In the last couple of months there have been several reports regarding operating conditions at the Foxconn factory in China, most famous as the producer of the majority of Apple mobile devices. The current frenzy started in January with a report from Mike Daisey on PRI’s ‘This American Life’, and what started as one has since gone on to become many other negative reports.
The basis of all of these is that Foxconn is a brutal sweatshop in what is in many ways still a third world country, where tech gadgets are made cheaply for first world consumers to enjoy.
That sounds reasonably ‘truthy’ – in other words, most reasonable people in the U.S. would readily acknowledge that a very large amount of the products we enjoy — from clothes, to computers, to dishes, to cell phones — are made in relatively poor countries with few regulations, using poorly employed labor working long, hard hours.
But the requirement of journalism is more than just ‘truthiness’, it is truth. And I have found increasingly that as the web becomes a source of news for more and more people, many are quite happy with truthiness as truth, rumor as fact, and the end justifying the means.
So when the report aired, millions of people heard things like how so many workers are underage, working 70 hour weeks for low pay in poor conditions. The author of the report, Mike Daisey, claims to have met these workers in his own trip to Foxconn’s Shenzen plant, and he says he was there when a worker died after a supposed 34-hour shift. It was all pretty terrible stuff that caused a firestorm around tech blogs and traditional news sources. Anti-Apple people rejoiced in skewering the iPad/iPhone maker, while ignoring the reality the the majority of Foxconn work comes from non-Apple sources. There have been petitions, calls for boycott and more – all in the name of trying to force Apple to bring about changes that decades of political pressure have failed to alter.
As I pointed out in my post “Chinese Manufacturing Has Always Been Abusive … Why Blame Apple ONLY?”:
I read a comment somewhere that since it is the New York Times there cannot be a bias … and certainly not an anti-Apple bias. That is a very cute but dangerously naive thought – in reality the article is highly biased against Apple. Not necessarily as a specific technology (e.g. Mac vs. PC, iOS vs. Android), but rather against Apple as a huge and highly profitable company. The New York Times is suggesting things that seem reasonable from a simplistic view, but as Krugman explained and history has shown, are simply not true.
The problem: much of what was said in the Daisey report simply wasn’t true.
On Friday Ira Glass of ‘This American Life’ issued a retraction:
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 of This 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.
We’re horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors – our friends and colleagues – have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It’s trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.
The immediate question is: does this alter the reality of poor working conditions in China? No. That remains a reality – many of our consumer products are cheap and plentiful and rapidly produced because of cheap and poorly regulated work conditions by a wide array of industries in China. As I noted:
Before we get too far afield, let’s be clear – one reason that electronics and other products are made so cheaply and scaled so quickly is that there are countries that are able to provide cheap labor, less stringent standards, more flexible construction practices and so on. Whether we are talking about tech products Japan in the 60?s and 70?s, South Korea in the 80?s and 90?s, Taiwan, Indonesia, or China … or other products in Mexico, India, and so on – the common theme is cheap labor, sub-standard treatment, long hours, and eventually attention leads to improvements in conditions and wages … and then to manufacturers moving elsewhere.
The person called out for lying has no real regrets:
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
There are a couple of interesting things here: he doesn’t address the multiple lies and opportunities to set things straight to various people. Numerous sources say that at any number of occasions Dailey had plenty of opportunities to be truthful. Instead he used a theatrical production that is more of a ‘based on a true story’ Lifetime special to push a particular biased angle that was particularly critical of Apple.
The other thing is that he looks at himself as working ‘for the greater good. As the Time article notes:
If you think there’s some validity to the “larger truth” defense–that it’s OK to fudge the truth if the general charge is valid and the cause is good–that’s actually the precise reason Daisey’s rationalization doesn’t work!
The problem with ‘truthiness’ is the backlash – the potential for people to lose sight of the facts you are trying to get across when they discover that lies were used to try to sell the story.
The WORST thing that could happen with the situation in China is this:
“What, that thing about the exploited iPad workers in China? Didn’t they find out that was a hoax or something?”
In the aftermath of this report we have seen sites rush to condemn Apple, then rush to condemn PRI then rush to condemn Dailey, all the while making sure to use Google-optimized titles to maximize hits and ad revenue. In between these sites were pushing every rumor about the new iPad as fact, and coving every detail like a new revelation – again optimized for revenue. Everything is pushed as fact, never vetted, never retracted – heck I read a report bashing Apple for not reporting iPad numbers and saying it was a clear sign they were disappointing. Within an hour or so Apple produced the spectacular report – but there was no update, no retraction … just move on to the next bit of link-bait.
It all seems like it is serving ‘the greater good’ of tech journalism, but it isn’t: it is serving the ad revenue of the site. Remember this when you see sites dumping a dozen similar articles that could easily have combined in rapid succession: they are not serving you, not working for the truth or for your … they are selling your eyeballs to maximize ad revenue.
And it is THAT approach that allows these ‘truthy’ stories to gain so much traction so fast. While everyone is complaining about Apple, they know they are simultaneously making money FROM Apple.
And no one is really addressing the plight of the Chinese workers. But wait … wasn’t that a hoax?