The zombie story that won’t die is shot in the head

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

More than a year ago, I posted on a story that refuses to die: the treatment of workers at an Apple subcontractor in China. Foxconn is where they manufacture major Apple products like the iPhone and iPad. The links are here and here.

My reaction was that the story was overblown. The allegations of abuses and worker suicides were minor when put in context of the overall size of the workforce and the number of incidents reported. It was a nice “worker abuse” story that didn’t live up to the hype.

The story should have died, but it didn’t.

Then came a one-man monologue called “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by a guy named Mike Daisey, which made the rounds of Washington and New York theaters. The monologuist decided to put Apple users on a guilt trip, saying essentially when you touched your Apple product, you’ve got blood on you hands because of the exploitation of workers.

I saw the presentation in Washington, front row, and my opinion didn’t change. I left the show still thinking “This story really needs to die because it’s not true.”

But it didn’t die. Eventually, the New York Times did a major piece on Apple abuses following the opening of Daisey’s show in New York, and public radio’s “This American Live” devoted an entire episode to the issue.

And this happened this weekend:

Earlier on Friday, the public radio program This American Life was forced to retract an episode about Apple’s Foxconn factory in China because it contained “significant fabrications.”

Ira Glass devotes the entire episode of this week’s This American Life to set the record straight on Mike Daisey’s story about the extreme working conditions at Apple’s Chinese factory.

“I’m coming to you today to say something that I’ve never had to say on our program,” Glass said, opening in the episode: a story on the program was not true. Glass admits mistakes that were made in the fact-checking process. Below is a transcript of the episode — titled “Retraction” — that aired Friday evening. It’s a rush transcript, and may not be 100 percent accurate.

Meanwhile, the Times is doing this in a piece Daisey wrote for the paper in October:

Editor’s Note: Questions have been raised about the truth of a paragraph in the original version of this article that purported to talk about conditions at Apple’s factory in China. That paragraph has been removed from this version of the article.

Turns out Daisey made up a bunch of stuff in his monologue under the guise of “artistic license.”

Now, there are legitimate issues in the Apple story. Working conditions can be improved. But the bottom line in this story has been that when reporters asked workers what they thought, people said they were getting paid better than at any other company and that they were willing to work even longer hours to get paid overtime.

Here’s what really bothers me about stories like this and Invisible Children (the Joseph Kony extravaganza), and the Gay Girl in Damascus who turned out to be a middle age guy from Georgia. When people do decide to deal with reality, the issue no longer focuses on the abuses that exist, but on the Westerner who created or enhanced the exaggeration or deception.

So people who have fallen for the ruse lose interested in the real abuses because some egocentric American got his 15 minutes of fame in national media. When the messenger is discredited, the message is discredited, even though there may be validity to the allegation.

And as a result, people die and nobody cares.

That’s the true scandal.