Goodbye, Radiolab: The Fact of the Matter of Storytelling

For writers, the greatest reward is human connection. But when that connection is absent, the failure of empathy can be painful.

***

To be loved or to be read?

That was the question I had been asking myself ever since hearing Richard Nash describe how, upon the publication of their first book, authors often realize that what they really want–more than that physical object–is to be loved. For a while, I argued the point in my head. What I wanted out of publication, I thought, and maybe what most writers truly want, is for those stories to be heard.

It occurred to me, though, that I had made an arbitrary dichotomy. I wanted to write about intentions, but I hated to set up a choice between two things that are not mutually exclusive, or are not exclusive at all. I searched for a third option. It took the latest episode of Radiolab, a podcast and science-based storytelling project out of WNYC, New York’s Public Radio station, for me to realize that what I really want to do, as a storyteller, is to reach.

♦◊♦

I have been going on about Radiolab for years now. It started when someone pointed me toward an episode about a parasite that can control another bug’s mind—this ability is out there, in the animal kingdom—an episode that becomes even more amazing when that science is applied to a human story, of a man who thinks he is being controlled by a parasite in cat scat. He turns to parasites as a way to explain his social isolation, it seemed to me, and Radiolab describes this man’s story with empathy and fascinating science.

I had constructed the question to be loved or to be read in the passive. But the storytelling on this show seemed to grab me by the shoulder and say, hey, this is relevant, to, well, humanity. And isn’t that what a storyteller—be it poet, essayist, radio personality, etc—wants his work to do, to reach people?  The desire isn’t necessarily about being loved, and isn’t about the pageviews, not really, for all their video-gameness, or even for the implied audience size. It is the hope that something in a story, the true truth, can connect with what audience you have, can change them.

I came up against this recently in the comments of two essays I published online. One was about the yellowface in the Cloud Atlas movie, which met with plenty of backlash from (it must be said: white) people defending the choice to have (mostly white) actors play multiple races despite the historical context of yellow/blackface. These comments never upset me, even when they came close to attacking. I wondered why, then, a comment on an essay about the danger of singular models—the first comment—upset me so much that I spent an entire day thinking I might stop writing essays altogether. This comment was not so nasty as those on the “Yellowface” essay. It was about my choice to mention something the commenter had emailed to me, though I kept her anonymous and no one would have known who’d said it if she hadn’t identified herself.

What upset me about the comment was not that I wasn’t being loved. What upset me was not that I wasn’t being read, either, since the commenter is, or at least was, an active reader of my work. What upset me was the possibility that readers who might respond to the essay enough to share their own stories about singular models, their own experiences, would be met in the comment thread by this attack not on the essay or the ideas expressed therein and might be dissuaded from sharing. What upset me was that I was unable to reach this reader, and that her comment might derail the essay’s ability to reach others. I had tried my best to make myself vulnerable so that I might reach others’ vulnerabilities, and this comment seemed to cheapen that, somehow, to make it seem as if I had written for my own self-value, to be read or to be loved.

I got over it, but I did start wondering why I write.

♦◊♦

And then along came the new Radiolab podcast, “The Fact of the Matter,” which took as its subject truth. It was as if the podcast had been made to address my wonderings. When I started listening, the episode was only 2 hours old. I was taking care of my 15-month-old baby with the podcast in the background—my preferred method, these days, of babycare, since it allows my mind to expand at the same time as it must focus on all the tiny dangers of everyday life. I listened along to filmmaker Errol Morris’s tale of his search for the truth in two photographs. Then the podcast transitioned to the story of a possible chemical weapon, “Yellow Rain,” used on the Hmong people by the Viet Cong in retaliation for the Hmong involvement in the Vietnam War. By the end of the segment, I was crying. My baby was confused, patting my face to comfort me, but I could not be comforted. I wasn’t crying for the truth in the story, though. Unfortunately. I was crying for the mistreatment of truth. A part of me, too, was mourning the end of Radiolab, its end for me, at least, and the end on the show of true storytelling, of putting the story before the storyteller.

This is what happens in the episode [spoiler alert]. One of the producers talks to a retired CIA officer who was stationed in Laos directly after the Vietnam War. At the same time, Robert Krulwich, one of the Radiolab hosts, interviews a survivor of this genocide, Eng Yang, who is translated by his niece, Kao Kalia Yang. The interview opens with Eng describing how the Viet Cong attacked the Hmong people (the slaughter of an entire village), setting the scene for the reports the CIA officer starts receiving.

