Like everyone else, I downloaded and listened to This American Life‘s podcast about Mike Daisey, an entertainer, who had produced a show about workers at Apple suppliers in China. When I listened to it, I didn’t hear anything new. These allegations had been around for some time. What I heard was This American Life giving them weight. They are the ‘gold standard’ in journalism much like Apple is the gold standard in design. In both cases, their brand carries credibility. I can take each at face value and, of course, on this issue they clashed.
As everyone knows, Daisey’s story was a fabrication. The best take is it was a dramatic retelling of the existing allegations. The worst take is obvious. To their credit, This American Life devoted an entire episode to their failings and not only retracted the story but covered precisely why. The whole episode will become a textbook case for journalism for years to come. But what I want to focus on here is, why did This American Life fail?
The line by them is that their fact checking process was flawed in just one way. It was flawed because they did not go far beyond Mike Daisey in checking those facts. In particular, the one person who could verify much of the story — Daisey’s interpreter — could apparently not be located. And how did they know that? Daisey told them so. That was a critical link that could have broken the chain and uncovered all this before the story went out. Somewhat embarrassingly, a simple Google search found the interpreter. (Of course, I had to wonder if that was really the right person but I’ll take the reporters’ words for it.) But it wasn’t the only link that was fragile and This American Life did not spell that out. Let me indicate some others.
First, the reason the issues were uncovered is that journalists who report on China and these suppliers were suspicious. So why didn’t TAL ask any of them beforehand what they thought? Some were at public broadcasting. Were they keeping the scoop secret? What happened there? Had they asked, this would have been taken care of.
Second, in the podcast, Apple refused to comment on the story. But Apple could have been key in verifying some of this. This is a difficult issue given they are surely conflicted but just seeing if a corporation wants to comment is not enough. We do not know how pressed Apple were on this.
Third, Daisey claimed to be a huge Apple fan. This is actually one of the most powerful parts of that story. In the retraction, there is nothing about this. It is not hard to check if someone is an Apple fan. There are things they would know and do. What happened there?
Fourth, this was a big enough story, that someone could have gone into the field just to get a sense of what was going on. After all, the investigation was already 2 years out of date. If a TAL reporter had observed the gates at Foxconn, they would have already had their doubts.
Finally, as an economist, I knew something was up. We had simultaneously, harsh working conditions and underage workers while there were crowds of people lining up to work there. The surplus labour suggests that the workers prefer that job (at current standards in China) to their next best option. But the surplus labour also suggests there is no need to employ underage workers. You only employ underage workers because there is a shortage and/or you can pay them much much less. There was no real suggestion these workers were being paid less than other workers. Consequently, the economic logic of the situation did not back up what was being claimed. TAL mentioned Paul Krugman as one person who was not concerned about this issue. Had they asked him more about it, he and many others would have enlightened them on the economic inconsistencies in Daisey’s story and given them a place to look for verification.
That said, Apple still have to manage critical worker condition issues in China and so that side of the story will remain live even if it is in a more nuanced, non-Daisey form.
There is a remarkable similarity between the tight conditions that generate quality both at TAL and at Apple. Indeed, that should have given TAL special insight but it did not. Instead, their own quality assurance processes failed at multiple points. It wasn’t just one thing. Ironically, it was Apple (and the podcast invention) that brought This American Life to my life (as I did not live in the US). Hopefully, they can learn more from them in the future.