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"This American Life Apple" kerfuffle is nonsense

Mike Daisey

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Oh, dearie dear, the public radio show "This American Life" got tripped by the fiction/journalism divide and had to retract one of its most popular stories --  a selection from the one-man play "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." Apparently, author and performer Mike Daisey played fast and loose with admittedly important assertions.

Some reporters in China who had heard Daisey's piece on This American Life thought some of the details sounded off, such as his claims about gun-toting guards at Foxconn and employees admitting to being 12 and 13 years old. But for all the restrained relief that seems to be pouring forth from the pro-Apple (AAPL) set, the entire affair is ridiculous for the following reasons.

Fake facts are nothing new

Journalists, publications, and broadcasters love a good story. This American Life undoubtedly got carried away when the producers of the show thought they had a hot tale that shed light on Apple's labor problems. But, for heaven's sake, there were so many clues that something was awry with Daisey's reporting that alarm bells should have been ringing.

The truly sad thing is the shock -- shock! -- that so many in the journalistic community have shown. As if we haven't seen reporters kowtowing to government, business tycoons, and celebrities, buying into whatever fabrications they make. I've personally seen editors drastically change stories to mollify advertisers and reporters at the most prestigious newspapers in the country practically take dictation from officials, even though it was fabricated as thoroughly as Daisey's.

Or look at the pre-Internet crash coverage of Enron or the "reporting" on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction during the Bush administration. There are too many credulous people passing on what they hear for whatever personal or professional reasons they have. Why have a higher standard for what a playwright says than for reporters who are supposed to skeptically report and not just believe what they hear?

Apple really does have problems

With all the "numerous fabrications" in the Daisey piece, it's not as if bad conditions, employment of minors, and even N-hexane poisoning never happened at factories doing work for Apple. Did they happen the way that Daisey claimed? No. Did they happen? Yes. Apple itself has documented such problems.

So do Chinese factories continue to have problems? Absolutely. Conversely, as I've noted more than once over the last few years, Apple probably focuses more attention and resources on labor issues in outsourced factories than many of its competitors. High-tech manufacturing is built on conditions that no Western parents would consider desirable or even acceptable for their children.

Salving the wounded conscience

That's that most important point. The West exports the unpleasant and dirty jobs and conditions to other parts of the world. Arguments that a company like giant contract manufacturer Foxconn offers better pay and conditions than many, or even most, factories in China is like excusing raising welts on a child as minor compared to fracturing bones.

Too many people will use This American's retraction to smooth over their momentary discomfort at using products that require harsh working conditions to maintain cheaper prices and corporate margins. But the problems remain -- not just for iPads and iPhones, but also for all those Android devices, many TV sets, radios, GPS units, just about every other electronic wonder of modern life. Daisey's reporting may be phony, but when you look at the bigger picture of most consumer electronics manufacturing, he was right. The biggest shame will be if people use this episode as an excuse to go happily back to dreamland.

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