Bad Apple Journalism

There is an old adage that “a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.” We recently witnessed a spectacular media example of this that has me still scratching my head.  The kerfuffle centers on the one-man show by Mike Daisey, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which was supposedly a journalistic expose of the working conditions endured in the Apple assembly factories in China.

The story was fueled by the death of Jobs and the phenomena of Apple’s massive market growth.  I read the original magazine cover story and saw the item on CBS Sunday Morning, along with dozens of other media outlets.   At the time, there was a flurry of denial and explanations from various Apple folk, but eventually the story faded away into the background noise associated with the rising manufacturing dominance of China.

Recently, the other shoe dropped.  It turns out that the theatrical production by Daisey was just that – theater rather than journalism.  He didn’t have the access he claimed and many of the interviews were dramatically enhanced to the point where even fact checking from 8,000 miles away by other media outlets proved the story’s lack of credibility.

An NPR magazine show that I have a particular soft spot for, “This American Life,” ran an hour-long retraction in which it dissected the story step by step, as well as analyzed how they got the story so embarrassingly wrong.   Of course, the product of all of this journalistic mess is a riot of crowing from the Chinese government and industry claiming that this proves Western media bias.

The temptation to over-egg the pudding to come up with a more dramatic and interesting story (perhaps to bolster the particular political angle of the author) has traditionally been mitigated by the editorial process.  However, in the modern media world where the fact-checking process is often regarded as undesirable overhead, this kind of “truth-quake” will get more and more common.

Somebody pass me my iPad.  I need to research this.

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