Rob Schmitz Interview: Marketplace Reporter on Anti-Apple Fabulist's Return to Stage in the US
Despite being dealt the ass-walloping humiliation of a one-hour radio special dedicated solely to the retraction and refutation of his pile of lies, thespian and self-proclaimed “noted fabulist” Mike Daisey is once again telling his anti-Apple story to audiences in the US. This month, Daisey takes a new version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to Washington DC's Wooly Mammoth Theater, where, on August 4, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak will take the stage for a post-play discussion of the work.
In China, meanwhile, the reporter who exposed Daisey’s fabrications about Foxconn – the manufacturing company contracted by Apple to make many of its devices – is miffed that the performer is still being given a platform. “Despite my findings and despite This American Life’s retraction, and despite the fact that he’s been debunked now, he’s still doing this,” Rob Schmitz tells me. “And people are still believing him, despite the fact that the crux of what he’s saying is heavily biased and doesn’t really bear much resemblance to how things are happening on the ground.”
For his part, Daisey says none of the material Schmitz exposed as lies will appear in the new version of his play.
Schmitz is the China correspondent for American Public Media’s "Marketplace", which he joined in 2010. His discovery of the actor’s lies were reported in an engrossing and sometimes painful episode of "This American Life" that featured a two-part interview with an only somewhat repentant Daisey, who claimed that his mistake was to allow the excerpt to air on the show as journalism. “It is theater,” Daisey told show host Ira Glass. “It uses the tools of theater and memoir to achieve its dramatic arc.” It was also a piece of theater he had held up as non-fiction.
It’s not quite right to say that Schmitz, who meets me in a small cafe near his Shanghai office, is angry. He seems more put out. At times during our conversation, his eyes widen in apparent disbelief that people are willing to grant Daisey even a shred of credibility. But he’s also philosophical about the performer’s role in attracting attention to the lives of factory workers in China.
“I don’t think we should disregard it,” says Schmitz, who’s dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt and, despite bouts of seriousness, is often quick to laugh. “There’s a lot of things that are interesting about what he said, and how he said it, and how it was received, that I think we should pay attention to. He raised awareness about working conditions in China.”
The problem, however, is that Daisey didn’t improve understanding about labor conditions at all. “He took all of the extreme stories about Foxconn in 10 years of really good reporting by journalists and said that he saw them in six days, which gave the impression that the stuff that was happening must be happening all the time.”
There has been a lot of strong reporting about Foxconn over the last decade, particularly by Bloomberg’s Tim Culpan, Schmitz says. But to get a sense about what life is really like for factory workers in China, people could also read authors such as Leslie Chang, who wrote "Factory Girls", and her husband Peter Hessler, a former China correspondent for the New Yorker, who wrote about migrant workers in "Country Driving". These are trusted reporters who have worked in China for years, he says.
“I wouldn’t listen to a theatre performer who doesn’t speak the language and has proven that he has a penchant for lying,” says Schmitz, who leans forward when he talks about Daisey. “That’s what bothers me the most, when I see that people are still interested in it. And maybe they’re just interested in it for entertainment value, and that’s fine. But it’s a little disturbing because it crosses the line of information and entertainment. It’s infotainment.”
What really gets Schmitz is that Daisey gets China so wrong. “He’s dehumanizing a place that he so wants to humanize, or claims that he wants to humanize. That bothers me. That really bothers me. Because people who believe that he cares about the Chinese? Give me a break.” Schmitz scoffs just a little. “If he cares so much about the Chinese, he wouldn’t have taken the interpreter’s words and then just completely lied about everything she said. He talked to workers and then lied about what they said to him. How much respect is he giving the Chinese by doing that? That’s what bothers me, that people believe that this guy is some sort of hero for the Chinese worker.”
Schmitz first came to China as a peace corps volunteer in 1996 and has been back and forward between the country and the US ever since. For the Peace Corps, he was posted to a city called Zigong in Sichuan province, when that part of the country was only just beginning to open up to the outside world. He and a couple who were also with the Peace Corps were the first foreigners in the city since 1949, when Mao Zedong and the Communists came to power. In January, when "This American Life" aired an excerpt of Daisey’s monologue – which describes horrendous conditions under which Foxconn workers supposedly labored – the reporter had been working on a series of stories about the environmental harm caused by factories that supplied components for Apple products.
He has since gone on to report from inside a Foxconn factory, where he detailed life on an iPad assembly line. The work is monotonous, repetitive, and exhausting, mentally and physically, he says. But for most of the employees, it is an improvement on their old lives.
“Their alternative, if they were not at this factory, is that they would be 1,000 to 2,000 miles away, in a rice paddy, or in some other produce paddy, doing the same motions over and over, except they’d be planting rice,” says Schmitz. “They’d be outside, it’d be raining on them, it’d be freezing – or incredibly stifling like it is today, they’d have the sun beating down on them – they’d be wading around in manure, there might be water buffalo there, if they’re lucky, and they’d be doing this from about 4 in the morning to about 6 or 7 in the evening. They wouldn’t get a break, they’d barely have any lunch, and they’d be out in the elements.”
At Foxconn, workers stay in company-provided dorms and lunch is provided on the campus.
“You have to understand where they’re coming from,” Schmitz continues. “This is a huge step up for them. They’ve never had a generation in their family that has ever seen conditions like this. That’s sad, but it’s true. That’s where China is right now in its evolution and its economic transformation.”
There are 400 million people in China who live on less than $2 a day, Schmitz points out. Typically, those are the people who go to work for Foxconn – if they’re lucky. “If you talk about the workers, for the most part they’ll complain about this and that, but they’re fairly grateful for the job they have, and they understand the importance of this job. They’ve seen what it can do as far as its economic transformative power back in their village and in their own lives.”
None of this is to say that Foxconn doesn’t have its problems, many of which have been acknowledged by Apple itself. But it is a far cry from the world imagined by Daisey.
Daisey did actually interview workers at the gates of one of Foxconn’s factories in Shenzhen after meeting with activist groups in Hong Kong that told him stories about exploitation. They're great groups, Schmitz says, but they have a clear agenda to push. What Daisey found out in Shenzhen, however, wasn’t as sexy as what the activists were telling him, Schmitz says, so he lied about what he saw.
“It’s a typical case of exoticisizing China,” he says. “There’s a history of foreigners doing this, of seeing China as this 'Other', too complicated to understand.”
The truth is that in a lot of ways China is very similar to the US. That, perhaps unsurprisingly, extends to its love of Apple's devices. Many Apple consumers in China have family who work for Foxconn or factories like it. “If anyone understands these conditions, says Schmitz, "it’s the Chinese". And yet, they happily buy iPhones as status symbols at a tremendous clip. One analyst predicts that in 2013, the company will sell as many as 40 million iPhones in China.
Perhaps that detail will be included in Daisey's second act.