Daisey Chain, Foxconn, and Export Policy

I want to strongly recommend listening to the podcast (or at least reading the PDF) from the retractions in This American Life.

Ira Glass of This American Life has done a good job of trying to undo the ficticious Mike Daisey reporting about Foxconn.  In this episode, they try to correct the mistakes without excusing past abuses, or defusing legitimate concerns over fair trade with the workers who make Apple and other products.

The moral, to me, is that if an accident happens at a different factory in China (not Foxconn), 1000 miles to the west, two years ago, that it's not ok to say that you eyewitnessed the same accident happened at Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen.  This undermines the good factory, by making them the same as the bad factory.  The fact that both factories have brown people in them does not really excuse the shortcut.  The lesson is that if you are a journalist, and you give someone a soap box, you have to act swiftly to prevent a daisy-chain of bad journalism from taking route.

This is what CBS 60 Minutes allowed to happen, relying on Basel Action Network's Jim Puckett, in reporting that CRT monitors were scrapped in Guiyu, China, and not at the refurbishing factories I showed them pictures of.  They set into motion a chain of daisey-claims, infecting PBS Frontline, and Terry Gross' Fresh Air program, with fake statistics about e-waste exports.

Ira Glass, like CBS's Scott Pelley, could have excused Mike Daisey.  He could have said it was close enough, and that it didn't really matter if this Chinese person did something, or that one.  Perhaps he could have earned a journalism Polk Award, and set it on his mantle, as CBS did in Wasteland.

CBS ignored the details of whether the CRT monitors were purchased at THIS FACTORY, or were burned in primitive conditions.  They say they "followed the trail" of the computer monitors to Guiyu.

Because they did not correct their story, PBS Frontline accepted the Africa E-Waste Hoax, when Jim Puckett led them to dumps outside of Lagos and Accra, and told them the junk electronics being scrapped there represented 80% of the imports from the USA.

The key difference, it may appear, is that Mike Daisey accused Apple, whereas CBS merely accused second hand refurbishers of computer monitors.  And PBS Frontline merely accused African businessmen who buy computers for internet cafes, colleges and hospitals.  I hope that's not the key difference.  I hope that the difference is that Ira Glass is a more noble person.  Whether it was Apple's PR reps, or Ira's ethics, the buck stopped, and Mike Daisey will be an entertainer, not a news source.

Jim Puckett and Mike Daisey, I really don't see much difference.  Good is accomplished, people become more aware, they rationalize making up numbers (like "80% of e-waste exports").  But most of us care whether it's happening the way we are told, and most of us would shudder to see the unemployed people who lost their jobs at the Semiknockdown factories in Indonesia, or to see containerloads of working Pentium 4's seized as "e-waste" at an African port, bankrupting the Geek Entrepreneur.

Ira Glass, thank you.  Because if you hadn't handled this the way you did, and had taken the monkey's paw and wished the subject changed, Mike Daisey might go on, using your credibility, to do something horrible to someone else in another place.  CBS, by turning the page on their Wasteland award, allowed their own Daisey to chalk up the scalps of many other geeks of color.

And media matters.  When CBS drinks the kool-aid, Frontline is more likely to drink the kool-aid.  At This American Life, the koolaid stops here.  The "Daisey Chain" won't become the Puckett train.

Will Terry Gross of NPR Fresh Air follow Ira Glass' lead, and re-interview Basel Action Network, with the UN Report in hand?  If exports are 85% reused, how did Jim Puckett get to 80% dumped as a statistic, to be requoted by someone, like Glass or Gross, whom we trust?
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