CTW, facts and truth, and more like that

This American Life just broadcast the extended retraction of/reflection on Michael Daisey’s January account of working conditions in Apple supplier factories in China.  This  whole story is a bonfire of fact-truth-journalism ethical puzzles.  During an exquisitely painful conversation with Ira Glass, Daisey claims he told the truth, as a piece of theater, even though many of the facts he recited, especially things like “I [Daisey] saw X and Y at the Foxconn plant”, have gone up in smoke.  Glass is having none of it. He also admirably stands up on behalf of his staff to say “we screwed up”; not “we were brainwashed” or “lots of people make mistakes in this business” or “we’re sorry if anyone was offended” or “the staffer who erred has been fired”; “we screwed up, we’re sorry, and we learned from it.”

What’s the right way to think about something like this episode?  The key “facts” asserted are diverse in type and import.  For example:

Daisey saw an underage worker at the plant he visited.  (False)

Chinese Apple factories employ underage workers. (True, on other evidence)

The falsity of the first of these does not falsify the second.  Climate change is not a lie because somebody misrepresented some evidence about it.

More generally:

Chinese factory working conditions would be illegal in the US, and are frequently deplorable by (at least) conventional American standards of decency.  (True, and true despite the violations at sweatshops in LA and coal mines in West Virginia)

Chinese factory workers, on the whole, find their jobs the best option available to them under existing Chinese conditions of rural poverty, internal migration laws,  labor law, etc. If higher standards were successfully imposed, a significant number of those workers would have a worse set of options-would think themselves worse off-as their company’s customers sourced products in better but more expensive US factories, or worse and cheaper ones in, say, Myanmar.  (Also true)

The basic theorem of policy analysis, Compared To What? shines its ineffable light broadly here.

As to the first pair of facts, Deasey was reporting things that are true (how generally is another question) about Chinese factories, not bloodying a shirt with ketchup like the late minimally lamented Breitbart.  He was not careful enough about his framing, especially when his monologue was headed for a program whose underlying premise is journalism, not theater. I don’t mean this is a minor or unimportant failure.  There is such a thing as artistic truth, and there is also a legitimate way to illustrate literal truth with utterances that are not literally true, and this way is not inferior to conventional journalism, just different.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, full of truth about the lives of slaves, is nothing but made-up stuff; Compulsion (a play about Leopold and Loeb) is not merely imaginative fiction. The chorus of the Hebrew Slaves in Nabucco told the truth about oppression for Italians trying to get their country back from foreigners, notwithstanding its fictional status and remote superficial context, and it is not an inferior substitute for a bunch of socioeconomic data. Goya titled one of his Desastros “I have seen this” and another “and this also” to give them extra punch, but that didn’t mean the rest of the series were fakes or lies.

Of course this kind of argument or explication has inherent risks (but so does just reciting facts in the narrow, “checkable” sense), and the power of art has been used for evil and deceit: the Horst Wessel Lied is probably as good a song as the Marseillaise–and come to think of it, the latter is pretty bloodthirsty and xenophobic.  In general, memorable vignettes and examples, whether fictional or not, have to be consistent with larger truth to have legs.  Of course Mitt Romney doesn’t go around offering to bet people $10,000 on a whim, or as a way to bully them in conversation, and he doesn’t hate dogs.  But the picture of Romney as being clueless about what ten large means to most people, and being both enormously rich but too stingy on behalf of others to rent a second car so his family could enjoy that trip and his dog ride inside, is about right.

Anna Deavere Smith has deliberately chosen to work within the constraint of quotation from her personally conducted interviews, but that (alone) isn’t what gives her work weight, and it doesn’t have more weight than, say, The Jungle or Giants in the Earth.  There’s no easy way to manage the here-and-now facts, the large facts, and the truth properly.  Any bright-line rule will develop leaks and force foolish decisions, whether or not it affords editors, managers, artists, and publishers a place to hide from the duty of judgment.

