Secondhand Smoke Signals
- “My cousin lives in Turkey, and he says he heard that only foreign fighters are carrying on the conflict in Syria.”
- “One worker told a story of another man who said he heard someone on his assembly line talking about the sores and bone spurs on his feet that never healed because every day was an 18-hour workday.”
- “As a doctor, I’ve talked to parents whose autistic children were so precariously balanced that something as small as the cancellation of a play date threw them into a violent rage that ended with the child menacing the parent with a knife. We need the resources to help these children get the hospital care they need.”
Now, I did a stint in journalism school when I first went to college, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of Law & Order marathons, so I won’t make assumptions that everyone sees the problem that those three quotes have in common. All three are fairly egregious exaggerations of unsubstantiated hearsay, which just won’t fly in a respectable publication or a court of law. It’s easy to imagine how they would be received. As journalism, the writer who submitted them would be laughed out of the newsroom by everyone from the copy editor to the cub reporter working the obituary beat. As testimony, the judge might file the objection herself before the opposing council could even get out of his seat.
Or worse: you could end up like Mike Daisey. He’s a performer who got a lot of attention for a one-man show called “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” especially after Jobs’ death. Daisey’s work and the publicity it garnered brought the labor conditions at Apple’s subcontractor factory in Shengzhen, China to light for many people, driving the debate about the real cost of iPads when workers were committing suicide because it was preferable to another day on the Foxconn assembly line. The producers at WBEZ’s radio show This American Life were so impressed by Daisey’s show–the harrowing eyewitness accounts from his own trip to Foxconn, the tragic testimony he collected from abused workers, and the shocking indifference he exposed in Apple’s administrators and consumers–that they adapted the show for an entire hour-long episode.
Except Mike Daisey was lying. Conditions were horrible at Foxconn’s factories, and workers were suffering and dying for our shiny appliances. But he hadn’t seen the things he had said he’d seen; some of the testimony he recounted hearing firsthand was really second- or thirdhand. Ira Glass and the TAL staff (as were countless other journalists and media figures who’d given Daisey a platform and endorsement) were so embarrassed and furious at being duped into telling their audience things that weren’t true that they tracked down Daisey’s interpreter in China and got the real scoop on his visit. They then had Daisey back on the show for Ira to interview in what can only be described as one of the most excruciating half-hours of media ever produced. I highly recommend listening to both the original show and the retraction episode, but be warned: it’s brutal.
The level of outrage and disillusionment that accompanies the exposure of a reporter who doesn’t do due diligence is high, and it should be. We depend on people to get into the places, talk to the people, witness the events that we just can’t as regular, everyday people. Secondhand or thirdhand isn’t good enough, because we know that each degree of separation from the source costs us an unacceptable toll of perspective and authenticity.
But we accept it every day in stories about autistics and the mentally ill.
When’s the last time you read a story about autism that quoted an autistic child or adult? I’ve seen plenty of stories in which experts and parents tell you what their child’s behavior means, but I’ve never seen a feature that reads, “When I’m flapping my hands, it’s a way for me to stimulate my senses so my mind is free to focus on other difficult tasks, like putting words to my ideas so you can understand them.” Most autistics are capable of speaking for themselves, and new technologies allow more non-verbal people to communicate clearly and effectively. In fact, I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my copy of the new anthology, Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, and I loved the diversity of autistic voices included in the documentary Loving Lampposts.
The most recent example of this lazy, ignorant, shameful abridgment in the media is a cover story for the USA Today by Liz Szabo. In over 3,000 words, not counting captions for the color pictures and infographics, the article quotes not a single person with a mental illness or disorder. It’s not like there was no one to talk to. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 57.7 million American adults experience at least one episode of mental illness a year. And current estimates suggest that 1.5 million people on the autism spectrum live in the US. That’s more than the population of the New Orleans metro area, more than the populations of Alaska and Wyoming combined. More than the number of active duty troops in the US Military as of December 31, 2011.
Foxconn employs 1.3 million workers. We were dismayed and angry that a man who had no direct personal experience of their lives claimed to speak for the voiceless. We called for and received a public immolation of his reputation. But one in four American adults has experience with a mental illness or disorder, and we’re okay with “experts” and surrogates dominating the debate?
