This American Life’s Foxconn Retraction: Reactions

Apple CEO Tim Cook has met with government officials and representatives of the titanic but iPhoneless China Mobile in Beijing, according to The Wall Street Journal:

A spokeswoman said Mr. Cook— who is on his first trip to China since becoming chief executive of the Cupertino, Calif., company— “had great meetings with Chinese officials today.”

“China is very important to us and we look forward to even greater investment and growth here,” said the spokeswoman, Carolyn Wu.

She declined to identify any of the Chinese officials or give further details about the meetings ….

Some fans commented on the Web that the executive’s appearance shows that Apple is paying more attention to China. Many Internet users noted that Apple’s previous CEO, the late Steve Jobs, was never known to have visited China.

Also visiting Beijing recently was the recipient of the 25 billionth App Store download, who in a convenient publicity windfall for Apple happened to be a resident of the strategically vital Chinese market. Fu Chunli was flown to the capital from Qingdao to receive a $10,000 iTunes gift card.

Meanwhile, controversy over various fabrications uncovered in the one-man show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ has roared on. This American Life’s hour-long retraction (PDF transcript) of its earlier episode based on the monologue narrowly broke its predecessor’s download record, defying the adage that “you only need to move your lips to start a rumour, but you need to run until your legs are broken to refute one”.

The show’s creator and performer, Mike Daisey, eventually apologised to colleagues, audiences, labour rights activists and the journalists he misled, while his target, Foxconn, seized the opportunity to recast itself as the wounded but magnanimous victim. “Our corporate image has been totally ruined,” a spokesman told Reuters. “The point is whatever media that cited the program should not have reported it without confirming (with us). We have no plans to take legal action… We hope nothing similar will happen again.”

Much of the post-retraction discussion has focused on the question of whether it can ever be acceptable to lie to promote a greater truth. David Carr suggested at The New York Times that “the short answer is also the right one“:

No.

Daisey has, however, received considerable credit for bringing the labour problems to light. Michael Schreiber stated at BoingBoing that “Daisey’s performance piece came first“; Andrew Keen, who interviewed the monologist for TechCrunch TV last year, similarly suggested that Daisey was the one who had “gotten this issue on the table; it’s an important issue. And you only tell the truth by telling a few lies.

Among Daisey’s defenders is Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (who no longer plays an active role at the company). Wozniak told CNET that the ends justified Daisey’s means:

“I think his monologue has influenced Apple to take steps in that direction the best they can …. I think Mike Daisey got Apple and other companies more attuned to the issue–to do the most they can to make corrections. That’s my impression about what has happened. His method succeeded.”

The influence of Daisey’s This American Life appearance, and of his monologue in general, may be overstated. Apple’s most visible recent step towards addressing its supply chain issues was joining the Fair Labour Association, a move it announced a week after the episode aired. But FLA president Auret van Heerden told ABC last month that Apple’s membership was the product of years of negotiation, including a pair of trial projects beginning in April 2009. Apple also began conducting its own audits as long ago as 2006, and has published annual Supplier Responsibility Progress Reports since 2007. (See CDT’s coverage of the 2012 report.) While the credibility of these in-house investigations suffers from their lack of independent verifiability, they do demonstrate a record of attention to supply chain issues that long precedes Daisey’s 2010 visit to Shenzhen.

The performer has carefully cultivated the impression that his work broke new ground, playing down or disparaging coverage from other sources, portraying his visit to the Foxconn factory gates as radically innovative (“That’s not really how we usually do things in China”, one Hong Kong-based journalist supposedly told him), and suggesting that foreign correspondents in China are largely warmers-up of Xinhua reports and corporate press releases. In a post-Retraction talk at Georgetown University, for example, he attributed the 2010 Foxconn suicides’ fading from Western front pages to a Chinese Central Propaganda Department directive:

… [Y]ou can see how it died, actually really clearly. The fixer I was working with in Hong Kong sent me an email with a link to one of those memos from what they call the Ministry of Truth [possibly a reference to this post on CDT], which is the group in Beijing from the government that tells the media what it can and can’t report on, and there was a memo saying, “We’re done with these stories.”