As to the larger question, thinking about working conditions in China (the second pair of facts) can easily lead us to fix our coordinate system in the wrong place.  What I mean by this is that if we just think about Apple gadgets being made, we can think it would be a better world if that were happening in an American factory, with OSHA popping in and out, in Peoria.  But if we think about those workers, and do not think a set of wheels would make Grandma a streetcar, policy and our own procurement choices look quite different.  Fifty years ago, we thought building public housing of the type middle class people thought poor people would want to live in if they were middle class (Ville Radieuse projects) would be a good idea, but it wasn’t. We also thought if you cleared a slum neighborhood and replaced it with middle and upper-class housing and delis, things were better, but Chester Hartman and his fellow skeptics, and the sainted Jane Jacobs, pointed out that if you put your coordinate system on the people who were displaced instead of the place, it didn’t look that way at all.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

21 thoughts on “CTW, facts and truth, and more like that”

  1. Not really your point, but the Marseillaise is pretty damned irresistible. That’s why it has survived despite the fact that the lyrics are not only blood thirsty, but written in an almost incomprehensible dialect. But that scene in Casablanca always makes people cry.

  2. Simply contemplating: “Chinese factory workers, on the whole, find their jobs the best option available to them under existing Chinese conditions of rural poverty, internal migration laws, labor law, etc. If higher standards were successfully imposed, a significant number of those workers would have a worse set of options-would think themselves worse off-as their company’s customers sourced products in better but more expensive US factories, or worse and cheaper ones in, say, Myanmar. (Also true)”

    Just as a matter of economic reasoning, I’m not sure that I agree that that constitutes a logically, economically sound argument. The first assertion — best option under existing conditions — might be true enough, though, of course, conditions can change, or be changed; existing conditions are largely a matter of policy deliberately tilted to favor and reward capital(ist) investment. If conditions changed, and workers, say, were in a better bargaining position, had to be paid more and treated more fairly, it is not clear how it follows that a significant number would have a worse set of options. In fact, what you wrote seems more like a contradiction than a logical argument; you seem to be saying, “if conditions improved, conditions would be worse”.

    China found a formula for rapid economic development. Some aspects of that formula have not been pretty — epic levels of pollution; mistreatment of factory labor, sometimes poisonous product, etc. Americans might want to take some responsibility for taking advantage of the low prices and healthy profits conceded to Intel, Apple, Wal-Mart, etc. Economic development is a dynamic, dis-equilibrium process, and it is perfectly reasonable to expect improvement. A level of pollution, which might be deemed acceptable to a poor country, should not be acceptable to a rich one, for example. China’s workers should not be hostage to Myanamar’s wage-rates, anymore than America’s should be hostage to China’s. The struggle against the rich, powerful and corrupt interests, who benefit from pollution, or mistreating labor, or sweetening toothpaste with anti-freeze, or whatever else, may be a political and economic struggle, but it is not inherently self-defeating or even “inefficient” in its economic aims.

  3. On the third hand, Bruce, you are viewing from a certain level of abstraction — let’s call it the political level.
    Now let’s view things from an even higher level of abstraction, the “resources are constrained and that’s life” level.

    From this viewpoint, the natural condition of mankind, in the absence of STRONG countervailing forces, is a Malthusian bare existence. We (some of us) escaped that over the past two centuries through burning up our endowments, whether oil, arable soil, or ground water, and the days of that are coming to an end. So what happens when this party is over? There are two paths
    – either we reduce our numbers substantially, and keep them reduced — and still lead pretty good lives OR
    – we let things continue as they have and it’s not going to be pleasant as the party winds down. Sure, sure, it probably won’t happen while you and I are alive — there’s still coal to burn, and when that becomes more rare, we’ll discover that we don’t mind an occasional meltdown if that’s what it takes to keep the lights on with nuclear power. But at some point the party IS over, and all the kumbaya in the world regarding solar, wind, and biofuels won’t change the fact that they won’t keep 7 billion people (ten billion or more by the time it becomes necessary) living in the life style to which they’ve become accustomed.

