Sunday, March 18, 2012

Crap Detector Part II: Mr. Daisey's Apple Factory

Crap detector Part I: Credibility as business model

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast of "This American Life" called "Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory," which was the story of a technology geek who goes to China to see where his iPhone was made.

In the course of the story, the narrator, Mike Daisey, makes assertions about Foxconn, the manufacturer, including that it hires underage workers, overworks employees and exposes them to hazardous chemicals. The story was excerpted from Daisey's one-man stage show.

Bold and intrepid

I was immediately suspicious of Daisey's account because he was so much the protagonist of the story. He depicted himself as bold and daring, as undertaking a task that newspaper reporters had warned him was too risky and dangerous. But he was going anyway to interview Foxconn employees, in defiance of the armed guards at  the gates.

In fact, that is exactly what other reporters have already done and would be likely to do. He suggested that the questions he asked of employees were so profound and brilliant that no one had ever thought of them before. He seemed determined to impress us and startle us by his comparison of Shenzhen and the Foxconn plant to scenes out of the dystopian futuristic movie "Blade Runner".

Due diligence

However, at the end of Daisey's story, Ira Glass, host of the show, did some due diligence and went about checking many of the facts and figures that Daisey used and verified other information. The producers interviewed independent Western observers who had been inside factories and knew the situation on the ground in China. Daisey's story mostly seemed to hold up, except for his assertions about underage workers.

Another reporter working in China, Rob Schmitz, interviewed the translator Daisey used and became suspicious of some of his assertions. Glass confronted Daisey, who admitted embellishing and inventing details to make for a better story. As a result, "This American Life" retracted the story.

Suffice it to say that whenever the reporter becomes part of the story, there is a risk of this kind of exaggeration.

Art, not life

This story was a reminder that journalists need to develop a crap detector and listen attentively when it starts to vibrate. Daisey's story sounded too perfect, and as the saying goes, If it sounds too good to be true....

I should have trusted my first instinct (and Ira Glass has said the same thing). Daisey is foremost a performer who does an onstage monologue about Steve Jobs and Apple. It is how he makes his living. His priority is not getting the facts but having an impact, creating a dramatic effect, creating art.

Art is by definition better than life, more distilled, more intense. So Daisey's goals collide with what we do in journalism, which is try to capture life as it is.  And if a journalist finds that it hurts the master narrative that not all the facts fit together perfectly, or that the villain is not 100 percent villainous, or that the vision cannot be as brilliantly framed as the images of a cinematographer, then so be it. That is life and that is what we show.

Art creates the illusion of real life and a truth that is bigger than daily life. Daisey would argue that he too is seeking the truth. It is just not a journalistic truth.

"Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him." 
-- Ernest Hemingway (with thanks to Howard Rheingold)

Crap detector Part I: Credibility as business model
Crap detector Part III: verify Tweets, FB
Archives have great potential for traffic, debate, manipulation
How to sell advertising without selling your soul
Time's Asia editor says it's OK to spin the news

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