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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Column: Damage control

I was duped, and if you read my column “1 Infinite Loop” two weeks ago, by proxy, so were you. For that, I am sorry.

I cited Mike Daisey, whose monologue about labor malpractice at Apple’s plant in China was excerpted on NPR’s “This American Life.” A few days after my column was published, Daisey admitted in a special retraction episode that he had not, in fact, spoken to underage workers outside of the Foxconn factory where Apple products are made, as he claimed. Nor had he actually seen hands crippled by the chemical n-hexane, which is used to assemble iPhones. He had only heard of incidents like these. He had lied to the audience of his one-man show, to “This American Life” listeners and to me.

So, I’m offering my own retraction of sorts. But after the fact, I wondered if anything good could come of the scandal. Four weeks later, this is what I found.

Daisey fabricated the characters he claimed he saw on his trip to China, but what he was saying about poor working conditions at Foxconn plants was largely true. Those cases do actually exist — Daisey just didn’t see them for himself.

In fact, reports like Daisey’s made corporate labor abuses such a popular issue that neither Apple nor Foxconn could ignore the pressure from the public to reform their ways. Therein lies the complication. After all the effort to expose Daisey as a liar, the effect that he had intended was realized. His deceiving, but compelling, monologue brought about real change.

Last week, Foxconn announced that it would shorten working hours and increase wages after the Fair Labor Association, a private monitoring group, found that the company was in violation of 43 Chinese laws and regulations. Apple CEO Tim Cook even traveled to China shortly thereafter to see the working conditions firsthand.

It would seem that Mike Daisey’s tall tale did more for labor rights than the truth ever did. Daisey didn’t even seem sorry in his half-hearted on-air apology. He just said that his story was a means to an end: “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard.”

And now that he has been heard, I have questions. What is the role of journalistic integrity and good storytelling in effecting social change? Can journalism and entertainment work together toward a common goal? I’d like to think so. But it’s clear that Mike Daisey has taken it too far. I worry that the actions taken by Foxconn and Apple post-Daiseygate just reinforce the belief that truth can be bent for the sake of storytelling as a means to an end. Oftentimes, in their determination for social change, people are made blind by their “passions.”

I realize that this issue is somewhat irrelevant to technology, but it was just too important to ignore. The case of “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” reflects a larger trend of sensationalism in the media as a vehicle for awareness. I think political attack ads have created a monster that has, unfortunately, transcended politics.

Another example is the viral short film “Kony 2012: The One Thing We Can Agree On” by activist group Invisible Children. The campaign to arrest Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, leader of the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army, was accused of oversimplifying a complex issue. The video has certainly garnered a lot of attention, but the kind of awareness it is raising has come into question. Is this awareness constructive if it was acquired through distorted means? The same could be asked of Daisey’s monologue.

Last week, Mike Daisey offered an apology on his personal blog, which he began with a transcript from a 2011 interview. A host had asked him, “How do you reconcile telling a good story with also trying to get the facts right, and when do you decide what is the more important goal?”

The question was so salient in the context of his situation. I already knew the answer — that a good story is a story built on the truth — and I didn’t need to read on.

If you would like to continue to not talk about technology with NICOLE NGUYEN, contact niknguyen@ucdavis.edu.


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