Opinion

The Great Debate

Mike Daisey and our attention embellishment disorder

Last night at Georgetown University, I stood up and applauded Mike Daisey after he was done speaking about why he lied. As a journalist, you are not supposed to stand up and applaud the people you’re covering, especially people who just admitted to lying about key details about workers they had (or hadn’t) met in China. However, Daisey hit on a fundamental truth about labor journalism in last night’s talk at Georgetown. He claimed he stretched the truth about his visit to a Foxconn factory in China as part of his play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (which later became This Americans Life’s most downloaded episode) to dramatize a story of labor abuse that had largely been ignored. As a labor reporter who has often seen stories I have written about brutal working conditions ignored, I sympathized with Daisey and his broader critique of the problems of labor journalism.

By embellishing, Daisey did what an activist — not a journalist — does. He got too emotional in his pursuit of trying to take on a big corporation, so he stretched the truth. This doesn’t make it right, but it does make it more effective. And so it forces us to ask very deep questions about the level of sensationalism required beyond the standard mistreatment of workers to get the media to finally pay attention to labor stories.

Covering strikes and lockouts, I have seen workers do the same thing: stretch the truth because they wanted to get at the company.

In 2010, some locked-out Honeywell uranium workers claimed that the scabs taking their place at the plant could cause a nuclear explosion. Turns out they were wrong: The uranium level was too low to cause any explosion. But the uranium and other chemicals in the plant were toxic enough that, if released, they could poison the nearby air and river, which on one occasion during the lockout they did. By claiming a nuclear explosion could be caused, the workers were trying to draw attention to a series of accidents caused by scab labor that the media had largely ignored. They stretched the truth because they were so desperate to get attention to a situation that they were willing to lie a little to do it.

On Monday night at Georgetown, Daisey referred to previous reports about workers committing suicide at Foxconn factories in protest of poor working conditions. “What was most incredible to me was watching the story die,” he said. Seeing the story die was what motivated him to paint such a powerful narrative with his play and in some cases lie about what he saw. “The show was built as a virus. It got out there, and then the Times picked it up, thank God.” (It’s unclear if Daisey’s work caused the New York Times investigation into Apple’s supply chain, as Daisey implies.)

from MediaFile:

A new iPad, the same iEthics

Several days after the launch of the new iPad 3, HD, or whatever it’s called, we all know about it’s blazing 4G capabilities, including its ability to be a hotspot, carrier permitting, of course. We know about its Retina display, which makes the painful, insufferable scourge of image pixelization a thing of the past. We know about Infinity Blade. We know that to pack all this in, Apple’s designers had to let out the new iPad’s aluminum waist to accommodate some unfortunate but really quite microscopic weight gain. We know the iPad’s battery life is still amazing, and its price point is altogether unchanged. We know Apple has adopted a cunning new strategy of putting the previous-generation iPad, as it did with the iPhone 4, on a sort of permanent sale, to scoop up the low end of the high-end market. (We wonder if this was Steve Jobs’s last decree or Tim Cook’s first.) We know a lot about the iPad.

But what we don’t know: How many of Foxconn’s nearly 100,000 employees will harm themselves, intentionally or inadvertently -- or their families or loved ones -- in the manufacture of it? And will the developed world ever acknowledge the dark side of these truly transformative technologies, like the iPad, or will we continue to tell ourselves fables to explain away the havoc our addictions wreak on the developing world? Is a device really magic if to pull a rabbit out of a hat, you have to kill a disappearing dove?

Those of us who have been technology journalists have long been subjected to the cult of Steve Jobs’s Apple, and those of us who are fans of technology are mostly well aware of the stark elegance and extreme usability -- even the words seem inadequate -- that come with using, let alone experiencing, Apple products. But the rumblings about Apple’s manufacturing processes started years ago, and the recent New York Times series on the ignobility of Foxconn as an employer blew a hole in the side of that particular ship of willful ignorance. Few Apple consumers can claim not to understand the human sacrifice behind their glowing screens -- the death, diseases, exhaustion, mental and emotional stress, and superhuman expectations placed upon the workers who bring these magic devices to life. It’s not just in the papers -- Mike Daisey’s This American Life podcast exposé on Foxconn and Apple is a mere click away, and most mainstream media have given at least passing coverage to the working conditions reflected in the Gorilla Glass on our devices.

How Apple, and everyone, can solve the sweatshop problem

Every few years brings us another sweatshop offender. In the 1990s it was Disney, and then Nike and Gap. The 2000s brought us Wal-Mart. The past few weeks Apple has been in the crosshairs.

One question is of paramount importance: How can we use this current public conversation to finally drive a different outcome? What must companies do so that 15 years after Kathie Lee Gifford tearfully became the first sweatshop poster child, workers who make and grow products for global consumers are paid fairly, protected from danger and free to advocate for themselves without fear of reprisal?

The good news is that these years of effort have created robust experience from which to identify what has gone wrong. The fundamental driver of “sweatshops” is that multinationals do not place value on good working conditions in their supply chains. This does not mean that a company doesn’t care about how those workers are treated, or that the company intends to act unethically or exploitatively. To the contrary, big companies require good conditions through vendor standards and “codes of conduct.” They build corporate responsibility departments whose staff have budgets to reduce the risk of bad working conditions at supplier factories and farms. But their work is much like the arcade game Whac-A-Mole: A problem arises in one factory that they take steps to fix, while other problems fester and ultimately break through the surface elsewhere.

The Book of Jobs

Steve Jobs smelled so foul that none of his co-workers at Atari in the seventies would work with him. Entreating him to shower was usually futile; he’d inevitably claim that his strict vegan diet had rid him of body odor, thus absolving him of the need for standard hygiene habits. Later, friends would theorize that he had been exercising what would prove a limitless capacity for sustained and gratuitous lying that came to be nicknamed the “reality distortion field.”

Jobs originally learned the “reality distortion field” from Bob Friedland, an enterprising hippie he met by chance one day when he returned early to his dorm room and found Friedland having sex with Jobs’ girlfriend. Bob was four years older than Steve, and had taken two years off to serve a prison sentence for LSD trafficking. Like Steve, Bob would eventually become a billionaire, just in the mining business. His followers would often invoke his old drug dealer nickname “Toxic Bob.”

Steve Jobs needed no nickname. As the title of his definitive biography reminds, Steve Jobs speaks for itself. His name was his essence, what set him apart even among greats like Einstein and Kissinger, iconic figures with whom he shared a biographer, Walter Isaacson (though not the cheesy, descriptive subheads Isaacson used in his books about the other two subjects).

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