The Anatomy of Media Bias: Trayvon Martin, Mike Daisey, and the Press

Julian Sanchez -- Research Fellow, Cato Institute

Like many folks who had seen and been moved by Mike Daisey's powerful monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," I was profoundly disappointed by the recent revelation that he had not only fabricated some of the work's key scenes, but lied to the journalists and fact checkers at This American Life to prevent them from discovering the deception. There's no point, at this stage, in adding another condemnation to the chorus, but I do want to highlight a pair of sharp pieces by Slate's Daniel Engber and The Economist's Erica Grieder, responding to the common claim that Daisey's narrative was, as the saying goes, "fake but accurate."

While most commentary on the story has rightly rejected Daisey's invocation of "artistic license" to excuse the use of falsified anecdotes in a work of purported nonfiction, much of it includes the obligatory caveat that Daisey's larger point, the essential picture he paints of labor practices at Chinese suppliers like Foxconn, is true. So, for instance, in his performance, Daisey recounts how in a few hours of interviews outside just a couple of Foxconn plants, he encountered numerous underage workers--girls as young as 12 and 13 years old. Under pressure, he retreated to the claim that he'd spoken (in English) with one girl who identified herself as being 13, and seen several others who "looked young." The translator who accompanied Daisey on these interviews--the one he'd lied to prevent journalists from contacting--denies that there was even the one, and insists that she'd remember if there had been. Now, you don't get a gig as an English translator in China without staying on the good side of the Chinese government, so she might have her own incentive to downplay anything that reflects badly on the labor situation there--but all things considered, I'm inclined to agree with Ira Glass that her account comes across as much more credible than Daisey's.

Suppose we think Daisey probably did just make up this encounter. It's still undeniably the case that there have been underage workers employed by Apple suppliers: The company itself reports identifying 91 in an audit conducted in 2010, the year Daisey visited China. Thus, some argue, even if Daisey lied, the more important thing is that his dramatization reflected the underlying truth in an emotionally resonant way. 

I agree with Engber and Grieder that this line of argument is wrong, and that Daisey's pseudo-anecdote is substantively misleading when you consider what it's really meant to show. Nobody disputes that the number of underaged workers employed by Apple suppliers is greater than zero. But in the context of Foxconn's 300,000-strong workforce, in a country where (as the report suggests) parents are willing to procure fake IDs to help children obtain a coveted factory job, it's also probably not realistic to expect that this would never happen. The real question is whether Apple is making a good faith effort to enforce some screening procedures, identify and correct failures in the process when they occur, and so on.

Daisey's anecdote implicitly makes the far stronger claim that Apple is egregiously, culpably negligent here: Child labor is so prevalent that you scarcely need audits to find cases. Rather, a visitor standing at the gates of any randomly selected factory for a few hours will readily encounter numerous 12- and 13-year old kids who don't seem the least bit concerned about openly acknowledging their ages. Under those circumstances, as Daisey suggests, it would be hard to believe Apple wasn't well aware of, and deliberately winking at, a systemic indifference to the law.

If the point of the monologue were just to provoke an emotional reaction in the audience, as an artistic end in itself, maybe this wouldn't matter. But the monologue is explicitly and forcefully pitched as a call to both consumer activism and political action. In that context, it actually matters what the magnitude of this problem is, relative to others we might focus our time and energy on, and whether Apple is being especially irresponsible, relative to any number of other companies I might give my money to instead. 

Those of you who recall the headline are probably wondering what this could possibly have to do with the tragic case of Trayvon Martin. I'll outsource the full rundown to Mother Jones, but the quick version is this:

On the evening of February 26, Trayvon Martin--an unarmed 17-year-old African American student--was confronted, shot, and killed near his home by George Zimmerman, a Latino neighborhood watch captain in the Orlando, Florida, suburb of Sanford. Zimmerman has not been charged with a crime.

A large and growing body of evidence shows that Zimmerman, fancying himself some kind of community guardian, had concluded for no good reason that Martin was "suspicious," left his vehicle to pursue and accost the physically smaller teen, and then demonstrably lied about key details of the altercation that led to the shooting in his initial account to police. Instead of arresting him, police appear to have conducted a slipshod investigation, allegedly "correcting" witnesses whose version of events didn't jibe with Zimmerman's jaw-dropping claim that he had acted in self defense. As many have noted, it seems hard to believe Zimmerman wouldn't have immediately found himself in handcuffs had he shot a white teen under otherwise identical circumstances. On Monday, in response to widespread outrage about the police handling of the case, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would be conducting its own investigation.
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Between the shooting itself and the Justice Department's announcement, according to ThinkProgress, CNN ran 41 segments on the Trayvon Martin case. MSNBC ran 13. Fox News covered it only once.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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