An open letter to This American Life

19 March 2012

Dear Ira Glass and the staff of This American Life,

Four of us gathered around a laptop in Brooklyn last night to listen to the live broadcast of the retraction episode of This American Life. We started with a real feeling of respect for the idea that TAL would spend an entire episode fact-checking its own broadcast, coupled with worry that the problems with Mike Daisey himself would lead to a lessening of concern about Apple’s labor practices. We came to the show with varying levels of familiarity with TAL. All but one of us had listened to the original Daisey episode, and two of us are regular TAL listeners.

In the initial segment, in which Rob Schmitz tracked down the translator, we all found ourselves asking several basic questions:

  1. Why was the translator any more credible than Daisey? What about this was different from any “he said/she said” argument?
  2. What, if any, influence did Apple, Foxconn or the Chinese government bring to bear on the translator or on This American Life?
  3. Is it just a coincidence that the retraction episode aired just as Apple launched a new iPad?

During the interview with Schmitz, Glass and Daisey, we were struck by Daisey’s unfortunate inability to better frame his performance. Rather than simply saying “some of these characters were composites of people I met and stories I heard from workers who had first-hand knowledge,” he stumbled around and sounded very insincere. It’s important to say that we all felt, upon hearing this segment, that the original story shouldn’t have been broadcast as aired on TAL. That might also be true even if TAL had included a disclaimer about the composite nature of some of the characters, although that’s harder to judge.

The most disappointing part of the show was the final segment in which Glass spoke with New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. This entire segment came off as an ill-informed or willfully ignorant dismissal of the role of first-world consumption in harming the lives of the people who make what we consume.

For example:

Duhigg: We know from Apple’s own audits and the reports that have published that at least 50 percent of all audited factories, every year since 2007, have violated at least that provision. More than half of the workers whose records are examined are working more than 60 hours per week.

Glass: Now, is that necessarily so bad? I mean, aren’t a lot of these workers moving to the city to work as many hours as possible? They’re away from their families; they’re young; and they’re there to make money and they don’t care.

This exchange is built on the idea that there’s no possible way to run the world other than the way it’s currently being run. Are you seriously suggesting that anyone wants to work 60 or more hours per week and wouldn’t gladly trade that for 40 hours at a decent wage? Have we really become so inured to human suffering that we actually believe people want to work at slave wages for giant multinational corporations? Is this the most we can imagine for our fellow human beings?

This segment of the show also suffered from a very first-world-centered opinion about how other cultures work. For example:

Duhigg: That being said, I think that China is a little bit different and that the expectations, particularly as a developing nation of workers, are a little bit different. I don’t think holding them to American standards is precisely the right way to look at the situation.

There’s a lot wrong with that statement. To begin, it’s maddening to hear two well-off white American men talking about what the Chinese want from their working lives. How do you know? And what would make you assume that what they want is different from what you want?

Additionally, it’s hilarious to hear about “American standards.” Our guess is that there are quite a few people within walking distance of the New York Times building or the WBEZ offices who could tell you a thing or two about what it’s like to be a worker in America. Particularly a non-union worker, as almost all private-sector workers are. Of course, it would be a challenge to ask an American about what it’s like to manufacture electronics, given that we have people in developing nations do that for us now.

The final nail in this coffin was Glass’s remark toward the end of his talk with Duhigg:

Glass: But to get to the normative question that’s kind of underlying all the reporting and all the discussion of this, the thing that we all want to know when we hear this is like, “Wait, should I feel bad about this?” As somebody who owns these products, should I feel bad? And I don’t know that I feel so bad when, when I hear this.

To Duhigg’s credit, he seems fairly surprised by this statement and offers several reasons why Glass should feel bad, although he says it’s not his job to tell Glass how to feel. But Glass’s statement struck us as the fundamental problem underlying this episode, which was that people of privilege with little sympathy for workers were much more concerned with protecting their own reputations than exposing injustice.

When the show ended, one of the regular TAL listeners in our group said, “I feel like I want to take a shower.” We all felt that way. It was extremely disappointing and a perfect example of why more people don’t know or care about the plight of workers here and abroad.

Sincerely,

Jake Aron
Jason Crane
Emma Goldsmith-Rooney
Kate Moser

Brooklyn, NY

4 Replies to “An open letter to This American Life”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and apt letter. I was riveted listening to this radio show and felt sad and guilty afterwards. I own an iPhone 4, an iPad 2 and I’m planning on getting the new iPad 4G because I’m a total gadget addict. I do feel haunted by the Chinese worker suicides and found the metal dust ventallation issue extremely disturbing. I suppose I’m a spoiled American who doesn’t care enough to protest by boycotting Apple products, yet I would like to pressure them to demand higher standrds of worker care for the Chinese people who assemble their products. But is that even feasible? The radio show left me thinking that Apple & the Chinese government have a very complex and murky relationship at best.

  2. Moving away from Twitter to a forum where I can respond in full thoughts, I’d bring up a few things:

    -Why was the translator’s word taken as more credible? Because after he was confronted with the inconsistencies between his account and hers, Daisy himself admitted that her account was closer to accurate. Additionally, she’d have no motivation to lie because she had nothing to gain from doing so. It’s not really an issue of he said/she said since, in the end, what he said turned out to be pretty much the same as what she said.