…  So the story goes out from the Ministry of Truth and the story vanishes in the mainland. It vanishes overnight. Suddenly, no more talk about labor. It’s gone.

And as soon as it dies there, on the ground, you can actually see it, I used Google Analytics, you can actually see it die in the West. Because of course. We all have foreign bureaus over there, but not as many as we used to, right? So, if a story stops coming from the mainland, if there’s nothing there stirring us, the news cycle moves on.

Brendan Kiley described Daisey’s tone in a May 2011 review of ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy …’ in the Seattle-based Stranger:

Daisey alone knows this truth; Daisey alone has emerged from the heart of darkness of Asian industrialization to bring us the horror. In Shenzhen, he says several times, “there’s no journalism.” The “BBC fixer” who was supposed to help him out? Useless. The New York Times? It merely reprints press releases from Shenzhen boardrooms. Thank god Mike Daisey has crawled from the maw of capitalism to tell us the truth.

Except that he’s not telling us the truth. After getting home from the show, opening up my MacBook, and wiping the blood off the keyboard, I did a little Googling. In under a minute, I learned some things: The New York Times that Daisey derides as being nothing more than a mouthpiece for Shenzhen corporate interests? It’s been writing about labor abuses in the city—child labor, days-long shifts, etc.—for at least five years. The BBC has written several stories about Shenzhen, including the suicides that Daisey talks about. Looks like there’s journalism about Shenzhen after all.

Last week at All Things D, Arik Hesseldahl also dismissed the suggestion that Daisey had boldly gone where no one had gone before:

For openers, at the D8 conference in 2010, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg asked Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs about the situation at Foxconn, in the wake of a string of suicides.

That same year — indeed, only weeks after nine suicides by Foxconn employees — Bloomberg Businessweek’s Fredrik Balfour conducted a three-hour interview with Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, and also several unsupervised interviews with Foxconn workers, for a story featured on the magazine’s cover. The Atlantic Monthly considered Foxconn in the wider context of the rise of China as a leading economic power. The BBC looked at Foxconn after the suicides. Indeed, there had been a great deal of attention paid to matters related to Apple, Foxconn and workers in China, well before the days of Daisey. Who does he feel has not been talking about this?

And at Bloomberg’s Tech Blog, co-author of the Businessweek story Tim Culpan described his own long experience of covering Foxconn, both before Daisey’s trip and afterwards, when Daisey claimed that reporting on the company was “dead”.

Now let me tell you what I’ve seen at Foxconn. I’ve covered the company as a reporter for more than a decade, since before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’s eye and just after Foxconn landed Dell as a PC customer. Then in 2010, when a series of suicides caught the world’s attention and made sure you now know who makes your iPhone, my colleague Frederik Balfour and I started looking deeper. The result was “Inside Foxconn“, a 6,000-plus-word cover story for Bloomberg Businessweek [September 13, 2010 edition]….

Less than a year later, I went back again with another colleague.

We went inside the same Longhua campus in Shenzhen, which required Foxconn’s approval, and chatted with workers. We stood outside the gates (possibly the same gates where Daisey claimed he found underage workers), with Foxconn unaware we were there. We wandered farther into the local neighborhood shopping strip, among the bubble-tea stands and food vendors, where the young workers went on dates and caught up with friends ….

On top of his longstanding complaint at their supposed dereliction of duty in covering Foxconn, Daisey explained to the Georgetown audience that it was actually journalists who introduced errors into his monologue in the first place:

It actually went literally like this: I would have an interview. I would sit down. The person was, you know, briefed ahead of time, they would have read some press release very, very quickly. We’d sit down and they would start the interview on camera or something or radio and they would say something like, “Mike Daisey, now, you’ve gone to China and you’ve done X, Y, and Z,” and they would say something that was a little hyperbolic, not quite exactly correct, and I would feel awkward about actually saying, no, no, no, don’t say that, that’s not true. Or they’d say, “You’ve gone inside of Foxconn.” And I’d be like … I didn’t go inside of Foxconn, but I was outside of Foxconn. And I would find myself not interrupting them because we’re in interview situations ….

