Hard News by Russell Brown


A fiction of unalloyed darkness

Of the many ruminations since Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs -- and, more crucially, the This American Life radio documentary based on it -- was shown to be largely falsified, one of my favourites is this one for the New Yorker, by Evan Osnos.

Osnos is an American reporter in China. He confesses that when he and his peers heard of Daisey's reportage, they thought it sounded "off":

Several places in the narrative sounded fishy to anyone who has spent much time here: 1) the gun-toting guards (maybe, but not at the factories I’ve seen; in China, guns usually belong to soldiers or armored-car drivers); 2) driving down a highway exit that ended with rebar jutting out into thin air (local taxi drivers usually know which exits aren’t finished); 3) meeting workers who said they were twelve and thirteen years old (even if they were underage, they were probably too smart to blab about it in front of the gun-toting guards); 4) workers who were such innocents that they’d never considered what they would change about the factories until Daisey asked them (where do I start?); and, perhaps most of all, 5) his description of going to the factory gates and talking to workers as a radical innovation in journalism. When he told journalists in Hong Kong about his plan, he said in his piece, they replied: “That’s not really how we usually do things in China.”

That was a howler. Going to the factory gates is exactly what reporters do in China. But when I heard it, a part of me was embarrassed by the prospect that maybe Daisey had found stuff that we in China had not. Lots of people had reported over the years on underage workers and harsh conditions, but very often the stories require complicated qualifications, debates about the efforts that factories take to guard against hiring underage workers (and—more qualifications—about the ones who slip through anyway). But, I concluded, weird things happen in China all the time.

Daisey's undoing, he concludes, was that "he thought that China was so exotic and far away that it was uncheckable":

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 ... His story was initially a success because it satisfied so many of our casual assumptions about China and Apple. On some level, anybody who thinks it through has suspected that iPhone prices are a bit too good to be true, and that’s why pressure is building on Apple to do better. In that sense, despite the botched show and Daisey’s lies, his fiction has a wisp of truth to it: They’re making your crap that way today. Well, no, but sort of.

And it's the "sort of" that matters. Daisey's fiction of unalloyed darkness so thoroughly discounted the possibility that anything was being done that it virtually precluded the idea that anything could be done. He collected various shocking incidents and presented them as if bearing witness. The implication was that these harms were so commonplace that some guy in a Hawaiian shirt could just rock up, find them -- and alert the poor, unknowing victims to their own predicament.

Did Daisey's work do the world a service by helping get worker safety at the Chinese factories that supply Apple and many other companies into the headlines. Yes. But was an insult to real journalists who had spent years investigating and reporting these stories in their real complexity. And  it also served the conceits of its American audience.

Rob Schmidt, the China correspondent for another public radio programme, Marketplace, debunked Daisey's stories by tracking down his translator (Daisey insisted she couldn't be found), who told him that most of Daisey's claims were fabricated. The story here is well worth reading. Schmidt concludes:

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 (PDF) 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.

“People like a very simple narrative,” said Adam Minter, a columnist for Bloomberg who’s spent years visiting more than 150 Chinese factories. He’s writing a book about the scrap recycling industry.

He says the reality of factory conditions in China is complicated—working at Foxconn can be grueling, but most workers will tell you they’re happy to have the job. He says Daisey’s become a media darling because he’s used an emotional performance to focus on a much simpler message:

“Foxconn bad. iPhone bad. Sign a petition. Now you’re good,” Minter says. “That’s a great simple message and it’s going to resonate with a public radio listener. It’s going to resonate with the New York Times reader. And I think that’s one of the reasons he’s had so much traction.”

In a tremendous thinkpiece, Reuters' Felix Salmon puts it even better via a quote from his colleague, Rebecca Hamilton, author of Fighting for Darfur:

To build a mass movement quickly, it helps to have an over-simplified, emotive narrative with a single demand. It also helps to tells people that by doing easy tasks – sharing a link on Facebook, buying a bracelet — they can save lives. Central to the formula is that the agency of local actors gets downplayed to hype up the importance of action by outsiders. But all those ingredients inevitably lead to eventual failure when the simple solutions can’t fix the complex reality. The movement walks away, disillusioned. And in the meantime untold resources have been expended on solutions that have been out of step with what local activists need.

"The fact is," Salmon writes, "that the chief beneficiary of the success of Daisey’s monologue has been Mike Daisey, much more than any group of factory workers or underground trades unionists in China."

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