Apple’s Silence and ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’

When Mike Daisey’s off-broadway monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” aired on NPR’s This American Life, it sparked a controversy around one of the world’s most valuable companies, Apple, and its suppliers in China, particularly Foxconn. The monologue, derived from a collection of first-hand accounts Daisey had during a Foxconn factory visit in May and June of 2010, described hard working conditions for Chinese laborers in the monolithic and secretive Foxconn factories that produce much of the world’s electronic devices.

Much of Daisey’s monologue is now discredited by other reporters and even Daisey himself, who calls it more a piece of theater than actual documentary. Rob Schmitz at American Public Media’s follow-up reporting exposed much of Daisey’s account as false. Daisey lied to This American Life‘s Ira Glass when he recounted Foxconn guards with guns and workers as young as 11-years old at the gates at the beginning of shifts.

Ira Glass confronted Daisey about his account in an episode of This American Life that aired on Saturday. During much of this controversy, however, the main protagonist, Apple, has remained largely silent about the inaccuracies in Daisey’s account. Why has the company not engaged with Daisey if they knew much of what he claimed to have witnessed was inaccurate?’s Phillip Elmer-DeWitt thinks that Apple did not engage in a media relations parlay with Daisey for two reasons: it did not want to give Daisey and his message a broader outreach by drawing attention to him and, secondly, Apple knew there was some truth to Daisey’s account of harsh labor conditions.

Knowing that these working conditions would be shocking to many of their Western customers, Apple chose to perhaps skirt the issue as long as possible until Daisey was exposed as being dishonest. As Charles Duhigg of the New York Times says during his interview with This American Life‘s Ira Glass:

“So it’s not my job to tell you whether you should feel bad or not, right? I’m a reporter for the New York Times, my job is to find facts and essentially let you make a decision on your own. Let me, let me pose the argument that people have posed to me about why you shuld feel bad, and you can make of it what you will. And that argument is there were times in this nation when we had harsh working conditions as part of our economic development. We decided as a nation that that was unacceptable. We passed laws in order to prevent those harsh working conditions from ever being inflicted on American workers again. And what has happened today is that rather than exporting that standard of life, which is within our capacity to do, we have exported harsh working conditions to another nation. So should you feel bad that someone is working 12 to 24 hours a day in order to produce the iPhone you’re carrying in your pocket?”