Retraction: A Place for Truth and for Fiction

I posted this blog last week introducing the similarities between The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and a This American Life show broadcast in January,  purportedly about the Foxconn factories that make Apple products in China.

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The very next day, on March 16th, in this show, This American Life retracted the January show because the main report upon which it was based contained numerous fabrications.

I had planned to write a follow up post this week identifying the many similarities between This American Life’s report and The Jungle; migrant workers, poverty traps, collusion between government and industry, guards, injuries, pollution, predatory behaviors, underage workers…..the list goes on and the likenesses in theme still amaze me.   In a second post identifying the contrasts, my conclusion was to have been that we have actually made progress.  Now the January show has been retracted, the case for progress having been made is even stronger. But the retraction show raises some other interesting issues:

  • Mike Daisey tries to excuse the fabrications in the original show by saying “the work tells a story that makes people care” and without the fabrications the story “would come apart in a way that would ruin everything.”
  • Charles Duhigg of the New York Times outlines the known issues in Chinese factories. His interview confirms that the issues in the Mike Daisey story have some basis in fact. However they didn’t happen to nearly the same extent and connected manner that Daisey portrays.

As a result the story is not as compelling.   Ira Glass wavers. He states that he doesn’t feel as bad as he did and is no longer sure he should feel bad at all about conditions in Chinese factories.

Working standards in many Chinese factories are significantly worse than we would accept in the USA both by law and by practice.  A question I hope to address in a future post are the criteria by which we should determine whether we should feel bad about it. But let’s assume for a moment that we agree we should.

One of the most challenging issues in CSR and sustainability is motivating stakeholders – especially civil society and shareholders, to care enough to act in a way that rewards companies (and governments) for taking responsible and sustainable paths.  There is continual agonizing for example about walking the right line on climate change – between scientific truth that loses peoples’ interest, versus emotional stories that risk sensationalism and exaggeration.

Factual reporting has a critical role to play, but I would argue that it will not bring about change in society without being translated, responsibly, into accounts that make the personal experience real and meaningful. The same as companies translate the boring feature list of a product into an emotionally appealing advertisement.     Fictional accounts can be a vehicle to stimulate change but, while not misrepresenting fact, they need not purport to be fact to achieve that change.

I would still urge you to read The Jungle and the transcript of Mike Daisey’s show. Also listen to the March 16th This American Life podcast here.  The discussion of the issues is as enlightening as the original show.


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