The reports are about “yellow droplets” falling on the Hmong from Viet Cong planes. “They all,” Jad Abumrad (our other host) says, of all the reports, “said, whatever this was, when it landed it made people violently ill.” Many died. An investigation was made into the possibility of chemical warfare.

The segment then veers off into the study of this “Yellow Rain” and whether it was actually a man-made weapon. At first, it seemed to be. The US blamed the Russians and began production of their own chemical weapons in response. Later, though, scientists started to find that the yellow rain was not a chemical weapon. The episode builds up evidence showing the yellow rain was actually bee feces. At this point, we return to the interview with Eng and Kalia, where we left their story of the Hmong genocide.

Robert brings up the scientific evidence for bee poop. Eng replies that he saw people dying with his own eyes, those who were covered in the yellow dust. The interviewers point out that the deaths may have been caused by dysentery, disease, etc. from their flight from the Viet Cong. Eng says that chemicals were definitely involved. Robert asks whether there was always a plane and then rain or sometimes rain without a plane. Eng says they didn’t stop to check. They ran or hid from the bombs and looked afterward. But the yellow rain was only being dropped on large concentrations of Hmong people. Robert questions again the fact of airplanes.

When Eng protests, Robert says to Kalia, “But he himself is not clear whether it’s the bee stuff or whether it’s other stuff. Because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.”

When Eng says he knew there were chemicals, whether from bombs or yellow rain, chemicals were being used—it’s just semantics—and that there is a “sad lack of justice” that the word of a man who saw his people dying must be pitted against the word of a Harvard professor, Robert cuts in again. “But,” he tells Kalia, “as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t see a plane. All of this is hearsay.”

Kalia is choking up at this point. And her long response ends the interview. Here it is as well as I could transcribe it:

My uncle says for the last 20 years, he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know what happened to the Hmong happened. And the world has been uninterested for the last 20 years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard, and that the Hmong deaths would be [well?]-documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview. That the Hmong heart is broken. That our leaders have been silenced. And what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reasons. That Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story. That they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can. But I am not interested. My uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people, in the process.

Every time I listen to this, I start to cry. Every time. About ten times now.

“I think that the interview is done,” she says.

Then there’s a long pause, over ten seconds of dramatic radio silence. When Jad and Robert return, Jad describes Kalia as asking them to stop looking at the bee pollen instead of the larger story of the Hmong genocide. Then this happens: Robert says, “That is exactly what she’s saying. And that is wrong. That is absolutely—to my mind, that is not fair to us.” He says, “It’s not fair to ask us to not consider the other stories and the other frames of the story. The fact that the most powerful man in the world, Ronald Reagan, used this story to order the manufacture of chemical weapons for the first time in 20 years. I mean, that is not unimportant, it’s hugely important. But it’s not important to her. So should that not be important to us?” He says, “I thought her reaction was very balancing. But her desire was not for balance. Her desire was to monopolize the story. And that we can’t allow.”

I have tried not to leave out anything that could make his response seem more measured. But in the end, it always comes down to: “Her desire was to monopolize the story. And that we can’t allow.

To his credit, Jad does push back against this. Though Robert says, “Oh, if you listen to the words, that’s what she says.”

Aside from him putting words in Kalia’s mouth, aside from taking complete ownership of what they said, interpreting their words for his own purposes (ironically enough, to express indignation that Kalia and Eng might take ownership of the story), there’s the idea that Robert has the power over what truth should be presented. That Radiolab will dictate where the story goes. The Hmong taking ownership of a story about the Hmong genocide, “that we can’t allow.” I’ll come back to this, because this is where storytelling dies its death on Radiolab.

Jad seems to take the role of the calmer head then. He says, “I just think that they feel like their trauma has never been fully acknowledged, and that they’ve attached it to this—because maybe they felt like they had to—they’ve attached it to this idea that Yellow Rain was a chemical weapon. And if Yellow Rain suddenly isn’t a chemical weapon, that doesn’t just un-validate the Yellow Rain, it negates their whole loss. And I think she might be right.”

