Working Conditions, Part Two

Sometime in January, This American Life broadcast a show called “Mr Daisey and the Apple Factory,” about what Mike Daisey, creator of the theatrical piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” claimed to have seen while visiting a factory in China that made iPhones and iPads. It was a hugely popular show, and Daisey’s work has led to a closer examination of Apple’s practices — which is a good thing. Then, this past weekend, This American Life put together a fascinating show called “Retraction,” in which they retracted the previous show — because it turns out that Mike Daisey lied to This American Life about a lot of the things he said he saw.

In the original show, Mike Daisey talked about meeting underage workers who were 12, 13, 14; a man whose hands shook from the toxins Apple compelled him to work with in the factory; factory guards armed with guns; etc. It turns out that many of the things Daisey talked about seeing first-hand, he never actually saw — and “Retraction” turned out to be one of the most fascinating shows I’ve ever heard TAL do. It brought up questions about the differences between truth and fiction, theater and journalism, and how best to get people to listen when you have important things to say. The TAL producers took Mike Daisey’s original story apart piece by piece, explaining to us how they managed, or didn’t manage, to verify or refute each thing Mike Daisey claimed. Host Ira Glass cross-examined Daisey himself, calmly asking him question after question, with sympathy but without mercy. Remind me never to piss off Ira Glass.  Several times, Ira said flatly to Daisey, “I don’t believe you.”

Ira, I don’t believe him either.

Here’s the thing: as evidenced by the last part of “Retraction,” in which Ira does try to get to the bottom of what actually is going on in the factories that make Apple products, the truth is bad enough. We have decided in the United States that harmful, dangerous working conditions aren’t acceptable in our factories — and then, to protect ourselves, we’ve exported those conditions elsewhere. (Not that I’m suggesting American factories are a dream to work in, mind you.) All of us who shop are complicit. I stream This American Life on my iPod; I’m dictating this blog post to my iPhone. Later, I’ll ramp-up either my iMac or my MacBook to make it pretty before pushing “publish.” I’m not happy when I hear the truth about how these products that I depend on every hour are made. I’m not happy about people being compelled to work overtime, or avoidable explosions in factories. I want to know the truth before I make my purchasing decisions, and I want the truth to become commonly known, so that Apple can be held accountable. If the story I’m being told is partly fictionalized in order to increase its dramatic impact, as seems to have been Mike Daisey’s approach — fine, but TELL ME. Don’t present lies as truth in order to manipulate me into a particular emotional reaction that you think contains a deeper truth than the actual truth could. The actual truth contains plenty of emotional impact. Presenting lies as truth, you’re not showing your listeners respect, and much worse, you’re not showing respect to the people whose difficulties you’re misrepresenting either.

Thanks to TAL for such a great show. Readers, follow any of the links above to listen to the latest show or to read transcripts.