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Analyst Insights Much Ado about Apple: Ira Glass vs. Mike Daisey, and the false polarity between truth and drama
Mar 16, 2012 – Barry Zellen

There's been quite a kerfuffle in the press about Apple this weekend. This time it's not social media activists waging their crusade against Apple for outsourcing manufacturing to China like everyone else. It's about popular public radio icon Ira Glass, host of This American Life, and his heartfelt retraction this weekend of a piece profiling the popular storyteller, Mike Daisey, and his long-running one-man off-Broadway show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which perhaps more than anything else helped to catalyze the recent grassroots movement to demand Apple start to think different about its ethics.

The first casualty here is the unnecessary conflation of truth and drama, fact and fiction. Ira says he's sorry he let his audience hear some powerful drama because it did not meet the much over-hyped yet all-too-often under-met standards of professional journalism -- which is odd since his show is and has been all about radio drama and breaking free of the traditional restraints of professional journalism. One wonders if perhaps Apple, in its continuing evolution from upstart innovator to all-powerful assimilating Borg hive, has been putting the screws on Ira, in the form of tersely worded cease-and-desist letters on legal letterhead? Or that somehow Hell has frozen over, and NPR has decided that MarketWatch should be its role model.

We're sorry to see Ira fold.

A good story is, well, a good story and whenever you put an actor on the radio you've got to expect him to do what he does naturally and well: to act. We think Mike Daisey's dramatic storytelling does a world of good -- as much as Ira's own dramatic storytelling. There's no need here for apologies and retractions -- just a little more old fashioned common sense.

Daisey's not an analyst or journalist or IT technogeek; that is his strength, and all the fuss is an unnecessary distraction. Daisey has helped ask important questions that journalists for too long were all too keen to ignore. That is something Daisey should be proud of. The way the media has bowed down before Apple, becoming its PR arm, perpetuating its cult-like status, is reminiscent of the way the media similarly bowed down before the Bush White House during the run up to the Gulf War, never asking questions, always swallowing the company line.

That we have to turn to off-Broadway theatricals to get at the truth of the matter is indeed problematic for a society that seems too willing to let its fourth estate be spoon fed morsels of spin by PR flunkies and pass it off as journalism; but to now see Ira pointing his holier-than-thou finger of truth at Daisey and blogging so publicly "j'accuse!", when Daisey's efforts were a major and dynamic catalyst in unearthing a long-buried truth, seems to be missing the point.

For more details on this sordid mess of recriminations and denials:

NYT: ‘This American Life’ Retracts Episode on Apple’s Suppliers in China, Brian Stelter, March 16, 2012: The weekly public radio program “This American Life” said on Friday that it was retracting a critical report about Apple’s suppliers in China because the storyteller, Mike Daisey, had embellished details in the narrative. The program’s host, Ira Glass, said in a statement that Mr. Daisey “lied” to him and to Brian Reed, a producer of the program, about details related to injured workers Mr. Daisey had described a meeting at Foxconn, a factory in China where Apple products are made.

Ira Glass, Retracting 'Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,' This American Life, March 16, 2012: Ira writes: I have difficult news. We've learned that Mike Daisey's story about Apple in China - which we broadcast in January - contained significant fabrications. We're retracting the story because we can’t vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey's acclaimed one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products. The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week's episode of This American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory." 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.

Mike Daisy's Response, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, March 16, 2012: "This American Life" has raised questions about the adaptation of AGONY/ECSTASY we created for their program. Here is my response: I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out. What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

* * *

Reading between the lines, we note in Ira's apology the following:

  • The response to the original episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” was significant. It quickly became the single most popular podcast in This American Life’s history, with 888,000 downloads (typically the number is 750,000) and 206,000 streams to date. After hearing the broadcast, listener Mark Shields started a petition calling for better working conditions for Apple's Chinese workers, and soon delivered almost a quarter-million signatures to Apple.
  • The same month the episode aired, The New York Times ran a front-page investigative series about Apple's overseas manufacturing, and there were news reports about Foxconn workers threatening group suicide in a protest over their treatment.
  • Faced with all this scrutiny of its manufacturing practices, Apple announced that for the first time it will allow an outside third party to audit working conditions at those factories and – for the first time ever – it released a list of its suppliers.

Did I miss something here? Huge exposure. A mass-movement by American consumers -- a group not traditionally known for its selfless altruism -- to help improve the working conditions of Chinese workers. A front-page expose in the NYT. And Apple's capitulation and agreement to allow a third-party audit, and to release its suppliers so that they can no longer escape scrutiny.

Here's how Daisey put it in his March 7th op-ed, "The Human Cost of that New iPad," in the New York Daily News:

  • Apple will make one of its fabled announcements on Wednesday, and the tech world is buzzing. All of the elements are in place: The Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco has an enigmatic and colorful design stenciled across it, tech journalists are lining up like cattle to gawk, and soon we will all know about the latest version of the iPad, expected to make its debut.
  • There is a problem, however. At the same time as the tech world will celebrate Apple — even post-Steve Jobs Apple, run now by Tim Cook — with waves of hype, we have all just started to reckon with the fact that these devices are made overseas under brutal conditions that have led to documented deaths, chemical poisonings, collapses from exhaustion and more.
  • They are assembled by hand by workers putting in incredible hours, and by Apple’s own metrics, the conditions are in violation of labor laws in both China and the United States.


... Call me old-fashioned, but that's nothing to apologize for - at least not in my book.



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