This, in the end, is what they seem to come to an agreement on. And at first glance, it doesn’t sound that bad. But then take into account again that Jad is ascribing a motivation to Kalia and Eng (though we could have heard from them directly if the interview had been handled correctly) and that the ideas Jad is ascribing are, to be direct, quite ludicrous. That they’ve attached their trauma to the idea that Yellow Rain was a chemical weapon? Kalia and Eng seem naturally to be more concerned with genocide and with the silence on that topic than with what exactly killed the Hmong, And then Jad says that if Yellow Rain is not a chemical weapon, it negates their whole loss. He believes that this is what she thinks. Perhaps because this is what Robert seems to be doing in the interview, negating their loss. And Jad ascribes this whole train of thought to Kalia and validates it with his own confirmation–he thinks she might be right–though it was always his opinion alone. He is speaking for her, completely. He never allows her words to speak for themselves, the same mistake the interview makes.

Kalia and Eng do want to make their story heard. “And that we can’t allow,” Robert says. We can’t allow their story to become the main story. Why?

Why, I ask? Why?

A quick side note: I feel I must, at this point, mention the cultural factors at play here. Jad and Robert are starting with the genocide of an Eastern people as a jumping-off point to talk about the effect (of one aspect—Yellow Rain) of that story on the West. Robert discusses the importance of the story being the fact that the bee feces, not ultimately a chemical weapon, spurred the US to manufacture chemical weapons. Surely this is indeed important, but it seems to me that framing the story this way and insisting on that frame is prioritizing the importance of the effect genocide had on the Western countries (production of chemical weapons) over the effect (death) on the people who directly experienced the event, the Hmong.

To state my point differently, I would submit that when the pursuit of the truth overlooks suffering for potential suffering, that is not a truth that is true. Maybe it is too easy, when thinking about how the actual Hmong deaths are sidelined for the story of the weapons, to read race and cultural dominance into the decision. But one thing is for sure, Radiolab is prioritizing the potential over the actual. The Hmong died. This happened. The story of those deaths, however, the story with which they begin and which carries the emotional impact of the segment, is not a focus Robert can allow. It is not the truth he wants to tell. Why?

Storytelling. I want to quote, here, the poet Dean Young (from The Art of Recklessness): “The highest accomplishment of the human consciousness is the imagination, and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” I am missing the empathy in Robert’s interview. I am missing the empathy, but also, even, the imagination.

♦◊♦

The episode, “The Fact of the Matter,” talks at one point about truth being fact, that if you keep looking you will find a yes or a no. But we who tell stories should know better. Writers, and storytellers of all forms, know that an important part of telling a story is to allow the story to go where it must, where the emotion is, where the empathy is, where the imagination leads it. This sounds vague and too conceptual maybe. But think of it like this. I want to tell a story about whether or not something is a chemical weapon. And in doing so, I stumble across the story of thousands of people who were murdered because of their race. Do I stick stubbornly to the story of the nature of the chemical weapon, or do I let the story that emerges be the story I offer readers? I am not writing for myself.

Why do we tell stories? Which story is it that really reaches people? Maybe it is not the story Radiolab started with, maybe it is not the story they wanted to get out there, or wanted people to appreciate, but the story of the Hmong is the story that reaches me. It seems the same for others, if the comments amassing on the episode page are any indication.

One of these comments, it so happens, is from Kalia’s husband, who was present for the interview. He mentions that in a part of the interview that did not run, Eng mentions having seen canisters releasing chemical weapons. He also mentions that Eng knows what dysentery looks like, knows how bees behave and what bee poop looks like. He mentions that no apology was ever given, and “When Kalia asked if she could have a copy of the entire interview, Krulwich responded “youll [sic] need a court order for that”

Other comments I noted right away are one that mentions that Eng says in Hmong that he has some “experiential education in bee feces” but this background is never acknowledged by the program. Another mentions that Kao Kalia Yang is an accomplished writer, and that while Errol Morris and others in the episode are mentioned as “filmmaker Errol Morris,” given credentials, Kalia is never given a context that could in give her any claim to authority.

Maybe it was these comments that elicited a response from Jad in which he says they were not trying “to minimize the suffering of the Hmong people, quite the opposite.” But as a last note in this response, Jad sticks to his guns. He defends Robert, saying, “He believes, as we all do, that the truth [about the nature of the yellow rain] is a matter of life or death. It’s not just bee poop.” I wonder if this misses the point. The genocide of the Hmong people was also, literally, a matter of life or death. The decision to manufacture chemical weapons is not yet a matter of life or death, though it could be in the future. In the interview, Eng insists that whether the chemicals were from bombs or yellow rain, chemicals were used. Proving that the sample of yellow dust was bee poop, doesn’t mean that there weren’t chemical weapons. It simply means that there was bee poop. These are not mutually exclusive truths. Here is a truth either way: thousands of Hmong were murdered.

