Mr. Daisey: "I'm going to lie to lots of people."

These days it seems like everyone is eager to pile on Apple, Inc. (AAPL) about its use of cheap Chinese labor to produce its popular gadgets.  Most of the facts about the abuses can be verified in Apple's own yearly supplier review.  Every year it finds a handful of underage workers at its plants.  And last year only about a third of its suppliers were found to comply with its rules regarding employee hours and overtime.

Apple is one of the few companies that maintains such meticulous reporting on its suppliers' misbehavior, but it also enjoys a unique burden of higher scrutiny, thanks to its enviable position as the world's most profitable technology company.  In recent months some -- such as The New York Times -- lashed out at Apple's efforts to curb abuse, which they viewed as insufficient.  Others, like the Fair Labor Association, who Apple recently paid to become a member of -- or ABC's Dateline defended the Cupertino company.  True, there had been terrible tragedies -- employees explosed to n-Hexane, employees who lost their lives in plant explosions due to poor maintenance.  

But overall, the supporters argue that Apple is working hard to improve, and at the same time raising the impoverished Chinese populous out of back-breaking work in the "rice paddies" and into tough -- by America's increasingly pampered standards -- but respectively safer/gentler high-tech assembly jobs.

I. A Blockbuster Tale of Abuse at Apple

One of the toughest critiques on Apple came in the form of Mike Daisey's monologue about his trip to China and incognito tours of Apple-centric factories located in the city of Shenzhen, China.  The writer/actor's wild tale gained national attentioned after Chicago Public Media (CPM) and Public Radio International (PRI) aired a segment of This American Life entitled "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory".

After that radio broadcast to millions, Mr. Daisey became a hot commodity.  Where as past reports had revealed one or two unsavory incidents, Mr. Daisey reportedly encountered nearly everything stated to date, from suffering underage workers, to secret unions.

Suddenly news networks were clamoring for interviews and Mr. Daisey was performing his shocking monologue titled "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" to sold out crowds in New York City.

This American Life recalls one incident writing [PDF]:

[CPM/PRI]...the most dramatic point in Daisey’s monologue – apparently onstage it’s one of the most emotional moments in the show. It comes at this union meeting.

Daisey describes an old man with leathery skin who used to work at foxconn … making metal enclosures for ipads and laptops. … he says the man got his hand caught in a metal press, and that it was now a twisted claw. He says he got no medical attention, and then Foxconn fired him for working too slowly.
[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And when he says this, I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. …. He's never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, "he says it's a kind of magic."

In another part of his monologue Mr. Daisey says:

[CLIP] Mike Daisey: There's a group that's talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It's great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them…can't even pick up a glass.

Now CPM/PRI, who is known for their awarding winning standard of journalism, says they forced Mr. Daisey to a vow that he would abide by journalistic standards.  They also fact checked his story, and given that all the elements were widely reported, they ran with it.  They tried to get in touch with the translator on Mr. Daisey's tour -- in the monologue he referred to her as "Cathy", but in the program he told CPM/PRI that her name was actually Anne and that she was no longer responding to phone calls.  CPM/PRI bought the excuse.

II. Suspicions Arise

However, when Rober Schmitz -- a PRI/CPM Chinese correspondent for the public radio program Marketplace -- heard the program he immediately became suspicious.  Elements of the report didn't stack up.  It was the little details that clued in Mr. Schmitz, who lives in Shanghai, that something foul was afoot.  For example Mr. Daisey claimed in his monologue that security guards at the plant carried guns -- something Mr. Schmitz knew was illegal in China.  In China only the police and army can carry guns in public, under threat of stiff penalties.  

And then there was Mr. Daisey's tale of members of a secret union meeting at Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) coffeehouses.  Was it really feasible for employees who made $15-20 USD a day and worked lengthy hours to be sipping $4 USD lattes.  Things were adding up.

So Mr. Schmitz Google searched for the original name of the translator -- Cathy.  He found a translator in Shenzhen with the anglicized name "Cathy" Lee.  Contacting her, he discovered that indeed she had served as Mr. Daisey's translator on the trip.

