Breaking news: This American Life has retracted its Mike Daisey story because Mike Daisey admitted, in several instances, to fabricating details that were aired on the radio as a fact-checked, vetted non-fiction story.
The transcript of the retraction show is already available. It has a little bit of the feel of the Oprah and James Frey confrontation. Daisey admits to lying to Glass about being there in person for some things that it seems clear he only read about in news accounts, or heard about from protesters in Hong Kong.
Does this matter?
Of course it matters because Daisey has successfully gotten people to care about working conditions in factories far away from the U.S. Daisey told a story in which he personally witnessed particular injustices. And in part because of Daisey’s work, Apple is now employing an outside auditor, and there is a movement pushing for improved working conditions for factory workers overseas. Daisey was even willing to argue with Paul Krugman that sweat shops don’t have to employ the tactics they do in order to make money or to sell cheap products. Daisey argues that labor conditions changed in the U.S. primarily because we decided that it was inhumane for people to work under certain physical conditions. And then we exported these same jobs overseas without exporting any of the labor protections that went with them.
I anticipate a pile-on from traditional media. Glass, from the transcript, does not seem happy about any of this. Could Mike Daisey have gotten people to care about working conditions in Shenzhen, China while still telling a factually true story? The trouble is that we won’t ever know now. And yet, there’s something strange about this following on the heels of the Kony 2012 pile-on. Although Kony 2012 is factually true, detractors point out how it over-simplifies the story while creating a false expectation that justice can be rapidly achieved.
This is an interesting moment for journalism. And I find myself pulled between old ways of thinking and new ones. Traditional journalism stories have not had the reach that Jason Russell or Mike Daisey have had—to get people to care about injustices in factories, or in war-torn Uganda. By simplifying the narrative, and, above all, making the narrative deeply personal, both men have reached huge and emotionally receptive audiences. They have done this despite, or possibly even in small part, because of, the journalistic shortcomings of their story-telling methods.
The old-time labor agitators like Elizabeth Hurley Flynn and the Wobblies might have seen Mike Daisey and Jason Russell as heroes. The left wasn’t always straight-laced about the facts when it came to journalism. Sensationalism has always sold more copies. Charles Dickens employed tactics more emotionally along the lines of James O’Keefe than Walter Cronkite in describing the living conditions of people in nineteenth century London. Notably, of course, Dickens was also a fiction writer. And for Dickens, poverty was deeply and passionately a personal subject. At twelve he was sent to work 10 hour days in a shoe blacking factory, an experience he never forgot or forgave. Although, ironically, Dickens never told the non-fiction truth of his own childhood during his lifetime, preferring not to describe the time he spent in a factory, because he believed, probably correctly, that it would make people in class stratified Victorian England think less of him.
I’ve been thinking about Mike Daisey since his story first aired. I’ve been thinking about it because I, too, have had a deeply personal experience with harsh working conditions. And I haven’t found much of an audience for my story.But Daisey’s story gave me hope that maybe wider audiences do or can care.
I’m looking at the transcript of Ira Glass and here is where I differ with Ira. He writes (on page 21 of the transcript) that there are sort of two buckets when it comes to working conditions in factories. He says that one bucket is harsh working conditions. And the other is safety and life-threatening issues. Regarding the first, though, he writes, “I think that China is a little bit different and that the expectations, particularly as a developing nation of workers, are a little bit different. I don’t think holding them to American standards is precisely the right way to look at the situation.” (21)
This paragraph frustrates me. Dickens, at twelve years old, worked ten hour days in factories. Dickens was not an American. And Dickens was so embittered by this experience that he became the author of David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, etc. Dickens’ working conditions were easier than those at Foxconn. A ten-hour day would be small potatoes for those who working two 12-hour shifts, back-to-back.
Is it that capitalism itself rests on the twin pillars of racism and/or classism? The way that Glass is arguing that expectations are different if you’re Chinese, people said the same thing about the lower classes an immigrants when they did this work in the U.S. in the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries. As a way of rationalizing harsh factory conditions, in recent histories, sweatshops have been compared favorably to agriculture. As Krugman, in his famous 1999 defense of sweatshops, points out, poverty in agriculture can be just as searing. It’s just less visible.
And yet, what Charles Dickens knew and what Mike Daisey knows, and what I believe, is that human bodies are human bodies. In the age of social media and relatively easy travel, it gets harder and harder to pretend otherwise. And although there may have been farmers that have worked 24 or more continuous hours, it does not seem like part of the natural, historical rhythm or norm of farming life. What takes place in factories, on the other hand, isn’t limited, the way farming is, by daylight, weather, or nature. In fact, much of the deep poverty of farmers is a relatively recent event in human history. Mass production of food has created greater poverty among farmers. So the comparison of factory sweatshops to the poverty of agriculture doesn’t quite work.
The arguments in favor of sweatshops say that this is the way that nations build wealth. And I’m not exactly disputing this. But I’m not a strict materialist either. Or, the question of money is not the only question that I want to ask when considering factory labor. Elizabeth Hurley Flynn and others have argued for “bread and roses.” A group named Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior has noted that workers have said they have been coerced into doing continuous shifts, which means 2 12-hour shifts in a row. Many Foxconn jobs require standing or sitting in backless chairs—why do electronics factories require factory workers to suffer this much physical discomfort or pain if they don’t, strictly speaking, need to?
Glass points out that for $65 (or as little as $10) more, workers could work under U.S. labor conditions and wages. Labor costs are incredibly low when it comes to electronics. So why would factories require 24 hour shifts?
I also disagree with Glass that you can ever separate bucket one of harsh working conditions from bucket two, or basic safety. The sinking of the Costa Concordia brings this to mind. When workers are physically exhausted, dangerous or even life-threatening accidents happen more frequently. When I worked on a cruise ship in Mexico, I was surprised that only five people were required to do all the fine dining service and all of the room cleaning service for 102 passengers. And this was an American-flagged ship. One afternoon during a safety drill one of the ship’s mates pointed out to me that between all of us at the table, we has probably all had an average of around 3 hours of sleep. I know an engineer who worked as many as 20 hour days or more several days a week because the ships were run with old parts that had to be constantly repaired.
The American and British labor agitators who fought for 12 and 8-hour workdays weren’t just trying to piss off factory owners. They were fighting for the physical and mental integrity of people who didn’t have a lot of choice other than to take on very difficult work.
It’s frustrating that Daisey lied to Ira Glass. It’s also frustrating that Daisey doesn’t seem to acknowledge how misleading people can hurt the very cause he’s fighting for. I sympathize with Daisey’s desire to make an audience care. I just hope his audience still cares, when all the facts are laid out on the table.