Mike Daisey and the price of electronics in China

Mike Daisey

At this point a full-blown recap of the Mike Daisey situation doesn’t make a lot of sense, because gradually the “facts” of the matter have surfaced and the media has distributed them widely, not to mention gleefully and sanctimoniously.

Maybe you recoil at “gleefully” and “sanctimoniously”? Surely, you’ll grant “self-righteously”? Here’s media critic Jack Shafer on the case; and here’s Felix Salmon. Both describe Daisey’s sins, without giving him an inch. Salmon believes he didn’t just lie, he did it for purposes of personal gain: “The fact is that the chief beneficiary of the success of Daisey’s monologue has been Mike Daisey, much more than any group of factory workers or underground trades unionists in China.”

Anyway, I’d like to do something less than a full-blown recap, but maybe give some sense of what might have been at stake in the Case of Mike Daisey and what wasn’t—and who might have the real problem.

Let’s start simply: What Mike Daisey did was wrong.

In his monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which he has performed widely, including in Portland, and which played on Ira Glass’s “This American Life” on public radio, Daisey made up, embellished and distorted many of the details of his actual reporting of life inside the giant Chinese technology factory, Foxconn, and other factories like it.

We know this thanks to the reporting of Rob Schmitz of American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” who simply found Daisey’s translator in China and asked her to verify Daisey’s account. Even allowing for the smudging of memory and giving Daisey all the benefits of the doubt, you’d still conclude that much of Daisey’s reporting was imaginary.

Imaginary reporting passing for “true” reporting. There’s a difference, no matter how radical your critique of truth-gathering in the press is (and mine is pretty radical—despite their methods, journalists are just as prey to cognitive biases of various sorts as anyone else).

The word “passing” is bothersome, because the show wasn’t labelled “true in all its regards,” by Daisey. But nothing about “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” suggests that Daisey made up any of it. Quite the contrary. In the version he performed here in 2010, he castigated journalists in China for their timidity in covering Foxconn, which already had a long history of verified abuses and awful working conditions. He portrayed himself as a sort of “super journalist,” who bent the rules a bit to get to the real, honest truth! Here’s my review of the show. (By the way, that review says the age of one of the workers at the Foxconn plant interviewed by Daisey was 11. On “This American Life” that age is 13. I have no idea whether I made an error in my notes or whether Daisey changed his account over time.)

In his run at an explanation to Glass, Daisey apologized for the mistake of allowing his show to be broadcast on “This American Life.” In the context of the theater, he argued, what he did was OK, but not in the context of the radio show: “My mistake, the mistake that I truly regret is that I had it on your show as journalism and it’s not journalism. It’s theater. I use the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc and of that arc and of that work I am very proud because I think it made you care, Ira, and I think it made you want to delve. And my hope is that it makes—has made—other people delve.”

But in his latest re-think of it all, he now believes that the fictional components of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” were a mistake even for the theater: “When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.”

So, yes, Mike Daisey made a mistake, and at this point, even he admits it.

The lies of Mike Daisey are strange lies, though.

His research into the conditions at Foxconn and other factories manufacturing Apple products was deep and accurate enough for his stories to be believable. And that’s because the inhumanly long hours, poor living conditions, physical effects of repetitive stress, suicides, underage workers and industrial accidents he describes in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” have been reported elsewhere, by the traditional press, by workers’ rights groups and by Apple’s own audits.

So there was some nugget of “truth” in everything he said, from what I can tell. He was a scrupulous creator of historical fiction.

Coincidentally, The New York Times published a long, well-documented account of conditions in Chinese factories around the same time as Daisey’s broadcast on “This American Life.” And that account basically confirmed most of the facts behind Daisey’s story: “Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.”

Which is substantively what Daisey was saying in his monologue, when he wasn’t flying around saying he was Superman.

Of course, what you do with these facts is up to you. The Times story connected them to the history of Apple’s efforts to improve conditions in China, leading us to believe that in the future Chinese workers will be better cared for than they are now. Journalism conventions prohibited the reporters from actually saying this; instead, they selected facts that would lead us to that conclusion.  Mike Daisey created something “dramatic” from them to increase our sense of outrage about those conditions.

Again, I’m not arguing that the two are identical. Daisey did what artists do; the Times reporters, Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, did what reporters do.  Daisey made up some dramatic scenes; Duhigg and Barboza threw in a few more facts and opinions of others. But oddly, at the very end, the Times concluded almost exactly as Daisey did: It’s up to us, the consumer: “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” said a current Apple executive. “And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

What I’m getting at is that Daisey’s Sin was a small one, in the greater scheme of things. And the punishment—it all made him look ludicrously self-aggrandizing—fits the crime. All the loose talk about lies and truth and fiction and journalism and theater made me a little nervous, but hey, I’ll live. And Glass’s outrage (and by extension the outrage of many press critics) is misplaced.