    All the fulminating you like about the evil rich and the disposition of spoils doesn’t change these issues. Neither does complaining about distributional issues between young and old in the form of pensions and such like. It is stupid beyond belief to imagine that you are solving a human-level problem (pensions) by creating a physical world problem (more people and even greater strains on resoutces).

    With this as background, it is undeniable that the Chinese are on the side of trying to reduce their total population — and in their clumsy way to accelerate themselves past the consequent pensions problems — while the US is on the side of trying to increase its total population. There’s is plenty the Chinese are doing that is stupid in this regard (and god knows where they think 1.2 boys per girl is going to lead them) but they’ve been dealt a pretty damn difficult hand and are doing what they can to cope with it. Meanwhile the US, dealt the easiest hand in the history of humanity, is doing its level best to screw things up with such grand ideas as trying to increase their own (and the entire world’s population), when they’re not thinking up new countries to invade and destroy.

    Point is — from a viewpoint above the purely distributional, there’s plenty to criticize the US for while praising China. And if you think this is a bizarre viewpoint, think back say 200 years, when the “natural” viewpoint was something like “the Prussians are good because they are Christians, the Russians are OK because they are kinda sorta Christians, and the Hindus, well, damn idol worshippers ought to be taught civilization”. Parochialism today focuses on a different set of gods (mammon has risen in the ranks over two hundred years) but it’s still parochialism and a refusal to consider the big picture.

    1. Well-argued. “Parochialism” is as good a name as any for the habit of packaging ignorance and stupidity into a shibboleth for tribal identification and action. This is a much bigger and more pervasive problem than “creative” journalism.

    2. My wife and I had this conversation at breakfast today. The actions of the rich to hoard material for the coming scarcity and population upheavals is to be expected.

  4. I don’t know a lot about the issue, but I think your claim that trying to improve working conditions could backfire ignores two factors. First, if Apple decides to raise standard on working conditions for its suppliers, this should apply to suppliers in Myanmar as well as China. Second, the close proximity of various producers in the supply chain gives China an advantage in more than just cheap labour. That being said, I agree that you can’t ignore possible unintended consequences, and such consequences might be important in China.

  5. The Foxconn factory does not represent a freely chosen arms’-length bargain. To be remotely fair, such bargains have to be collective. Chinese workers can’t organise. The other point is that a lot of workplace oppression – denying bathroom breaks and the like – is petty abuse or power for quasi-sadistic gratification, and has no benefits for productivity. The world’s most productive workers, in Germany, Japan and Sweden, enjoy civilised working conditions as well as access to higher levels of physical and knowledge capital. It would probably not cost Apple anything to insist on better working conditions.

    1. It’s shorthand. The complete form is, “If you ask ‘Compared to what?’ in response to any proposition about public policy, you will increase insight and improve the analysis.”

      1. Maybe. Or, you may open the door to convoluted rationalizations synthesized from counterfactual speculation, along the lines, say, of a purported Peltzman effect, which serve to legitimize false claims of futility.

  6. One of my favorite lines is ‘some stories are true, and some stories ought to be true’. Daisey was in the ‘ought to be true’ area, and like Dan Rather and Michael Mann (‘hide the decline’) and Peter Gleick he has muddied the waters and damaged his own cause. When you make stuff up, you give your enemies license to doubt everything else you have ever said.

    1. Dave: The author of the over-famous “hide the decline ” email was not Michael Mann but Phil Jones. The context was an informal discussion between colleagues about how to deal in a forthcoming paper with a particular data series known to be problematic, viz. recent Northern tree ring data, which are inconsistent with the uncontested instrumental record. There was nothing wrong with his remark. Jones was cleared of any wrongdoing on this point by several different enquiries in Britain. By using this non-scandal to tar Mann, you are participating in a denialist smear.

  7. “What’s the right way to think about something like this episode?”

    Most of the above comments ignore the subject of this thread, as defined in the title and in that question. Dave Schutz addresses it directly, and it seems to me to be as clear as Waterford Crystal — The news is supposed to be the news, not an episode of Jersey Shore. That’s not a loosely-followed guideline for writing a script; it’s a fundamental principle separating journalism from fiction.

