As Apple CEO visits Foxconn in China, Mike Daisey’s story plays in the background

Apple CEO Tim Cook visited Foxconn yesterday, a name that will be forever associated with Mike Daisey and his story “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Daisey’s story, a one-man theater show, ran on the radio program “This American Life” and became a certifiable sensation. For a few days, Daisey’s name was one of the most-searched terms on the internet—not an easy thing to achieve for a monologuist and subject of a radio show. Daisey’s episode became the most-downloaded in the show’s history. All of which heightened the drama when fact-checkers at “This American Life” uncovered inconsistencies and downright fabrications in his story, and ran a whole episode retracting Daisey’s story two weeks ago.

This Sunday, Daisey wrote a blog post on his own site apologizing for misleading listeners. He wrote: “When I said onstage that I had personally experienced things I in fact did not, I failed to honor the contract I’d established with my audiences over many years and many shows. In doing so, I not only violated their trust, I also made worse art.”

He continued, “This is not the place for me to try and explain my good intentions. We all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. In fact, I think it might lead to where I’m sitting right now.”

But here’s the thing: His intentions can’t be discounted, and neither can the consequences. Not if we want to appreciate his story and its fallout in its full context.

In the “This American Life” retraction episode, a flabbergasted and rightly angry Ira Glas asks Daisey why he lied. Daisey offers a lot of wishy-washy answers and what sound like half-truths, but in the process he says something that smacks of honesty: He wanted to make people care.

Daisey says that he decided to write the story when, while in China in 2010, news coverage of suicides at Foxconn plants first flared with controversy after the New York Times picked up on the story first reported in Chinese newspapers, but then quickly died out. As news tends to do, it became yesterday’s news. When the news first broke, Jobs even defended Foxconn, saying, “my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools. For a factory, it’s pretty nice.”

To be sure, reports about working conditions at Foxconn are complicated by cultural relativism: Many are migrant workers whose families are back in rural areas with no opportunity, and many want to work many overtime hours to earn as much as they can. Similarly, tight living quarters may not be so different than conditions where workers would live outside Foxconn. Comparing conditions to American standards is unrealistic, as has been widely pointed out.

And lately Apple has been publicly proactive about its suppliers’ working conditions, conducting its own factory inspections and becoming the first company to join the Fair Labor Association in January.

But it’s still a reality, as pointed out in “This American Life’s” retraction episode, that Apple’s hyper-aggressive price negotiations, which intentionally leave suppliers with only a “razor-thin” profit margin, keep suppliers cutting corners and help workers’ conditions poor.

This practice no doubt factors into Apple having recently surpassed Exxon to be the most valuable company in the world. Apple shook the business world recently announcing that its cash reserves had hit a staggering $100 billion—a sum so big it decided to start offering a dividend payment on its stock, an unheard-of move for a tech company.

As Apple’s corporate profit dominates news this spring, Daisey said his aim was to “make people care” about the human cost of Apple’s success. By almost every count, he succeeded swimmingly. Apple is not about to change the unfair aspects of globalization overnight, or by itself. But it has become a symbol of corporate domination—and thanks in part to Daisey’s contributions, that symbol comes with a reminder of its human cost as well as its benefit. His work is a big part of the reason a CEO visiting a supply factory this week is a striking, potent image.

Was Daisey right to lie? No. But was his story and the ensuing media coverage a net negative or a net positive for all of us? If you ask me, that question is still very much up for debate.

[Image via BusinessWeek]