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My Brush With Mike Daisey, Apple & Foxconn

The world now knows that Mike Daisey lies about his subject matter, but I called him on it almost a year ago. I think many of us may owe Apple a silent, personal apology.

One of the big stories this past weekend is the exposure of the lies of Mike Daisey and his powerful one man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In Daisey's show, which is a long and emotional monologue, he describes his love of Apple products and the horror of the working conditions of the people who assemble them. I saw Daisey's story last April and my main surprise now is that it took this long for the rest of the press to see through him.

After Daisey told his story on Chicago Public Radio's, 'This American Life' recently, a reporter decided to verify some of his claims and they didn't stand up to scrutiny. (This American Life is a fabulous show picked up by any decent NPR station; you really ought to listen to it.)

Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz thought Daisey's story just didn't sound right. He tracked down Daisey's translator, which Schmitz can do more easily than most reporters as he works out of China. This translator, Cathy Lee (Chinese name: Li Guifen), disputed many of Daisey's claims about their visits to the Foxconn factory campus where many Apple products undergo assembly. On Friday, This American Life retracted the story.

None of this was shocking to me. I called BS on Daisey last April after seeing the show. Just like Schmitz, I was leery of much of what he had to say, and my quarrels were both factual and moral. In the column I wrote at the time for Betanews, I described how some of Daisey's factual assertions didn't agree with any numbers I could find.

I also made the more difficult point that, even if they are treated badly by our standards, the jobs are prized by the workers there because their alternatives are so much worse. If we rescue the workers from these jobs, they may be rewarded with abject poverty.

My first reaction to the recent news was mild surprise that his lies were so egregious, as in making up out of whole cloth stories of people he met, fabricating the armed guards, and lying about injuries and illnesses suffered by employees he spoke to. In retrospect, he was falling into a long-established pattern.

After I published the column I e-mailed a link to it to Daisey and he responded to my comments in his own blog. His responses are respectful and seemed thoughtful, but even then I could see he was probably covering lies with other lies. I decided at the time that I didn't have the resources to follow up and that I had made my point.

And now we find ourselves in a position where we don't have a lot of information we can necessarily trust about the treatment of workers at that facility. I know now that I would be suspicious about any stories I heard unless I had some sort of hard corroboration. The idea that workers there are ill-treated by the company and the state is an easy one to accept, but that doesn't make any of it true.

One thing we should all consider now is that perhaps Apple's reluctance to play hardball with Foxconn on working conditions isn't entirely about not caring. Maybe they do know what's going on and maybe it's not all that bad.

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