Once Again, Media Misses the Bigger Picture

By now I’m sure many of you have heard about the todo between the producers of This American Life, a weekly radio show carried nationally by hundreds of Public Radio affiliates, and playwright/actor Mike Daisey.

Daisey, who wrote and stars in a one-man show called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a monologue about the working conditions at a number of Apple’s contract manufacturers in China, was recently featured on the news show because onstage he represents what he’s talking about as fact.

Turns out Daisey is not so much speaking the truth in Steve Jobs as he is trading in what Stephen Colbert might call “truthiness.”  And through a series of fact-checking exercises, that is exactly what TAL discovered.

Unfortunately they discovered it after they’d already aired a less-than-factual feature as a news story with egg on their face.

So last week This American Life spent every minute of its hour-long running time issuing a retraction, re-visiting the genesis of the Daisey piece, and last but not least, having a one-on-one with the playwright himself, trying to settle once and for all just how much of his play is, indeed, fact and how much of it was simply made up for dramatic purposes.

Turns out it is a whole lot of the latter.

Which begs the question:  should we care?

On one side of the coin, the issue of working conditions in China has been raised to front-page status by Daisey’s play, and indeed a few weeks back the New York Times ran an in-depth page-one story on the issue, followed a few days later by a number of the major broadcast networks.

On the other side, a retraction like This American Life’s can serve as vindication for those millions already inclined to distrust the liberal–thinking media and it gives them tacit permission to store the issue of Chinese working conditions in a dark closet in their minds alongside such other creations of those yellow journalists as man’s walking on the moon, Elvis’ death and Barack Obama’s citizenship.

Which is the real danger.  By focusing so stridently on working conditions in China and the disparity between worker wages in two countries, the media covering this sparring match between these handful of news producers and this still-remarkably gifted playwright miss a much bigger point.

This difference between the U.S. and China – which was only given a passing mention throughout this story – is something far more profound than worker salaries.  In fact, worker salaries are, relatively speaking, a drop in the bucket.

No, the difference between the two manufacturing countries is their supply chains and their commitment to educating skilled workers.  It is the resources each has on-hand to tool and re-tool a manufacturing plant, along with the relative ease of accessing them.

That’s the danger in this story.

Daisey is so working-condition focused, as is now the media covering him, that they have missed a golden opportunity to explain to the average American that it might take a U.S. manufacturing company up to six months to round up a few thousands engineers for a project – if, indeed, rounding up that many was even possible – while it might take its Chinese competitor just a week.

And I mean that literally.

Likewise, the media covering this story missed the chance to explain the Mr. and Mrs. Average Joe out there that when a manufacturer in this country needs to re-tool for something as insignificant as a small screw, that re-tooling could take months to actually pull of.  In China, it could take hours.

And again, as much as I had to admit it, I mean that literally.

So while there’s a part of me that watched this recent Mike Daisey hubbub unfold with some mix of curiosity and satisfaction, knowing that it was at least bringing the issue of American vs. Chinese manufacturing to light, there was a much bigger part of me frustrated by the whole affair.

America was told a story about Chinese manufacturing, and how it differs from manufacturing in America.  It’s just that we were not told the whole story.

Or at the very least, we were not told the story we needed to hear.

2 Comments to “Once Again, Media Misses the Bigger Picture”

  1. athulan 1 April 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Hi Perry –

    I am a new reader to your blog. I completely agree with you, this is precisely what has been missing from all the stories about Apple and Chinese manufacturing. In fact, the NY Times did mention the higher flexibility in the Chinese supply chain as a reason for why Apple is in China, and even discussed how low labor costs were in the price of an Apple product in one of its stories. But this get quickly buried under the more human-interest-y story about people working 20 hour shifts. As someone supporting the manufacturing industry (we develop software) I am more interested in the supply chain flexibility since thats what makes for a long term, sustainable advantage — one that can be maintained by China long after labor costs rise and get to parity with the US. But of course, as you rightly have pointed out, this has been completely missed by the media in its discussion of this story.

    • Perry Sainati 9 April 2012 at 7:05 am #

      Thank you so much for your comments. It is amazing how much pack journalism continues to thrive in the mainstream media these days. A lot of trade and industry publications drill down and alert us to the real issues, but for whatever reason the consumer media just loves to tell stories that sell, regardless of whether or not they’re truthful. Accurate maybe, but truthful? That’s often not a major consideration it seems.

      What’s more, while there are a ton of Americans who could care less about nuances and subtleties, and only want the Cliff Notes version of a story, millions of Americans crave reporting and analysis that forego the obvious and disect the grey areas of an issue.

      But again, such reporting doesn’t sell. Headlines sell. Sound bytes sell. Inflamatory rhetoric sells.

      (Sigh.)

      But that’s why I keep writing. And that’s why I continue to try to point my readers to what I believe are the real issues facing us as manufacturers and us as both global consumers and global sellers of manufactured goods.

      As I said, thank you so much for your commments. I hope you’ll keep reading and that you will pass along my blog to others as you see fit.

      Until the next time.


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