… And the next thing you know, my director, who is very good at picking up dramatic details, saw it as a theater problem and was saying, “Well how can that not be in the show? We’ve been doing the show for forever and it’s not in the show. That should be in the show.” And then the artistic director of the theater was like, “Yes, that should be in the show.” And I thought okayyyy, and I put it in the show.

Some have claimed that, as Mike Elk put it at Reuters, Daisey managed to “emotionally connect with people in a way that more boring reporting on the subject of labor abuses in China had not.” But it is also arguable that, as Adam Minter told Time Out Shanghai, “[no] amount of consciousness raising on the part of foreigners can make a bit of difference.” Leslie Chang, whose book ‘Factory Girls‘ closely examines the lives of assembly line workers in southern China, wrote at The New Yorker that the guilt or otherwise of Western consumers is beside the point:

Across China, there are a hundred and fifty million migrant workers, a third of them women, who have left their villages to work in the factories, restaurants, hotels, and construction sites of the cities. They represent the largest migration in human history; their experiences have changed the way they work and marry and live and think. Very few of them would want to return to the way things used to be. Should you feel bad? I don’t think so. But whether you do or not is peripheral to a much larger and more important story.

An op-ed in the Global Times was one of many articles which compared Daisey’s emphasis on “raising consciousness” with the Kony 2012 campaign:

In both, the locals were stripped of agency. Daisey claimed to have met Chinese workers who have never thought about how they would change things at their factory, and who saw the iPad as “magic,” like primitive tribesmen encountering a more sophisticated world. He imagined hordes of under-aged workers, flocking to Shenzhen factories to be chewed up in the gears of the machine ….

Of course, consumer pressure can play some role in encouraging foreign-invested factories in China to improve working conditions. Apple has already agreed to be audited by the Fair Labor Association, although labor experts have grave doubts about the methodologies involved in such auditing and the practical effects it will have.

But … the pressure for major shifts on the Chinese factory floor [will] come from the workers themselves, not outsiders. Chinese workers’ confidence in striking, organizing, and voting with their feet has increased dramatically in the last few years, backed in part by a more favorable government environment. It’s the pressure of empowered locals that will force real change, not a Western audience working off imaginary savior narratives.

Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), on whose research Daisey based some of his monologue’s less fanciful passages, also stressed the importance of local agency, arguing that Apple’s best course of action would be to help secure workers’ ability to protect their own interests:

… [O]nce the audits are over and FLA has gone home, the workers in the factories will again be left to deal, as best they can, with the brutal labour conditions that are imposed on them. Any hope that conditions for workers will improve rests not on the work of auditors, but on the ability of workers themselves to monitor whether their labour rights are being respected and to push for remedies when they are not.

If Apple is genuinely concerned about improving the labour rights of workers that manufacture its products, it must ensure that they can negotiate with their employer to bring lasting change to the way that work is performed and compensated ….

The collapse of Daisey’s credibility has nevertheless brought widespread fears of collateral damage to labour rights journalism and activism. Yang Su and Xin He, for example, warned at CNN that the episode “should not divert attention away from the very real, pressing issue of labor abuses in China.” Daisey, perhaps counterproductively, made a similar point on his blog, while denying his own responsibility for any damage to the labour rights cause:

There is nothing in this controversy that contests the facts in my work about the nature of Chinese manufacturing. Nothing. I think we all know if there was, Ira would have brought it up.

You certainly don’t need to listen to me. Read the New York Times reporting. Listen to the NPR piece that ran just last week in which workers at an iPad plant go on record saying the plant was inspected by Apple just hours before it exploded, and that the inspection lasted all of ten minutes ….

If people want to use me as an excuse to return to denialism about the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world, they are doing that to themselves.

Others, such as Max Fisher at The Atlantic, were more ready to hold Daisey culpable:

Now, the story isn’t Chinese labor abuses anymore. The story is Daisey’s own dishonesty, which tinges everything he touched — the made-up details as well as the truth behind them — as compromised and untrustworthy. The people who already know about Chinese labor abuses will immediately see where Daisey’s lies end and the truth begins. Those who don’t — the vast majority, who could help change the world for the better simply by expressing a preference for ethically manufactured iPads — might have a harder time figuring out where the line is. They know they were moved by Daisey’s 40-minute monologue about exploring Chinese factory towns first-hand, and they know that the monologue had to be retracted as a lie.

