Why the New York Times was right to pick on Apple

Photo: Matt Wakeman

Days after the New York Times pub­lished a dev­as­tat­ing exposé of the myr­iad human costs of our beloved iPhones and iPads—includ­ing one espe­cially grisly and graph­i­cally detailed Chi­nese fac­tory explo­sion fatality—Apple defend­ers swung into gear.

[Apple CEO Tim] Cook has every right to be miffed about the Times report. His com­pany is being sin­gled out,” Larry Dig­nan wrote in ZDNet.

The sec­ond sen­tence is accu­rate. The first, to my mind, is not. Here’s why the New York Times was right to train its sights on Apple:

1.  We are wired to respond to stories.

We do not respond to the gen­eral. We respond to specifics. That’s why news fea­tures always focus on a sin­gle salient exam­ple, one com­pelling case that draws us into the larger story. Trial lawyers know this, mar­keters know this, and yes, reporters know this. And no, it isn’t ratio­nal, but we are not ratio­nal crea­tures. This sin­gu­lar recog­ni­tion is what accounts for the ongo­ing decline of clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics, along with the con­comi­tant rise of its behav­ioral coun­ter­part.

2. “All the kids do it” is not an excuse

Yes, the Times doubt­less tar­geted Apple because “it’s the big dog on the tech block,” as Dig­nan puts it. But so what? Does that make its human rights infrac­tions any less hor­ri­fy­ing? No one is sug­gest­ing that we stop with Apple,  but it seems like a fine place to start.

3. Apple users care more.

Here, I will be shame­lessly anec­do­tal. Based on per­sonal observation—heavily informed by lines drawn when I con­sulted my Face­book net­work on the Apple vs. Win­dows pur­chase question—consumers of Apple prod­ucts (who dis­pro­por­tion­ately hail from the cre­ative econ­omy) are more prone to out­rage over human rights vio­la­tions than are invet­er­ate Win­dows users. Okay, I’ve said my piece. Let the flam­ing begin.

I have not been a big fan of the Times in recent months, with its tone-deaf fea­tures on “Manly Bags for the Week­end War­rior,” includ­ing a snappy lit­tle $2,550 Louis Vuit­ton num­ber (at a time when our nation’s real war­riors are return­ing home to record unem­ploy­ment) and why the nation’s job­less oppose extend­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits (which, of course, and speak­ing from expe­ri­ence, is patently ridiculous).

In this case, how­ever, the Times made the right call. Bot­tom line: You don’t get to fla­grantly trade off human lives against profit. That’s why the noto­ri­ous Ford Pinto memo was so scandalous—and why it sparked pop­u­lar out­rage along with a (later-reduced) $125 mil­lion dam­age award. (As some read­ers will recall, the memo employed a  cost-benefit analy­sis to pre­dict that a given design change would save 180 lives but cost an extra $11 per car, with a total cost esti­mated at $137 mil­lion ver­sus a $49.5 mil­lion price tag put on the antic­i­pated deaths and injuries. Ford opted not to make the change.)

It’s true that, at the mar­gins, choices do get tougher. Because, yes, life is risky and everything—even cross­ing the street—entails a cer­tain risk. At the mar­gins, we are forced to make tough deci­sions, to pri­or­i­tize com­pet­ing con­cerns. But that’s not the case with Apple. Right now, we are nowhere near those margins.

To add your voice to the thou­sands demand­ing that Apple improve global work­ing con­di­tions, please join me in sign­ing this peti­tion.