So when I found out that one of my favorite episodes of This American Life turned out not to be true I didn't care. Not at all, not one iota. I understood that the author had presented the story as fact, had urged his listeners to check his facts, but that he had lied. It was a great story, while it cast doubt on the practices of an well regarded company, and cast doubt on the enterprise of journalism itself, it in no way made me think less of the author, TAL, or The Washington Post. I still love Malcolm Gladwell even though I now know he lied throughout the story TAL broadcast. My lack of outrage is because when I listen to TAL I don't expect "All The News That's Fit to Print," I expect something closer to the way TAL describes itself: “It's mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always.” So while I was surprised and disappointed to learn that Mike Daisey had lied about the narrative TAL had broadcast - I was just as surprised, that by doing so, he had somehow besmirched TAL's journalistic credibility. When did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?
Too often, the initiative of workers themselves is erased from stories about foreign sweatshops, and solutions are reduced to paternalistic outside monitoring and the exporting of U.S. legal standards, our own union history ignored. Had Daisey left the unionists out of his show, he would have painted an inaccurately passive picture of how Chinese workers are dealing with manufacturing industry standards. The show would have been, in an important way, less true. It’s great to have a public conversation about truth and responsible journalism, but the uproar over Daisey’s piece and the silence over “What Kind of Country” reflects, I think, a failure to see the forest for the trees. Small errors of fact can be dangerous, but misleading narratives and covert ideological frames are far more widespread and stand to do much greater damage.Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscape (2006); Rupert Murdoch manufacturing testimony (2011)
I want the news staff at NPR and the NYTs to hold themselves to the very highest possible standards of truth, but I don't want the rest of the world to. The truth of Lobell's rooster story isn't whether of not a stand-up comedian fabricated the story of Blanco's tears, the truth was that he found a novel and effective way to tell me about the ways immigrants are socially isolated. I have spoken with a lot of my friends about Daisey, exchanged some heated tweets, and read everybody from The Atlantic and The Nation to Daring Fireball and Woz on the subject of what he did. Here is what I think he did: Daisey lied about the particulars of his trip to China. He lied about his place within the narrative and doing so lied about what he "saw."
Photo Opportunity: Tim Cook; Foxonn workers.
We did fact check the story before we put it on the radio. But in fact checking, our main concern was whether the things Mike says about Apple and about its supplier Foxconn. which makes this stuff, were true. That stuff is true. It’s been corroborated by independent investigations by other journalists, studies by advocacy groups, and much of it has been corroborated by Apple itself in its own audit reports.Daisey's story built on the highly ethical reporting done by tech journalists at Wired and elsewhere, and corroborated by the highly ethical reporting done by journalists at the New York Times. Like every one else I was disappointed, but unlike many commentators I was not enraged, nor did I feel the pity Glass reported feeling. Daisey fucked up, he fucked up on a whole different scale than me saying 15 feet when maybe I should have said 30. But lots of storytellers fuck up, their work remains important. I read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in high school. Our teacher told us that despite what Sinclair claimed, the book was not based entirely of true stories, parts of it were known to be fabricated. But The Jungle was still great literature and (however imperfectly) served its original muckraking function: it alerted and engaged Americans with one of the most terrible workplace abuses of the age.
They take me up and down the aisles. And the first thing I notice is the silence. It's so quiet. At Foxconn you're demerited if you ever speak on the line. At no factory I went to did anyone ever speak on the line, but this is deeper than that. As a creature of the First World, I expect a factory making complex electronics will have the sound of machinery, but in a place where the cost of labor is effectively zero, anything that can be made by hand is made by hand. No matter how complex your electronics are, they are assembled by thousands and thousands of tiny little fingers working in concert. And in those vast spaces, the only sound is the sound of bodies in constant, unending motion. And it is constant.
Gerty; Workers at Foxconn
That image gripped me - still grips me. I can't shake the sound industrialization, on such a massive scale, as the "sound of bodies." As someone who makes things that require meticulous focus to repetitive details, I know exactly how psychically grueling it is to work long quiet days. Never mind the physical hardship of workers on their feet so much their "legs swelled so much they waddled" (we know that is true because that quote is from the NYT) or that I am an artists and find my work deeply rewarding. Aside from that, hardship working in silence on repetitive tasks all day is crazy making, no matter how meaningful it is. I distract myself any way I can. I listen to talk radio and audio books (Malcolm), I talk to friends on the phone, I hire entertaining assistants, I take a lot of breaks. When people see my work they call me obsessive, patient. I've stopped correcting them. If what Daisey says about the work done in those factories is true (and again, I haven't heard anyone contest this part of the monologue) then I have nothing on the teenage girls working at Foxconn:
They work a Chinese hour, and a Chinese hour has 60 Chinese minutes, and a Chinese minute has 60 Chinese seconds. It's not like our hour. What's our hour now, 46 minutes? You know, you have a bathroom break, and you have a smoke break. If you don't smoke, there's a yoga break. This doesn't look anything like that. This looks like nothing we've seen in a century.It is not about your conscience: Wired's illustration for Joel Johnson's piece on Foxconn; me driving myself crazy in the studio.
