Arik Hesseldahl

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Lying Apple Gadfly Mike Daisey Still Doesn’t Get It

“… story should always be subordinate to the truth, and I still believe that. Sometimes I fall short of that goal, but I will never stop trying to achieve it.”

Boy, oh boy, is Mike Daisey confused.

After a weekend of savage pounding by the media, Daisey, the opportunistic fabulist who was caught lying to one of the most respected radio documentarians in the history of broadcasting, reemerged in public today. In his latest attempt to mitigate the damage done to his reputation, he appears to compare himself to Mark Twain, opening his latest blog post by quoting — his words — another famous monologuist: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Instead he seems to be borrowing from Phineas T. Barnum, the great American showman who is often credited — perhaps apocryphally — with saying “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”

I couldn’t tell you how ticket sales to Daisey’s show have been affected by the ensuing controversy and, frankly, I don’t care. I know that Daisey addressed it in opening comments before his performance of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” on the night of March 17 in New York.

In summary, his defense is that his work is theater based on a body of facts that are largely true, and though they shouldn’t have been aired as factual on “This American Life,” he stands by it as theatrical work. Never mind that he insisted, not once, but repeatedly according to one account, that the words “This is a work of non-fiction,” be printed on his show’s Playbills. (For an example see page 3 of this PDF.)

But the money quotes that give the deepest insight into his state of mind are these:

“Especially galling is how many are gleefully eager to dance on my grave expressly so they can return to ignoring everything about the circumstances under which their devices are made. Given the tone, you would think I had fabulated an elaborate hoax, filled with astonishing horrors that no one had ever seen before. …

“If people want to use me as an excuse to return to denialism about the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world, they are doing that to themselves.”

Right. Mike Daisey, a confessed liar who parlayed his appearance on “This American Life” into a months-long string of media appearances on CBS, MSNBC, HBO and PBS — which helped raise his public visibility, built buzz and goosed ticket sales — thinks he can retake the moral high ground?

The only benefactor of all this attention certainly hasn’t been Chinese workers, but Daisey himself. Some 70,000 people have seen his show in 18 cities, and tickets in New York have been going for $75 to $85.

Worse, he continues to believe it is he alone who has been shining a light on the problems that have emerged over the years with Apple’s manufacturing arrangements in China and around the world. “Given the tenor of the condemnation, you would think I had concocted an elaborate, fanciful universe filled with furnaces in which babies are burned to make iPhone components …”

Sorry, Mike, but the discussion about Apple, Foxconn and its employees was going on well before you elbowed your way onto the scene.

For openers, at the D8 conference in 2010, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg asked Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs about the situation at Foxconn, in the wake of a string of suicides.

That same year — indeed, only weeks after nine suicides by Foxconn employees — Bloomberg Businessweek’s Fredrik Balfour conducted a three-hour interview with Foxconn CEO Terry Gou, and also several unsupervised interviews with Foxconn workers, for a story featured on the magazine’s cover. The Atlantic Monthly considered Foxconn in the wider context of the rise of China as a leading economic power. The BBC looked at Foxconn after the suicides. Indeed, there had been a great deal of attention paid to matters related to Apple, Foxconn and workers in China, well before the days of Daisey. Who does he feel has not been talking about this?

In fact, let us not leave Apple itself out of that conversation. The way Daisey tells it, you might assume that the electronics giant is sweeping its dirty laundry under the nearest rug.

This is not the case. Awakened to allegations that emerged in 2006 of worker abuses and bad conditions at a Foxconn plant in Longhua — in a British tabloid newspaper, no less — Apple started issuing an annual document it calls its “Supplier Responsibility Progress Report.” The latest one, from 2012, is here (PDF). Reports are available from 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007.

These reports hardly let Apple off the hook. Rather, they document progress made, as well as progress yet to be made. Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted to The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that a priority for 2012 is to reduce the number of hours that employees at Foxconn and other companies work. It is, as you can see by Apple’s own admission, the most difficult of its China labor issues to solve.

Hard as this is to believe, employees often want to work long hours — and to earn the overtime pay that comes with them. In being too aggressive, they run afoul of Apple’s demand that no one work more than 60 hours a week, six days a week. And keeping accurate records that prevent employees from overworking themselves is proving difficult. If you visited Foxconn, Apple’s own disclosures suggest, you would probably have no trouble finding someone who recently worked more than 60 hours in a week.

What you would have trouble finding are the underage workers that Daisey said — in a now-debunked statement from his stage show and radio appearances — were so plentiful. Apple’s 229 audits found none of those at the final-assembly plants owned by Foxconn and others, and found only five active and 13 historical cases of underage workers at other facilities it does business with.

You would also have trouble finding people poisoned by n-hexane. As Apple documents in its 2011 report, a poisoning incident did happen, and when it did, Apple ordered the factory in question to stop using the chemical, the use of which I understand, is already a violation of Chinese law. Most of the 137 people who were poisoned had returned to work by the time the report was published. One plant using the chemical was shut down entirely by local authorities.

Read any of these reports by Apple, and you’ll find not the PR-sanitized language you might expect, but instead a rather unvarnished assessment of a company trying to come to grips with the human costs of a deeply complex industrial operation. Each report, which Apple releases voluntarily generates a new round of negative press coverage. Meanwhile, China is, despite its size, still a developing nation, and it will be some time before workplace standards there come close to resembling what we take for granted in the U.S. It is an evolving situation, one that will improve over time.

And while I readily admit that consumers and activists should continue to pressure and engage Apple on the subject of workers’ safety and rights, in China and in the other countries where it does business, it rarely gets any credit for the progress it has made and the leadership it has shown.

On that note, I think the discussion on the matter has been a healthy and engaging one for the better part of a decade. Contrary to his own inflated sense of self-importance, Mike Daisey has added nothing of value to it, and should consider shutting up.

I said as much on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” yesterday, and have embedded the video below:

CNN Reliable Sources March 18 2012 from Arik Hesseldahl on Vimeo.

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