Feb 022012

There was a time when any paper worth its salt wouldn’t accept quotes from anonymous sources and considered it an insult to investigative journalism. But as newspapers became more competitive, the exceptions became more common. Their use peaked (for a while) in 1981 when the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer documenting the life of an 8 year old heroin addict whose identity was concealed for his protection. Unfortunately for the Post and the Pulitzer Prize Board, the child was a complete fabrication. The use of anonymous sources remains controversial, and some papers have banned the practice altogether. The founder of the most read newspaper in the country, USA Today, Allen H. Neuharth, didn’t allow them at all, saying “There’s not a place for anonymous sources…on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.” Today, among the country’s elite papers, it is still used sparingly.

That practice went out the window when the New York Times published two pieces documenting the emigration of manufacturing jobs to China and a follow-up piece detailing the failure of Apple to maintain a humane work environment for companies assembling i-Devices on its behalf. Of the eleven quotes attributed to current or former Apple employees in the article that ran on January 21, only two are named. The remaining Apple sources: “One former executive”,  “a current Apple executive”, “one former high-ranking Apple executive”, “a former Apple executive”, “another former high-ranking Apple executive”, “one Apple executive”, “a person close to Apple” and “a current Apple executive”. None of the Apple sources in the damning piece written on January 25 are named. This is from The Gray Lady, a paper that used to represent the high bar of journalism.

One could argue that Apple’s legendary secrecy would endanger the employment of the current employees, but former executives as well? Not one former Apple executive thought enough about the abhorrant human rights violations alleged by the Times to speak on the record. Although it allows a freedom that leads to sensational journalism, basing the entirety of you insider perspective on anonymous screed doesn’t reflect very well on respected news sources. Think Star Magazine or The National Enquirer. Here’s what I found to be the most hilarious example of this unattributable “Internet avatar journalism”:

For Mr. Cook, the focus on Asia “came down to two things,” said one former high-ranking Apple executive. Factories in Asia “can scale up and down faster” and “Asian supply chains have surpassed what’s in the U.S.” The result is that “we can’t compete at this point,” the executive said.

When using anonymous “sources”, shouldn’t one “make an attempt” to get “more than one sentence” in quotes? Could you really not get an unnamed source to put two coherent clauses together?

Utter lack of attributable quotes aside, the first piece isn’t very enlightening. Apple, like every other consumer electronics maker, assembles their products in China. It soon became apparent, however, that the first piece was a set-up for the punchline that was delivered January 25: Apple has negligently contributed to 2 industrial accidents in plants where iOS devices were assembled and has consistently turned a blind eye to the conditions that workers in these plants are forced to endure. Unfortunately for any standard bearing a resemblance to serious journalism, not a single source is named. Among the identity-free accusations from Apple:

“You can set all the rules you want, but they’re meaningless if you don’t give suppliers enough profit to treat workers well,” said one former Apple executive with firsthand knowledge of the supplier responsibility group. “If you squeeze margins, you’re forcing them to cut safety.”

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice…If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?”

And the masterstroke that serves as the closing of the piece:

 “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards,” said a current Apple executive.“And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

Even a consultant hired to advise Apple on working conditions couldn’t name himself, but that didn’t prevent a damning allegation:

“We’ve spent years telling Apple there are serious problems and recommending changes,” said a consultant at BSR — also known as Business for Social Responsibility — which has been twice retained by Apple to provide advice on labor issues. “They don’t want to pre-empt problems, they just want to avoid embarrassments.”

“We could have saved lives, and we asked Apple to pressure Foxconn, but they wouldn’t do it,” said the BSR consultant, who asked not to be identified because of confidentiality agreements. “Companies like H.P. and Intel and Nike push their suppliers. But Apple wants to keep an arm’s length, and Foxconn is their most important manufacturer, so they refuse to push.”

Of course people at BSR who do go on record had a decidedly different outlook on working with Apple. From BSR’s President:

“My BSR colleagues and I view Apple as a company that is making a highly serious effort to ensure that labor conditions in its supply chain meet the expectations of applicable laws, the company’s standards and the expectations of consumers.”

I wonder how many off-the-record pussies it takes to make one Eileen Foster. Maybe someday the Times will produce one.

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