They work on the line, and the lines only move as fast as its slowest member, so each person learns how to move perfectly as quickly as possible. If they can't do it, there are people behind them watching them. And there are cameras watching both sets of people, and people watching the cameras. They lock it down. They sharpen it to a fine, sharp edge every hour, and those hours are long.
The official work day in China is eight hours long, and that's a joke. I never met anyone who had even heard of an eight-hour shift. Everyone I talked to worked 12-hour shifts standard, and often much longer than that, 14 hours a day, 15 hours a day. Sometimes when there's a hot new gadget coming out-- you know what the [BLEEP] I'm talking about-- sometimes it pegs up to 16 hours a day. And it just sits there for weeks and months at a time, month after month after month, straight 16's, sometimes longer than that.
All of this agrees with what others have reported. Daisey goes onto say that while he was "in-country", a worker at Foxconn dies after working a 34-hour shift." I haven't heard anyone discount that, since we know when he took his trip that shouldn't be hard to fact check, but lets not give him the benefit of the doubt, lets assume that that is not just hyperbole, but that it is a lie. But remember: even though the NYT reporters didn't mention how old the waddling workers were, Nightline's Bill Weir did, he comments on how young the Foxconn work force looked - most in their teens, and twenties, none that looked over thirty. Again, we can assume the Nightline journalist was telling the truth. So we are not talking about old men's swollen legs, we are talking about young people. Daisey continues:
And I go to the dormitories. I'm a valuable potential future customer. They will show me anything I ask to see. The dormitories are cement cubes, 12-foot by 12-foot. And in that space there are 13 beds, 14 beds. I count 15 beds. They're stacked up like Jenga puzzle pieces all the way up to the ceiling. The space between them is so narrow, none of us would actually fit in them. They have to slide into them like coffins.The contested bit of information there is that no one but Daisey has reported cameras in the dorm rooms. Otherwise Daisey's account fits the facts as other journalists have reported them. Wired's Joel Johnson describes these dorms as "good ones, designed to be better than what workers could afford on their own." He is also quite glowing about the company store at Foxconn, Johnson seems like a decent person, but he is too "fair." Although he has already reported on credible allegations of forced overtime and workers pressed to work 12 hours a day for 13 days in a row, he concludes:
There are cameras in the rooms. There are cameras in the hallways. There are cameras everywhere. And why wouldn't there be? You know, when we dream of a future where the regulations are washed away and the corporations are finally free to sail above us, you don't have to dream about some sci-fi dystopian Blade Runner/1984 bull [BLEEP]. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow. They're making your crap that way today.
But the work itself isn’t inhumane—unless you consider a repetitive, exhausting, and alienating workplace over which you have no influence or authority to be inhumane. And that would pretty much describe every single manufacturing or burger-flipping job ever.Cupertino's McDonalds; Foxconn's Ten Thousand Horses Galloping
No one flipping burgers in this country is forced a 12-hour day 13 days in a row (much less two consecutive shifts in a row as The NYT s part report alleges). And as Daisey points out, burger-flippers are working "American hours" - with breaks, chats, and other down time. I am betting that there are no banners at the Cupertino McDonalds that read “Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow” (as the Times reports there were at Foxconn) much less employees forced to do pushups as punishment. Finally, burger-flippers aren't crammed in to dormitory rooms with half a dozen strangers or more; they are living at home with their families. Johnson's piece never mentions that the experiment of the company town was tried by repeatedly by 19th century industrialists in this country. Workers rebelled, and so have Foxconn workers.
When I leave the factory, as I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out, the way I see everything is starting to change. I keep thinking, how often do we wish more things were handmade? Oh, we talk about that all the time, don't we? "I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch." But that's not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world.
Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair. One after another after another. Everything is handmade.
So because the particulars of Daisey's trip to China have all been thrown into doubt, I no longer know that he saw "workers laying in parts thinner than human hair." But what I do know now is that everything is hand made. I'm not a dope but I didn't know that until I heard Daisey say it. I suspect the same is true for most of the other people (including tech journalists) who heard the TAL story. Here is what I know now: there are no magic robots in Foxconn. There are young people, who's eyes are still sharp and hands are nimble. I know they are being worked too hard by any standard: "150 years of research proves that long hours at work kill profits, productivity and employees."