How receptive will they be the next time a reporter writes about how Chinese laborers are forced to stand for so long they struggle to walk, or that some workers weren’t even given gloves to handle poisonous chemicals? Will they believe the reports that say Chinese manufacturers could fix a number of these problems simply by rotating shifts or allowing workers to organize to ask for gloves, neither of which would cost them (or American consumers) anything? Will they bother to listen to the human rights NGOs who say that American consumers can help fix the problem simply by choosing to buy products that are manufactured under better conditions? Or will they think back to Mike Daisey, and wonder who else might be lying to them?

By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance. That’s the real scandal.

There have been signs that other coverage of Chinese labour issues has already been tainted by the fallout from Daisey’s fabrications, particularly in the cases of sources which helped him spread them. At All Things D, Arik Hesseldahl wrote that “at this point, it’s hard to determine what’s more outrageous, Daisey’s lies to Ira Glass and his team, or the national media’s willingness to give Daisey a platform to repeat the same lies and fabrications without making the slightest effort to vet them.” Comments on Hesseldahl’s post suggest that investigative reports from The New York Times, which published a now-edited Daisey op-ed after Steve Jobs’ death last October, may suffer particular guilt by association:

“Are you sure Duigg’s NYT’s pieces are absolutely correct and fair? Are they one side of the picture or the whole picture? Does the NY Times have an axe to bring with Apple? Are they PO’d that Apple is asking too much for their subscriptions and won’t share user data with them? Are they using the power of the pen to strike back at a company they think is being unfair?”

“Duhigg’s reports relied in part on Daisey’s false claims.”

“You have no reason to believe that the NYT’s Duhigg’s reports have any more veracity than Daisey’s fabrications.”

No changes have been made to the reports in question, which Duhigg says were “independently sourced and independently confirmed.” (Co-author David Barboza told Adam Minter that “Daisey’s fabrications were utterly ridiculous …. I did not hear the entire show, but what I heard sounded far-fetched.”)

Beyond the realm of labour rights, the affair also threatens the credibility of Western media in China by feeding a longstanding view of its coverage as riddled with stereotypes and bias. From James Fallows at The Atlantic:

Daisey’s lying will hurt the Western press and international worker-rights groups. When they get all huffy, Chinese nationalists love to present the Western press as being irremediably biased against Chinese achievements and ambitions, and willing to pass along the most outrageous slanders about China without checking them for accuracy or even plausibility. A site called Anti-CNN is a well-known outlet for such views. This is a constant nuisance when you try to write critical assessments. Worse, it gives ammo to those inside China who want to pooh-pooh complaints about safety, pollution, working conditions, and so on. Daisey is everything they warned against, come to life.

In the LA Review of Books, Jeffrey Wasserstrom framed the danger in terms of inaccuracies in accounts of the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”: the location and manner of the deaths, and the disproportionate focus on students among the victims.

… [G]etting the details wrong has made it easier than it should have been for the Chinese authorities to defend their ridiculous Big Lie that no massacre at all had taken place. To support this notion, they insist that the Western press is hopelessly biased against China’s leaders and is willing to take liberties with the facts to make the Communist Party look bad. It helps their cause to be able to point to specific instances in which Western newspapers say things took place that clearly did not occur.

Returning to L’Affaire Daisey, we find very different situation, but one in which some similar issues resurface. Once again, as Fallows notes, getting things wrong makes it easier than it should be for the Chinese authorities to assert that the Western media will make up things at will in order to cast China in the harshest possible light.

Sure enough, this line was pursued in an opinion piece in People’s Daily, which quoted Liu Chang of the Communication University of China:

The report on the Foxconn Group made by the U.S. National Public Radio’s program “This American Life” is not an individual case, and in the current ever-changing ecological media environment, untrue reports of this kind, which involve ethics and morals of media, are increasing ….

International reports of Western media are usually interested in bad news, especially bad news of the countries with different political systems from theirs. The U.S. media’s mistaken reports on China are not technical mistakes completely caused by such things as hasting for efficiency or “not understanding China enough.”