Radiolab has lost me as a listener. But, in fact, I have learned something about story and truth from this episode. I have learned something from the comments on the episode. After listening, I felt so let down. As with the comment that seemed to derail my essay, I almost convinced myself that people have stopped caring to connect with each other genuinely. I felt, with my baby pawing my face, as if something that I believed in, about stories and our human need for stories, something I wanted for my own writing, had died. It had died. But in the comments, in other people’s outrage, I actually found hope. I found that people out there, the people who are listening and reading and trying to understand, want to be reached. That it doesn’t matter if they love you or listen to you loyally or not—many of these commenters are long-time Radiolab listeners who have decided to give the program up—it matters if the story being told is trying to reach out to them or not. It matters to them, to us. It matters so deeply that we will let those stories take root in our hearts, or we will cut the storytellers off forever.

Goodbye, Radiolab. I will miss you.

Photo— grjenkin/Flickr

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About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses contributed to the very first day of The Good Men Project. He writes the "Love, Recorded" column about his wife, baby, and cats. He has written for The New York Times, NPR, the Center for Asian American Media, Salon, The Rumpus, and others. He is the author, most recently, of Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American masculinity. See more at his eponymous website. Contact him via email or @salesses.

Comments

  1. You are so truly amazing.

  2. Anjanette says:

    I feel the exact same way – they lost me as a listener. Thank you for this wonderful piece.

  3. @Matthew – I’ve read & re-read this & heard the original Radio Lab broadcast….
    And I cannot understand, or perhaps empathize- more accurately, w/ your reaction…
    It takes a lot more than one disagreement for me to lose a connection- which in some incremental manner bodes well for me continuing to read you.

  4. smallerdemon says:

    I stopped listening when they did the crossover with This American Life about the chimp raised as a human that was subsequently left on an island to live with other chimps and then killed by poachers because the chimp would have been receptive and friendly to any humans showing up.

    There’s a certain point in your life where you realize “I think I know how terrible people can be. I don’t need to know that again like this.” And I walked away from Radiolab and This American Life.

    I listen to more positive things now. Nerdist, The Indoor Kids, The Bugle (since they understand if you go dark and profound you end up forgetting about the human spirit that is also wonderful) and just anything else that focuses on moving forward, not on the terribleness that we all already know about all too well.

    Good for you for moving forward.

    • God that episode killed me. I realized I hated my mother because that woman sacrificed for an animal the likes of which my mother would never do for me.

      It’s gutted me. I eventually tuned in again, months later. But I can’t turn away from radio for it. Every person messes up, everyone missteps and falls on their face. Radiolab needs to apologize to his listeners. The show needs to empathize more with its subjects the way This American Life does.

      Not defending Robert Krulwich, but for years he thought he had been walking with his wife the day she saw Jackie Kennedy hailing a cab. He was able to describe the experience vividly, yet wasn’t even there. Perhaps he was so taken aback by that whole snafu that he truly thinks there’s a possibility that everyone else shares in his particular memory shortcomings. We don’t, and I can see how people would get fed up with a show where every episode brings controversy like this.

  5. Science is science. Conventional bombs are not considered chemical weapons by any common standard. In a podcast about uncovering facts, I’m sorry but hearsay has to be questioned. What happened to the Hmong is beyond tragic, but does that give them the right to say something untruthful? What you seem to be saying is it doesn’t matter if it was chemical weapons, the real story is the tragedy of the genocide, but by the way, it was chemical weapons and not bee excrement because really that actually matters a lot to me. I mean why not just admit it was an insane situation and nobody was sure? Why insist?
    I think objective reporting needs to be objective and facts are facts no matter the context. Sorry to see you go.

    • Paul —
      I don’t think that the point here is that “facts” shouldn’t be revealed. I personally agree that, yes, facts are important. It does nobody any good to “spread” faulty information. But I think the problem with the segment was that this misses the point entirely. There is a time and space for that. And the thing is that the truth about THAT matter was already revealed. However many decades ago, the scientists found that their hypothesis of bee poop was wrong. Okay. Fine. But that doesn’t negate the fact that SOMETHING was killing the Hmong. And they believe very strongly that it was NOT bee poop. Who are we to tell them what they did or didn’t live through? It’s an eyewitness account.

