23 March 2012
Mike Daisy and the Truth
Back in January the radio program This American Life, produced by a public radio station in Chicago, ran an excerpt from a one-man show by Mike Daisey. The full one-man show was known as "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," and it purported to tell the story of Daisey's personal investigation of the way in which iPhones and other iStuffs are manufactured.
The pertinent excerpt that served as an episode of This American Life, titled "Mr Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory," aired in January 6, 2012. It had a huge impact. In podcast form it was downloaded 888,000 times. Heck, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show jumped on board the bandwagon, just ten days after that radio broadcast. [To be clear: Stewart's segment on Foxconn/Apple/China makes no specific reference to Daisey, or to the specific elements in Daisey's story I discuss below.]
Turns out some people were wondering about Daisey's veracity as soon as they heard his tales. One of the wondering ones was Rob Schmitz, the Shanghai-based correspondent for Marketplace, a publication of American Public Media.
Rob Schmitz knew China and knew something about Apple. But he did more than wonder about Daisey, he found and spoke with the Chinese woman who served as Daisey's interpreter on his trip to China. Her name is Li Guifen, although her professional name (when working with westerners) is Cathy Lee.
At any rate, Ms Lee says that some of the key conversations in the monologue, included in the radio excerpt, didn't happen. For example, Daisey claimed to have met and spoken (through his interpreter!) with workers who had been greviously injured by a neurotoxin, N-Hexane, while working on the assembly line.
Schmitz asked her whether she and Daisey had in fact met with workers who met Daisey's description of the injured interviewees. She said simply, No." He followed up, had anybody talked to them about Hexane? Says that interpreter: "Nobody mentioned the Hexane."
When Daisey was confronted about such matters by Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, he admitted that he had lied to Glass before the broadcast. He has offered various justifications for his lies. In the stage monologue, the original context, they aren't lies he says because that is art. The lies he told to get them on This American Life, persuading Glass that it was all literally true, well, he sounds a bit like Truman Capote who also took liberties with fact in his infamous book, In Cold Blood, which deliberately straddled fiction and non-fiction. But one has to be clear which of those one is doing. The straddling is the problem, not a justification!
Jack Shafer puts it well.
"That would be an ideal subject for a one-man theatrical performance."
From the fact that Daisey stinks one cannot conclude of course that Foxconn, or Apple, are above reproach. Schmitz has been very clear about that. He has been interviewed on this point: Factory Working Conditions.
What Daisey seems to have done is to exaggerate actual problems for dramatic effect. Let us not sugar coat it: There have been Hexane poisonings in China. And in factories that are part of Apple's supply chain, too. The fact that they weren't at the factory Daisey visited doesn't make them unimportant. Still, it makes his dishonesty, if anything, more culpable than it might have been if it had been made up out of whole cloth. If you're going to expose something because you think in doing so you're making a difference: get it right.
I'll give Schmitz the last word: "From what we know these are rare occurrences in Apple’s supply chain. Life at factories that make Apple products is not all hunky-dory, but the truth is much more complicated than how Daisey’s portrayed the situation."
Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.