Much coverage from the journalistic side focused on the special circumstances involved in news gathering in China. Jeffrey Wasserstrom pointed back to his 2010 Huffington Post interview with Rob Schmitz, the journalist who unmasked Daisey. Schmitz said that working in China had forced him to become a more diligent reporter:

On the surface, China is a journalist’s playground: It’s changing at an historic pace, it’s home to the largest human migration the world has ever known, and its fate has become intertwined with the world’s fate. The trick is to make sense of all this. China forces you to become a better reporter–you’re constantly having to check your facts, because what you thought were facts oftentimes weren’t facts to start with.

But others suggested that reporting from China could also lead journalists astray. As veteran broadcast journalist Ted Koppel told Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish, referring specifically to Daisey:

The temptation to makes things up becomes even greater when you’re in a setting like China, where you don’t have ready access to as many sources as you do in the United States. There’s probably not a foreign correspondent alive who hasn’t had a conversation with a taxi driver from the airport to the hotel and then incorporated what the taxi driver told him under the general rubric of ‘local sources,’ here in fill-in the blank. It’s fair game if you make it clear in your story what you’re doing. I think that happens more often in a dictatorship, where it’s hard to get people to talk, and you’re going to make the most of what little contact you have with the population.

Koppel’s comments recall a Bagehot column from The Economist, written in response to the downfall last year of British journalist Johann Hari.

One of the things you find out fast as a foreign correspondent, especially reporting from the developing world, is that there is very little to stop you making things up, except your own conscience. Out in a Chinese field, interviewing a peasant who has had his land stolen, or out in an Afghan refugee camp speaking to victims of Taliban brutality, it soon becomes obvious that if you embellish and improve quotes, nobody is going to find out. Chinese peasants and Afghan refugees are not going to read your work, and are not going to shop you to your editors.

I know some foreign correspondents who have gone down that route, and have had priggish arguments with some of them. Plagiarists, liars, make-it-up merchants, they all exist …. The foreign correspondent who wrote a vivid portrayal of an Asian dog meat restaurant, complete with descriptions of brutal dog-killing, callous chefs and hungry punters, without actually visiting the country in question, and who—when I challenged him–told me “oh that, it was a bit of imagineering”. The gentler souls who use foreign languages to cut corners. (I once knew a correspondent with the amazing gift of diving into a Chinese crowd and coming out, 30 seconds later, with the perfect quote, despite pretty limited Mandarin. I never had the heart to say: great quote, now tell me how you say that in Chinese.)

But Evan Osnos suggested at The New Yorker that the perception of China as unfathomably remote was outdated, and was the very thing that had led Daisey to overreach.

Part of Daisey’s conceit was that he presented himself as a clear-eyed naïf: he would show up at the factory gate in a Hawaiian shirt (that part was true, by the way) and ask people simple questions that exposed uncomfortable truths. But, in a curious way, Daisey’s undoing was that he turned out to be naïve in a way that he didn’t understand. He thought that China was so exotic and far away that it was uncheckable; that it was okay to take “a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” as he put it in his follow-up interview. (That’s a cliché too, of course, borrowed from every fabulist since Janet Cooke.)

But China, it turns out, is not so far away. Daisey’s fiction was predicated on the notion that China is essentially unknowable, that reporters never go to factory gates, that highways exit to nowhere. And he might have gotten away with it twenty years ago. But these days, it’s no longer so far away at all.

See also:
discussion of L’affaire Daisey by a Sinica podcast panel including Rob Schmitz himself
Nieman Journalism Lab’s summary of the disussion
– Wired.com’s description of the slightly modified penultimate performance at The Public Theatre
defences of Daisey from other venues with scheduled performances collected at The Understatement
– some more varied responses from the theatrical world at The Wall Street Journal, and
a strong reaction from Alli Houseworth, who worked as marketing and communications director at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre during Daisey’s 2011 run there, and now urges a boycott of his show. (Houseworth also commented on Twitter, “Sad that many DMd, emailed & called me saying they wish they could share their similar opinions but r scared of professional repercussions”.)