Mike Daisey’s Apple Lies May Not Have Had the Effect He Intended

Mike Daisey

Earlier this year, This American Life broadcast its most popular episode ever, an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, about labor conditions in Apple’s supply-chain factories. Today, in a letter posted on the website of Chicago Public Media, which produces the show, host Ira Glass announced that TAL was retracting the story, citing numerous fabrications in Daisey’s account, and the breakdown of the program’s fact-checking process which allowed the episode to make it to the air. While there will be numerous debates about what happened at This American Life and the nature of non-fiction writing, there’s another significant question at stake: did Daisey’s report actually do what he’d claimed was his goal and move people to action?

It’s not that the misdeeds of managers at FoxConn were a secret before Daisey’s story aired. Fantastic reporting on the subject has been done prior by Wired, which chronicled a rash of suicides at a factory run by Foxconn, a key member of Apple’s supply chain, and by the New York Times since, chronicling abuses at a number of Apple suppliers. But Daisey’s monologue stirred up a particular debate. A petition inspired by the broadcast attracted 250,000 online signatures in a matter of days; Daisey became a cable news regular, and the story hot talking-head fodder; and as the wave of stories crested, Apple itself invited independent auditors onto its assembly lines and pressured its primary manufacturer to increase wages in response to growing public outrage. For activists who have been trying for years to pressure technology companies into embracing stricter labor standards in much the same way they did the garment industry, this felt like a moment.

But for all of the attention that Apple’s toxic partnership with FoxConn received in the last few months, Apple’s stock climbed above $600 a share this week. Their latest product is expected to break more sales records. And by some measures Apple is now the world’s largest corporation. Consumers may have been moved to sign petitions, but not, apparently, to change their purchasing decisions. Daisey claims he was motivated to fabrication by a desire to speak for vulnerable Chinese workers, and to connect deeply with American listeners. But the effect of his work may not have been as deep as he believed it to be. What we need is honest accounts of what Apple does to the workers it its supply chain. Stories that are true, rather than simply moving, are the only possible starting place for a campaign to hold Apple—and ourselves—truly accountable for the conditions that the company and we as consumers benefit from.