW contributor Lewis Black: he’ll talk softly for most of a sentence and suddenly SHOUT OUT a word or two, so you tend to pay attention. (I had previously seen his monologue 21 DOG YEARS, about his experiences as an early employee of Amazon.com.)

This time, Daisey’s topic is Apple Inc. First, how wonderful and magical their life-changing products are; and then about the human cost of manufacturing them in China, an aspect that has escaped most Apple customers over the years. (Other companies use Chinese labor as well, but Daisey concentrates on Apple.) I don’t know about you, but I always pictured iPhones and iPods being assembled by robot arms in giant white high-tech clean rooms. Not so. The work is done by hand, with mind-numbing and body-grueling repetition, at places like Foxconn, the mammoth campus which Daisey visited. By Western standards, cheap labor is being sorely misused, and no matter how hip the company – as Nike discovered years ago – its role ought to bring shame and embarrassment, especially if executives in the supply chain are aware of the working conditions, and how could they not be?

But there turns out to be a HUGE problem. Not only can’t Daisey corroborate certain events which happened outside his purview, he also lied to TAL’s fact-checkers regarding the very identity of his Chinese translator who was first to dispute the accuracy of his account – meaning he knew there was something there to be discovered. Here is a detailed look at TAL’s objections. Also note that by Chinese standards, most Foxconn workers, mainly poor migrants, seem happy to have their jobs, even working exhaustingly long shifts for a pittance; instances of abuse and physical harm (such as hexane poisoning) certainly exist but may be rarer than Daisey insinuates; and, most seriously, he can’t possibly have seen everything he says he did in one six-day visit. He is describing something true using a fictional method. Nothing wrong there – most enduring works of art operate that way – but look at his stern assertion in the next paragraph.

Daisey’s halfhearted defense seems to be, yes, but this is theater, I shouldn’t have presented it to TAL as journalism. In response, I’d like to quote two bold-faced lines from the Playbill I was handed as I walked in the theater door (yes, Virginia, there is a straight guy who saves all his Playbills):

THIS IS A WORK OF NONFICTION.
SOME NAMES AND IDENTITIES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT SOURCES.

If the root issue is real, and Daisey’s heart is in the right place – he has certainly worked and succeeded, through drama, in bringing consumer-electronics labor issues into the public consciousness, and there’s reason to believe things are gradually changing at Foxconn – then why is this so important?

I can trust that Daisey’s basic premise is true not because he says so (though I took him at his word back in December, per that Playbill disclaimer), but because it’s been corroborated by independent news and labor organizations, most notably the New York Times, whose reporters have filed front-page stories about working conditions in China (arguably urged on by people like Daisey).

I can assert that his presentation is at least in part fictional because of those same independent news organizations. In fact, Times reporters in China also questioned specific points in Daisey’s piece as unlikely. Even the one with egg on its face, THIS AMERICAN LIFE, had guts enough to do the right thing retroactively after making one fatal error: they should have never allowed the story on the air after being unable to contact Daisey’s translator.

News and opinion can exist side by side. Away from its editorial pages, which of course are all opinion, The New York Times indicates the difference instantly using typography: each day, any story with a justified-right margin is reporting, truth, accuracy; any story with a “ragged-right” margin, like the one you’re reading right now, is opinion or analysis. TAL itself has a coterie of bright, thought-provoking contributors whose subjective musings are clearly labeled as just that.

But the fact that TAL has fact-checkers at all shows you they’re trying to ensure that what they present as truth actually is. Political blowhards on both sides of the spectrum (world’s most unavailable job: Sean Hannity fact checker!) spout opinion so fast and so loud that some folks probably can’t be blamed for taking it seriously. But if, say, Bill O’Reilly states that something happened today, I’m gonna need corroboration. (He earned my skepticism by inventing or adopting specious news items for his silly “War on Christmas.”)

We need independent news, and thank God we still have some of it amid all the cacophony. Meanwhile, what of the dramatist?

When the lights came up after AGONY/ECSTASY, my wife used an earthier term to say, “He’s a hypocrite.” If he’s so upset, why does he continue to use Foxconn-made gear? And the stars in his eyes during the show’s opening moments, when he’s describing his own happy Apple addiction, are those of somebody who trades in for damn near every new model. We didn’t yet know that what we’d just heard had been juiced for dramatic power. But now I can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth about Amazon in 21 DOG YEARS. So that’s something that Mike Daisey must share with Bill O’Reilly. No more trust; I now have to verify.


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