    Anybody who isn’t sure about that might want to look again at the banner at the top of this blog.

  8. This “fake but accurate” meme must die, it’s nothing but a way of making excuses for liars. There may be such a thing as “artistic truth”, but “journalistic truth” is supposed to be true.

    1. and now that you’ve set up your straw man and knocked him over i hope you’ll take the time to actually read the blog post above and make a comment that responds to what mr. o’hare’s point was instead of the point you imagined he was making.

      1. I’m with Brett on this one. Mike’s subsequent points are important but the first and fundamental one is most important and should be taken as a bright shining line (and I take it that the American Life folks, to their credit, took it as such): things presented as journalism or non-fiction cannot be fiction. That line is eroding, and it’s terribly dangerous. (This one’s personal; I was recently a figure in a popular UK book presented as “new journalism” in which virtually everything concerning me was a total fabrication. The author defended it even after getting caught; the publisher had to have known what he was doing and published it anyway. I got everything around me pulled in subsequent printings, and a public retraction, but it should never have happened in the first place.)

      2. It was noted in a thread earlier this week that once per year or so Mr. Bellmore makes a good point, and IMHO this is that post for 2012. For example, liberals quite rightly condemn the Bush/Cheney Administration for cooking the intelligence during the lead up to the Iraq War, and don’t accept the retrospective argument from the Radical Right that while the intelligence was wrong the war nonetheless was fought for good reasons (“removing a dictator”). Now that Mr. Bellmore is willing to acknowledge that that line of argument is invalid as applied to Richard Cheney we have to take his argument seriously.

        Cranky

    2. I do not think “fake but accurate” is likely to “die” as long as humans live and breathe. We love a good story, which tells what this or that “means” morally; we remember stories with morals, easily; everything else, usually not so easily. We struggle mightily with objective facts and functional relationships, often only yielding to reality when technology makes a pragmatic case in the form of a gadjet or a business model. Genuine uncertainty — the knowledge that we don’t know — forget about it!

      Journalists, like lawyers and novelists, are selling stories: morally meaningful narratives that “explain”. Novelists can simply make up their facts; creative ones may employ an untrustworthy narrator or other devices to exploit uncertainty in manipulating the responses of the reader, just as they may “rip from the headlines” their inspiration, in order to enhance the credibility of an otherwise incredible story, with the suggestion of a basis in “true events”. Lawyers must cope with the challenges of telling competing stories against the background of disputed or “inadmissable” facts.

      Journalists must “find” their facts, and do so cheaply, relying on the testimony of self-interested witnesses. The journalist can try the gambit of becoming the primary witness; this sometimes works better than being a stenographer for public relations hacks, but rarely pays well. It is really not a practical option, when reporting on the strategic behavior of nation-states and large business enterprises. Human beings simply do not have the language for stories, in which individual moral agency is buried within the labyrinth of bureaucracy and mass politics, even though most of us work with and within large bureaucracies all day long, and as citizens of states with populations of tens or even hundreds of millions.

      It is no doubt bracing to imagine someone courageously speaking truth to power, with indisputable integrity. Power, though, has megaphones of its own, and they are much louder; speaking Power to Truth pays better and is safer. Bradley Manning supplied journalists with a lot of facts about the doings of the bureaucracy, and has been imprisoned and tortured for his trouble. What journalistic use was made of those facts? There was never any shortage of propaganda resources to bury the facts, and to supply supple rationalizations derived from no facts whatsoever. NPR, I fear, has learned nothing about journalistic ethics, but a great deal about the costs and risks of embarrassing the most profitable business corporation in the world.

  9. Well, since you bring the super trascendental story of Romney’s dog, why stop there? How about Obama doesn’t like killing survivors of abortion, but by opposing a law that would make it illegal to let survivors of abortion die of negligence he implicitly supports infanticide?
    See this is the kind of article that starts In a good sympathy note, with a good analysis and perspective and then shoots itself in the foot, when starts bringing typical partisanship, vitriol, and selective smears.

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