    -It could be the case that TAL or the translator were somehow influenced by Foxconn or Apple, but again, Daisy doesn’t refute much of her account, so that would also have to mean that Apple “got to” Daisy as well. Possible, yes, but it seems like a big leap to take when the much simpler explanation—Daisy changed the facts to suit the story he wanted to tell and got caught—is the one that everyone seems to agree on. It’s tempting to try to poke holes in TAL’s methods because you want to defend the sentiment behind what Daisy claims he was trying to do, but the fact of the matter is that he presented things as truth that he now admits weren’t. It might be worth questioning the translator’s credibility if Daisy refuted her claims, but since Daisy—the person who would be most motivated to call her the liar—doesn’t question her credibility, why should we?

    -Is it just a coincidence that the retraction episode aired just as Apple launched a new iPad? Well, yes. The original story that painted Apple in a somewhat negative light also came right around the time when everyone began buzzing over the new iPad coming out, so if your contention is that TAL is somehow “in bed” with Apple, then why would they have aired the first negative report to begin with? To imply that their motivation in airing the retraction is somehow the result of a backdoor deal with Apple is highly inconsistent with the sequence of events and really just seems like grasping at straws to reverse-engineer a justification for Daisy’s lies.

    -While it’s hard to admit, there is a validity to Glass’s question of “is this really so bad?” It’s not actually accurate to say that no one “wants to work 60 or more hours per week and [would] gladly trade that for 40 hours at a decent wage” given that many, many Americans already do so as a way to get by. In a way, those Americans are actually worse off because they have to accomplish this by getting a second job instead of collecting overtime pay at their first. Go into any restaurant, retail environment, or factory in the country and you’ll find plenty of people who do in fact want to work more than 40 hours a week because they need the money. Yes, they’d probably all rather work 30 hours a week for twice as much hourly wage, but given the realities of How Things Work, it’s kind of a false dichotomy to suggest that alternative as if it’s something that employers could realistically offer.

    -I agree that it’s presumptuous for “two well-off white American men” to assume that the Chinese want different things then we do, but by the same token, it’s therefore equally presumptuous for you to assume that they want things to be the same. If you really believe that the Chinese are capable of determining what they want on their own, then that means you have to accept the good and the bad of what they do and not assume that we’re entitled to step in and tell them to be more like us. As was alluded to in the episode, it’s simply a fact of life that, as nations develops, they all go through periods where they have to change their practices to properly balance the needs to the people and the economy. We went through it at our own pace—and in many ways still are—so China has to be allowed to do things at their pace as well. Meanwhile, Glass and Duhigg aren’t necessarily endorsing the current state of Chinese labor, simply acknowledging the very real fact that it’s not an issue that can be solved by imposing out way or life onto theirs.

    -Glass’s questioning whether or not he should “feel bad” is a valid, honest question—which I suspect he was asking more as the “devil’s advocate” than anything—and one that it takes a high level of maturity to even ask. It’s easy for us as American liberals to say that Foxconn is “bad,” but what does that mean in practical terms? Would we actually be doing anyone a favor by boycotting Apple products? That would certainly result in a lot of the people we’re trying to help losing their jobs, and while there’s a case to be made that those jobs aren’t great ones by the standards we’re used to, they’re almost certainly better than having no jobs at all. This is far from a black and white issue, so for Glass (a pillar of our liberal community) to actually admit that he feels ambivalent about his role in this all is a far more nuanced and mature approach than most people take. To me, those mixed feelings reveal that he has a deep enough understanding of the issue’s complexity to know that he can’t easily parse out the right and wrong, and therefore, I trust his reporting more than anyone who would flatly take either side without acknowledging that there are positives and negatives to either approach.

    In short, I agree that we all need to take a serious look at the world economy and our roles in it, but I also feel that part of that “serious look” is being honest about the fact that there’s probably no perfect solution that’s realistically attainable. It’s easy for us to look at China’s labor practices and say that they’re “bad,” but what really are the alternatives? Are those alternatives truly better or would they just shift around the problems? Do we really want to pay the amount for our products that it would require to make sure everyone makes “enough” money from working 36 hours a week, regardless of their own education and the skills? Given that wealth and poverty are relative, would it really solve anything to make sure everyone makes $30k a year since that would still push the cost of living to a place that would make $30k “the new $15k?”

    Ultimately, it comes down to a couple of things: Daisy’s general point that he wanted to tell a story to draw attention to a problem is valid, but if the problem is as dire as he suggests, shouldn’t he be to show that without having to fictionalize aspects of that story? Meanwhile, it may seem that TAL is tacitly endorsing the current climate of China’s labor practices by challenging Daisy’s account, but they’re not—they’re simply trying to make sure that they’re reporting accurately so that the conclusions we draw are based on facts and not a story created to enforce over simplified pre-conceived. It’s easy to take a moral high ground and judge the Chinese people, their employers, or Americans who benefit from their practices, but it’s ultimately no less first-world-centered to say they’re wrong than to say they’re right since none of us really have enough experience with the country and their culture to say what’s “right” or “wrong” (if there even is such a thing).

    I’m not here to say that China is “right” in how they do business, but given the number of Americans who work and live in conditions no better than your average Chinese factory worker, it’s not exactly fair to say that the way to “fix” China is to adopt our way of life. If the goal is to have everyone making a fair living wage, we’re not really much closer to that goal than they are. Is it really fair to say that there’s “a lot wrong” with Duhigg’s assertion that “holding them to American standards is[n’t] precisely the right way to look at the situation?” Not really—American standards aren’t necessarily ideal for America, so why is he wrong to say that they’re not necessarily ideal for China? Again, that concept may be hard to accept because it doesn’t “feel good” on an emotional level, but I’d much rather feel a little dirty by dealing with the truth than showering myself in convenient lies.

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