Our country has a lot of work to do on issues surrounding mental health. Destigmatization, holistic treatment, restorative therapy for mentally ill criminals, and long-term strategies for integration and care all need our attention desperately. But right now, how about we start by insisting that the affected voices be in the room? Put the subjects on the list of people to talk to for a story, or a study, or a hearing, or a forum. I used to think this was obvious–at least, until this hearing on contraception:
But we wouldn’t take a commission on racism seriously if it only had white people. And we wouldn’t stand for an article about what it’s like to have breast cancer without a single survivor quoted. We value those voices rightly, because their experience is irreplaceable.
We have to hold the media–and ourselves as consumers–to the same standard when it comes to mental illness and disorders like autism. Sometimes, secondhand just isn’t good enough.
UPDATE: Within 12 hours of posting this, I had a message in my Facebook inbox from…wait for it…Mike Daisey. I was frankly stunned that my little blog had ended up on his radar, and suspected mechanisms like Google Alerts and Reputation.com, until my boss told me that Mike had been Our Man On The Inside at Amazon for Atlas Games (the company I work for) for quite some time, and had even written content for our Unknown Armies roleplaying game line.
The message was very polite, and included a link to his blog for updates on what he’s been doing since to make reparations and keep his conscience clear. By all means, read it if you’d like to follow up the story–I’m all about getting my sources right. And I hope my original post adequately conveys my intention to mark Daisey’s work as instrumental in opening the public discussion about the labor conditions behind our favorite devices.
Daisey also mentioned a major article in WIRED Magazine about Foxconn that fails to cite a single worker, but hasn’t been held up to the same scrutiny as his work. All of which goes to show that the media still isn’t serious about talking to the subjects and victims of oppression, only about them.
I should perhaps note that my “Our Man On The Inside” comment was a bit tongue in cheek. As I recall, Mike worked at Amazon when he was writing for Unknown Armies (working on the extremely-popular sourcebook Postmodern Magick for example). I remember suspecting that he was the one behind orders I’d sometimes see for single copies of RPG books going to Amazon (for which, at the time, we’d give Amazon a whopping 15% special order discount and require them to prepay by check). I know he made a short movie of wandering the quiet weekend halls of Amazon right after he was laid off, and I’m certain I have a copy of it floating around on some hard drive. (Maybe it’s on the web too. This was before there was much video on the web.)
I knew he had gone on to do some theatrical/monologue stuff (maybe someone sent me a link to an announcement about a one-man show years ago when he started doing it?), and can’t believe I missed the whole TAL thing and the connection to the Foxconn story.
In any case…very talented, smart and creative guy. And it’s an eerily small world. This has been a year of me finding out that folks whose work I published 10-20 years ago are big and famous in a nearby field nowadays (film, computer games, etc.).
I have just reviewed a study on how the New York Times has referenced autism from 1973-2011 which I hope will show up soon in Disability Studies Quarterly. These are the kind of stats we need when we present media representations about autism. In addition, I ask that we all consider training researchers and writers on the overusage of normate-language as a reflection of our concept of normalcy. Language is a half-formed tool. I propose we attempt to provide a bias-free disability dictionary, and some articles on how language itself doesn’t measure up to represent autistic people (as opposed to autistic people “not” measuring up). A semiotic awareness as well as respect for radical sensory language that seems to belong to many individuals with autism is perhaps a way to reframe the entire media “angle,” if you will. It can add to our sensitivity to different knowledges that exist outside of typical language systems.
That’s amazing. I’ve thought for a long time that some of the emphasis on early literacy and standardized testing crowds out essential understanding of the different linguistic options that all qualify as language. It drives me absolutely nuts to see people referred to as “nonverbal” or “incommunicative,” when the failure is on the receiving end, not the transmitting one. So many different frames for syntax, connotation, and relational meaning already exist–the example I usually point to is American Sign Language–and I’d love to see a less biased system for discussing all the ways sensory experiences can be incorporated into expression. I can’t wait to read your article–thanks for all your hard work!