Apple and the Daisey affair

March 18, 2012, 12:34 PM UTC

Why did the company keep its silence, when it knew a year ago what we know now? 

Mike Daisey began performing his off-Broadway monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” in January 2011. The show, which cast a harsh light on the working conditions in the Chinese factories that produce nearly half of the world’s electronic devices, was presented as fact — a description of what Daisey saw first hand during a visit to China in May and June of 2010.

We now know, thanks to follow-up reporting by Rob Schmitz at American Public Media’s Marketplace, that Daisey’s monologue — as he reluctantly admits — was a piece of theater, not a factual report. It was concoction of things he saw, things he read about, things he just made up.

Daisey lied to Ira Glass, who on Friday retracted a long excerpt of Daisey’s show that ran on This American Life in January. He lied to me last year when he stood by his reporting and told me — to my face — that he saw Foxconn guards carrying guns and met workers at the gates of the iPhone assembly plant as young, even, as 11 years old.

Glass confronted Daisey in an hour-long This American Life episode that aired on Saturday. It’s compelling radio. There’s a transcript here.

Executives at Apple (AAPL), who spend a lot of time in Chinese factories, knew that Daisey was passing fiction off as fact. And yet for more than a year — while Daisey performed his monologue in cities around country, spoke to reporters, wrote editorials, launched petitions and letter-writing campaigns — the company kept its silence. (At least on the record. See update below.)

It was an extraordinary feat of public relations forbearance.

Why didn’t Apple blow the whistle on Daisey — loudly and publicly — a year ago? I can think of two reasons.

1. The company didn’t want to give him an even broader stage by engaging with him in a public debate. They knew that if the world’s most valuable public company attacked a one-man show it would draw even more attention to Daisey and his message and tend to elevate him in the public’s eye to their level. (Note that it was only after the New York Times — a national newspaper — did its series on Apple that CEO Tim Cook spoke out.)

2. Apple knew that the issues Daisey described were real. Working conditions in Chinese factories are harsh by Western standards. Apple’s overtime rules are routinely ignored. Workers have been poisoned by N-hexane. Workers have been killed by dust explosions.

One of the best things about This American Life‘s follow-up broadcast is that after Ira Glass confronts Daisey on the air — the silence as Daisey feels his credibility evaporating is painful — Glass returns the underlying issues in an interview with the New York Times‘ Charles Duhigg:

Ira Glass: But to get to the normative question that’s kind of underlying all the
reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when
we hear this is like, “Wait, should I feel bad about this?” As somebody who owns
these products, should I feel bad? And I don’t know that I feel so bad when, when
I hear this.
Charles Duhigg: So it’s not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not,
right? I’m a reporter for the New York Times, my job is to find facts and
essentially let you make a decision on your own. Let me, let me pose the
argument that people have posed to me about why you should feel bad, and you
can make of it what you will.
And that argument is there were times in this nation when we had harsh working
conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that
was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working
conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again.
And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life,
which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to
another nation.
So should you feel bad that someone is working 12 to 24 hours a day in order to
produce the iPhone that you’re carrying in your pocket—
Ira Glass: Well, now like, when you say it like that, suddenly I feel bad again, but
okay, yeah. [laughter]
Charles Duhigg: I don’t know whether you should feel bad, right? I mean—
Ira Glass: But, but finish your thought.
Charles Duhigg: Should you feel bad about that? I don’t know, that’s for you to
judge, but I think the the way to pose that question is… do you feel comfortable
knowing that iPhones and iPads and, and other products could be manufactured in
less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions and perpetuate because of an
economy that you are supporting with your dollars.
Ira Glass: Right. I am the direct beneficiary of those harsh conditions.
Charles Duhigg: You’re not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the
reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different
conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections
that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.
Ira Glass: Charles Duhigg. You can find the series he did with David Barboza
about Apple in China at the New York Times website. It’s called “The

UPDATE: It turns out that Apple public relations staffers did talk to reporters — always off the record — about Mike Daisey, pointing out inaccuracies in his account and suggesting that it was extremely unlikely that one man could have seen as much as Daisey claimed he saw in one trip to China. Among the journalists Apple tried to dissuade from doing the Daisey story were Ira Glass and This American Life producer Brian Reed.