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
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
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
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.