A while ago the outstanding NPR radio show This American Life ran an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in which Daisey talks about a trip he made to China where he stood outside the Foxconn factory where Apple, Dell, and other companies have their devices assembled. In the show he talks about interviewing various workers (through an interpreter) about conditions in the plant. I heard the show in its entirety and while I took issue with a few of Daisey’s ideas, I thought it was an excellent theatrical performance.
As many reading this will know, Daisey wasn’t the first to note that conditions at Foxconn’s factories weren’t up to American standards, The New York Times and many other news sources have been reporting on this story for a while. Daisey jumped on a bandwagon that was already moving.
Rob Schmitz, a reporter for the radio show Marketplace, met with Daisey’s interpreter in China learned that Daisey made up various pieces of his experience at the Foxconn factory for the sake of his theatrical performance. Daisey now freely admits this.
“What makes this a little complicated is that the things Daisey lied about seeing are things that have actually happened in China: Workers making Apple products have been poisoned by Hexane. Apple’s own audits show the company has caught underage workers at a handful of its suppliers. These things are rare, but together, they form an easy-to-understand narrative about Apple.”
What I took issue with and continue to take issue with is this:
Apple outsources assembly of their products to a Chinese (Taiwanese) company, Foxconn. Apple is one of many electronics companies that do this. What bothered me about Daisy’s monologue was the fact that he seemed to attempt to mislead listeners into thinking that the assembly plants are Apple’s factories. They are not. Daisey is not alone in this: much reporting on this story has left out the fact that Foxconn is not owned by Apple, they are one of many Apple suppliers. Ira Glass makes this honest but misleading mistake in introducing the Retraction story linked to above.
Of course, Apple does enough business with Foxconn so that it can exert some pressure on the supplier to improve working conditions and in fact, Apple has done and is continuing to do this. I think Tim Cook has done an excellent job of doing the right thing in light of these real labor issues in China. But China is a developing country and in my opinion there’s a limit on holding them to American labor standards that have taken us two hundred years to evolve.
Since this has hit the internet, Daisey is being raked over the coals by almost everyone and will no doubt be virtually lynched by tomorrow. However, as you can read in the quote above, many of the things he said about Foxconn’s treatment of it’s workers were correct. The thing that was incorrect is that he heard workers say it. He built a compelling theatrical monologue out of an amalgam of information, remixed into a form that would leverage its impact.
Had Mike Daisey constructed a monologue called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Dick Cheney and made up interviews based on credible reporting by Frontline of how the Iraq war started, my guess is there would be a bit less (if any) backlash.