Lets assume Daisey lied about people working until they dropped dead or until the "joints in their hands have disintegrated." American work rules may seem onerous and even silly at times, but they have a very important function. Very few people retire in their thirties. The trick is not to get everything you can out of a young worker because there are dozens of younger workers desperate to replace them. The trick is to make work conditions so workers are productive their entire work lives. The abuses that Daisey illuminated are bad for Foxconn and bad China. The villains here isn't Apple and its customers it is Americans. We have abandon workers. Here at least there are laws still in place, but we - all of us, not just Apple employees and customers - export the work to places where there are no such laws. Here is the last bit of Daisey's monologue that I will quote, it is the most damning:
Because there are unions in China. There are the ones that are fronts for the Communist Party, and then there are actual unions interested in labor reform. They're called secret unions, because in China, if you're caught being a member of or affiliating with a union like that, you go to prison. You go to prison for many years. And that's why I've had to take these precautions.Arrest of a Falun Gong protestor (2000); a Starbucks in Guangzhou
I was not surprised to hear that unions in China are fronts. I was shocked to hear actual trade unionist risk imprisonment, not because that is unbelievable - you can go to prison for doing T'ai chi in China - I was just surprised to hear someone discussing the tech business mention trade unions. To be fair Joel Johnson mentions them at the end of his piece for Wired. Once. But he doesn't mention illegal unions. He mentions workers complaints, but not their attempt to improve those conditions for themselves. The New York Times, in its big 2 parter and subsequent reporting has not mentioned unions, illegal or otherwise, at all.
The illegal unions are covered in the TAL "Retraction" episode - sort of. They point out that Daisey claims to have met those secret trade unionists in a Starbucks. Although Daisey's translator confirmed that he did meet with the secret unionist, evidently that it was at a Starbucks is patently absurd. More damningly he knocked the number of unionists he met from maybe 5 up to 30. That's fucked up. Again: it's wrong to lie. Mike and I both know that; but what about the secret trade unionists he did meet? Why is the scandal Starbucks? Why is that the outrage? Why isn't the outage the fact that Wired, and the Times are mum on the subject of Chinese suppressing trade unions? That omission is characteristic of "fair" reporting by professional tech journalists. It seems that workers complaints, especially if they are petty - "the trees block the light" - are fair, worker's efforts to organize are not. The fair thing seems to be to report that the dispute had been "resolved."
Cathy Lee, Mike Daisey's Translator; Nightline Co-Anchor Bill Weir shows Foxconn employee Zhou Xiaoying photos a working iPad for the first time.
I have never been to Guangzhou. I will accept that Daisey lied about Starbucks. That it was equally absurd the infamous worker with the mangled hand had never seen a working iPad. (Never mind that the Nightline promo features footage of a Foxconn worker seeing a working iPad for the first time.) For the sake of argument lets say that that is a lie as well. But I can't accept that these lies are the scandal.
The burden of proof should be on those who claim that “the real scandal” is Mike Daisey's lies. I don't buy it. When the other side of the scandal, is even the possibility of child labor abuses, the real scandal is not Mike Daisey. The fair thing to do is to report that, as of 2006, Apple and Foxconn "resolved" the charges of child labor violations. Even so no one is claiming there isn't child labor in Chinese factories, it's just not at Apple suppliers. (Unless you consider 16 year olds children, then there is still plenty of child labor contributing to the production of your iPad and iPhone.) The burden of proof should be on Max Fisher when he claims,“By lying, Daisey undermined the cause he purported to advance." As of this posting, I'm not seeing signs of that. I'm seeing just the opposite. Here is the timeline Bill Wier lays out of the Nightline story:
Daisey's show was featured on NPR's "This American Life" in January and a listener named Mark Shields was so moved, he launched a petition drive online. Over 250,000 Apple users called on the company to build the first "ethical" iPhone, and protests were planned at Apple stores around the world. It was around this time when Apple called me.
And while I am grateful to Mike Daisey for shaking things up, I am also grateful to Charles Duhigg and David Barboza at the Times, as well as Joel Johnson at Wired and all the other tech and business journalists who wrote about Foxconn the right way; who held themselves to the highest ethical standards. I hope they learn the right lesson about what Daisey did and in the future they will be no less truthful but a lot less fair.
Tommy was also a fierce believer in the union movement as an international movement. He believed American workers had nothing to fear from competition abroad - as long as those workers had the right to unionize. Something Tommy told me years ago was that he felt the Unions had made a terrible mistake when they adopted the "Made in USA" motto. If I remember correctly he was in the room when that decision was made, he had argued that it should have been "Union Made." As Joel Johnson concluded: "We’ve exported our manufacturing; let’s be sure to export trade unions, too."