Ira Glass, the host of This American Life (TAL) had unpleasant news for his listeners last Friday. He has found out that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple in China, which TAL broadcast in January, contained significant fabrications. “We can’t vouch for its truth and therefore we’re retracting the story,” Glass said. This was certainly a humiliating moment for Glass and his show’s staff that pride on their high standards of journalism. The news is especially painful, given that this story was one of their most popular with over a million people downloading and streaming it to date. Add to that the role this show had in creating a tipping point in the public’s attitude towards Apple’s practices and you can understand why Glass is so sorry for having Daisey on his show in the first place.
The impact of the original show in January brings to mind two important questions – why did Daisey’s story play such an important part in creating a tipping point, and also, given what many consider as a positive impact generated by the original show, does it really matter if Daisey fabricated some parts of it?
Before we try to answer these questions, let’s examine the fabrications in Daisey’s story. As TAL showcased last Friday, Daisey’s story includes many details that he lied about to Glass and his staff. Now, none of the major parts of the story are fabricated – Daisey did go to China in 2010, and he did go to Foxconn and other plants in Shenzhen and he did meet with Chinese workers. Yet, apparently Daisey felt the facts weren’t enough to create the impact he wanted his show to have, so he exaggerated in his description of many details and even fabricated some.
For example, Daisey told Glass that he visited ten factories, posing as a businessman. His translator Cathy Lee says he went to only three. Daisey claimed the guards at Foxconn had guns, but Lee says they didn’t. Apparently, Daisey exaggerated or fabricated the fact that he saw some workers from the iPhone assembly line who were 12, 13 and 14 years old. In his original story it was sounded like this was a major issue, but now he claims “there weren’t very many as a proportion of the total group. I talked to more than 100 people I met 5 or 6 that were underage.” His translator, however, claims they didn’t meet even one worker who was underage. “Maybe we met a girl who looked like she was 13 years old,” she said, adding that in the ten years she’s visited factories in Shenzhen, she’s hardly ever seen underage workers.
Another melodramatic moment in Daisey’s story was his meeting with workers who were exposed to N-hexane, an iPhone screen cleaner that is also a potent neurotoxin. and as a result their hands shake uncontrollably and “most of them…can’t even pick up a glass.” This anecdote turned out to be a fabrication. The truth is that workers at an Apple supplier were poisoned because of exposure to N-hexane two years ago, but Daisey actually didn’t meet any of them. Daisey admitted to his deception, explaining that he fabricated this part because “I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about.”
As you can see Daisey didn’t make up any major issue at Foxconn and other Apple suppliers in China, except maybe the underage workers. His exaggerations are relatively minor (cameras inside of workers’ dorm rooms while they’re really in the hallways for example), and he uses stories that actually happened like the N-hexane poisoning when he fabricates details. Yet, these little lies are a big deal because they create a melodramatic story that is being told by a talented storyteller, and this combination made a difference for many people. When you think about it, Daisey didn’t provide any new information – everything he talks about was well known and previously documented – actually Apple is a major source for many of these details.
Yet, the added value that Daisey provided was the personal touch. By telling the story of Apple’s suppliers from his personal point of view, based on his personal trip to China, he made the issue relevant to many people who didn’t really care too much about it before. Apple’s supply chain was just like climate change, poverty or hunger – a problem out there that most people don’t see as relevant to their life. And then came Daisey and connected the dots for them, making it as relevant as it can be.
Daisey’s personalized story created something people could relate to, and together with an ongoing coverage on the New York Times, it created a tipping point. Suddenly the public was showing a growing interest in Apple’s supply chain with two online petitions reaching 250,000 signatures and dozens of demonstrators in front of Apple stores. This uproar pressured Apple to ask eventually the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct special voluntary audits of Apple’s suppliers, including the Foxconn factories in China.
So is the fact that Apple finally agreed to a third-party audit of the working conditions in its supply chain makes Daisey’s fabrications forgivable? I don’t think so. Although he played an important role in creating a tipping point, the end doesn’t justify the means. If we want Apple to abide higher moral standards, we should definitely expect its critics to abide them as well. After all, as Daisey himself put it last Friday: “the truth always matters… I really do believe that stories should be subordinate to the truth.” Well said, but unfortunately not well done.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.