But her account was far different from Mr. Daisey's.  Yes, they had toured plants posing as a translator and business person.  But the tour number was 3 plants, versus the dozen plus plants in Mr. Daisey's monologue.

Foxconn workers
Mr. Daisey's shocking account of poor labor conditions at Apple suppliers was heavily fictionalized. [Image Source: South China Weekly]

The guards did not have guns.  Mr. Daisey's guide has no recollection of ever meeting anyone who claimed to have been exposed to n-Hexane or who was "shaking uncontrollably".  To Cathy Lee's knowledge they never even encountered an underage worker.  She said that some workers -- females -- looked younger, but she says that's due to the racial features of the Chinese who Westerners often think make 20-something women look like teens.

And the man with the ruined hand?  They never met him.  Pure "fiction", Cathy Lee says.  

Overall the most important details of the monologue appeared to be exagerrated or outright fabricated.  So a shamed CPM/PRI plotted something they had never done before for the acclaimed This American Life program -- a retraction.

This American Life lead anchor Ira Glass comments:

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors - our friends and colleagues - have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It's trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.

III. Monologue Author: "I'm going to lie to lots of people."

Mr. Daisey agreed to appear in the followup.  In the followup interview he amended some of his numbers to be closer to Cathy's.  But he was insistent that some details Cathy said were fiction were actually based on experience.  For example, he claimed to have talked to a young-looking female factory worker who in English conveyed that she was 13.  Cathy Lee said this is impossible -- he never talked to youthful employees in English and he never left her side.  Further, CPM/PRI notes that it is highly unprobable that a teenage factory worker would know English well enought to convey such thoughts or risk their hard-earned position to talk to a foreign "businessman".

Mike Daisey
Fame American monologist Mike Daisey is now a famed liar for his fictionalized account of Apple's labor conditions, which he portrayed as reality.
[Image Source: Mike Daisey via Now on Broadway]

Mr. Daisey argues his exagerrations were not lies, but necessary efforts (in his mind) to bring attention to important labor issues.  He comments:

Rob Schmitz: So you lied about that. That wasn’t what you saw.

Mike Daisey: I wouldn’t express it that way.

Rob Schmitz: How would you express it?

Mike Daisey: I would say that I wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of my trip. So when I was building the scene of that meeting, I wanted to have the voice of this thing that had been happening that everyone been talking about.

But CPM/PRI does not appear convinced.  It not only has retracted the story with strong apology, it closes on a seemingly damn excerpt from Mr. Daisey's best-selling monologue:

[CPM/PRI]:Cathy says some things from Daisey’s monologue were true: He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. They did pose as business people in the factories they visited. And before they did that, Daisey did have a conversation with her about his plan. She says this conversation probably happened on June 2nd when she first met Daisey.  He told her that he would pretend to be a businessman and he needed her help.  Here’s how he tells the story:

[CLIP] Mike Daisey: And she listens to this, and she says, but you are not a businessman.

And I say, that's true, I am not a businessman.

And she says, and you aren't going to buy their products.

I say, that's true, I'm not going to buy their products.

And she says, you will lie to them.

And I say, yes Cathy, I'm going to lie to lots of people.

(In another moment of his monologue he states, "The moments of our life where we're actually truly honest with another person are so f**king rare, that when they happen we usually end up married to that person."

Mike Daisey is married to Jean-Michele Gregory, a prominent New York City director [source].)

The sad reality is that this report will inevitably set back honest journalists who reported on past Apple labor issues.  One can only hope that in the ensuing reprieve Apple learns from the exposure of these lies, that it sticks to its promises of enforcing continuous supplier improvement.  CPM/PRI deserves some credit -- they may have been accidentally chosen to play the fool, but at least they weren't fooled twice.

An early version of this story incorrectly identified Mr. Daisey's wife, when quoting his monologue.  That reference has been removed.

Sources: This American Life [blog], [transcript], [podcast]

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