I’m more worried about those Chinese workers, though, after “This American Life.”  I have this exchange between Glass and one of the Times reporters, Charles Duhigg, on “This American Life,” on my mind:

Charles Duhigg: … More than half of the workers whose records are examined are working more than 60 hours per week.
Ira Glass: Now, is that necessarily so bad? I mean, aren’t a lot of these workers moving to the city to work as many hours as possible? They’re away from their families; they’re young; and they’re there to make money and they don’t care.
Charles Duhigg: That’s exactly right. You know, when we talked, my colleague David Barboza, as well as a number of translators have spoken to a number of employees in these factories and that’s exactly what they say. And Apple says that as well. They say look, one of the reasons why there is so much overtime that’s inappropriate, and in some places is illegal, is because the workers themselves are demanding that overtime. Now, workers don’t always say that. What workers often say is that they feel coerced into doing overtime – that if they didn’t do overtime when it’s asked of them, that they wouldn’t get any overtime at all and that financially they would suffer as a result.

So, Ira Glass questions whether working more than 60 hours a week on a factory line in China is “necessarily bad.” This is a little while after telling Mike Daisey, when they are talking about another matter. “I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview.”

In Glass’s “normal worldview” working more than 60 hours a week (and in some cases much, much more) might well be OK, if that’s what the workers say they want, even if their legs swell up? No matter the coercion involved? No matter the conditions in the rest of the country that make this factory “life” seem tolerable? You can sell yourself into slavery, if you want? Apparently, Glass doesn’t believe in certain “inalienable rights,” but neither did Thomas Jefferson, who so famously used the term.

Well, Mr. Duhigg, what about those 60 hour weeks and other abuses? “It sounds really unpleasant. I do not think that you would find any factory in America where you would find those same conditions and you would not find any Americans who would tolerate those conditions. That being said, I think that China is a little bit different and that the expectations, particularly as a developing nation of workers, are a little bit different. I don’t think holding them to American standards is precisely the right way to look at the situation.”

So, Glass’s “normal worldview” may well be correct, and if it is and it continues, conditions in China will never change, because we believe it’s just fine for those workers to work that way for those wages. Hey, they chose it for themselves. Ethical problem over.

Ira Glass: Well, now like, when you say it like that, suddenly I feel bad again, but okay, yeah. [laughter]
Charles Duhigg: I don’t know whether you should feel bad, right?

So, possessor of the “normal worldview,” how do you feel now? Good? Bad?  And why are you so ambivalent about those conditions in China and so sure about the sins of Mike Daisey? Work a couple of 60-hour weeks on the production line at Foxconn, and then get back to me. Heck, work two hours on that line.


4 Responses.

  1. This is the best analysis of the “Daisy situation” that I have read. Thank you Barry Johnson for your intelligence, thoughtfulness and clarity. How refreshing to read an article that does not join in the media’s hysterical rush to condemn Daisy and praise Glass.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks, Joanna, I appreciate it!

      Dan, Factory work is demanding and hard on body and spirit, even under the best circumstances. I’m thinking that those circumstances, though, exist in countries with strong labor unions operating in “mature” businesses with complex products — automobiles, heavy equipment manufacturing, that sort of thing.

      Could Apple make iPhones at a somewhat smaller profit and invest the money in working conditions and pay? Sure, but even if it were that altruistic, it would be hard to make it stick without the power of organized labor to argue the case for the workers. And Apple is a special case, don’t you think? In the PC/Android world, the price factor is so critical that it’s hard to imagine any “re-investment” in working conditions, without strong unions.

  2. Dan Mathews says:

    I can empathize with everyone in this story: Barry, Mike, Ira. Ira was “taken,” so he had to make an extra-harsh response. Sorry, Mike; you meant well; but, you know, you didn’t have to swear to Ira that everything was factual. You brought it on yourself at that point.
    But what about us, the consumers? Phones and computers can only be made in large quantities, so they get made only by companies following the same rules. That’s global fucking capitalism for you. Meanwhile, do we have an option? Has anyone done an unbiased study of whether one company is significantly more humane than the others? Or would the more humane company have inevitably failed in the marketplace by now?

  3. Howard Aaron says:

    There’s a new bumper sticker floating around:

    Ooopsey Mike Daisey.

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