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.

© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Why the New York Times was right to pick on Apple

  1. Amy – I have been trying to read as much as I can about this. I am persuaded that Apple needed to be singled out, because they can lead by example more than other companies can or will. But I am also worried that we are transposing our values on China – assuming we know what is best for them. Perhaps human rights don’t have boundaries, and any harm is too much harm. But there are parts of this article in particular – http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/01/29/the-apple-boycott-people-are-spouting-nonsense-about-chinese-manufacturing/ that make me pause. What do you think?

    • Hi Anne–I’ll take a look at the piece; thanks for sending. My first response, however, is to be reminded is to be reminded of General Westmoreland’s words in the 1974 documentary Hearts & Minds–here’s a description from Wikipedia:

      A scene described as one of the film’s “most shocking and controversial sequences” shows the funeral of an ARVN soldier and his grieving family, as a sobbing woman is restrained from climbing into the grave after the coffin.[5] The funeral scene is juxtaposed with an interview with General William Westmoreland — commander of American military operations in the Vietnam War at its peak from 1964 to 1968 and United States Army Chief of Staff from 1968 to 1972 — telling a stunned Davis that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

      As I said in the piece, I agree that choices may be hard at the margins–but I don’t think we’re yet anywhere close to the margins in terms of human rights.
      amy gutman recently posted…What price an iPhone?My Profile

  2. Right on! I doubt Apple users care more about human rights, but as one of them I do feel it’s especially galling that products that place such a high premium on beautiful, clean design are manufactured no differently, and more responsibly, than their less elegant and less expensive competitors. I wonder what Steve Jobs would have said, and whether all the media adulation following his death prompted the NYT to look behind the veil?

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