      I think for the producers of the show… they set out wanting to prove a truth that had already been shown, and in the process stumbled across a bigger truth — a STORY that hadn’t been told. Debating facts are just that — facts. A story of a people’s suffering is something bigger.

      The context of this is also so important. It’s easy for us to dismiss the Hmong’s account of he saw. There’s a picture that’s been painted. An old villager in a backwater town who has no education and so no clue of what he’s seeing. It’s hearsay. It’s not science. But beyond the fact that he apparently actually has a ton of experience with bees (not to mention familiarity with his own land, country, people, what kinds of symptoms appear with what kinds of diseases), why do you think we can easily dismiss his account as “hearsay” when if something like that happened to us, in America, we would listen and care? Do we prioritize and “trust” certain individuals (or groups of individuals) over others?

      Let me ask you this: Would you say the same thing to a Holocaust survivor? A 9/11 survivor? Would you debate semantics and facts when the survivor is trying to tell you what he or she LIVED through? Would you stop the narrative of their horror tale and say, Well, but actually, THAT wasn’t what really happened, it was ACTUALLY this kind of gas that killed all your friends and relatives. Well TECHNICALLY what killed most of those people in the WTC was the collapsing of the buildings due to infrastructural weaknesses, and not an EXPLOSION. Would that matter to them? Would they care? And would you think you could go after them in the same fashion, to make them feel stupid or as if they didn’t see and experience what they know they experienced?

      Responsible journalism includes gathering the facts, fact-checking, yes. But it also means putting those facts into context. It also means getting the human side of the story, the human side of the truth. It means being empathetic to the truths of people who have lived through something. There is no black and white truth sometimes — fact is not the same as truth, and I think that should have been something complicated that Radiolab should have explored. Had an opportunity to explore, in fact, and chose not to. The truth here is that the Hmong suffered, whether through bee poop or other chemical warfare or not, and that is a truth that cannot, in a more humanitarian world, be ignored.

      I don’t disagree that facts are important. I don’t even disagree that the fact that there could have been a potential fallout vis-a-vis the US government because of factual error isn’t an important one. But that’s not for Hmong to take responsibility for. If Robert Krulwich was so concerned about that, then why ask the Hmong? Why not ask the Regan administration those difficult questions? They were the ones who jumped the gun. It isn’t the responsibility of the Hmong people to take blame for a “could-have-been” chemical war. What they care about is their story, their suffering. Why do we care less about their actual suffering because we’re shocked by what suffering we could have (and did not) eventually endure?

      To focus on the facts is to miss the point. Yes, there’s a place for those facts. Absolutely. But context also absolutely matters. Here, Eng and his niece were hoping to tell a bigger truth — the story of the unheard suffering of the Hmong — and Radiolab wanted to reduce it to bickering about bee poop. Bee poop versus the massacre of an entire people. That’s as silly and preposterous as it sounds.

      • Karissa,

        I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand your post. You claim that Radiolab wasn’t “the time of the place” for revealing facts, but the whole point of Radiolab IS to reveal facts.

        It seems like a forum that was very deliberately set up to ask hard questions is now being attacked for asking hard questions. Rob and Jad set out to reveal the facts behind a specific incident, they deliberately attempted to create a time and place where the facts could be revealed. And you’re going to claim it wasn’t the “time or the place”? What the heck else were they supposed to do?

        Also, this strikes me as an exceedingly dangerous sentiment:
        “But that doesn’t negate the fact that SOMETHING was killing the Hmong. And they believe very strongly that it was NOT bee poop. Who are we to tell them what they did or didn’t live through? It’s an eyewitness account.”

        This type of thinking, that the unscientific “eyewitness account” is somehow worth something is, quite frankly, killing people in Africa right now because “eyewitness accounts” about folk cures for HIV keep people from seeking and receiving real treatment.

        Could Rob and Jad have been more sensitive in their treatment of Eng? Certainly. Was this the wrong time or place? No. Should these questions not be asked? No.

        At the end of the day, critical thinking often results in answers we don’t want to hear. Deeply held beliefs that are tied to our emotions can be VERY wrong despite our emotional investment. There is nothing wrong with asking the hard questions in order to exercise critical thought. There is something very wrong with attacking others merely because they seek to examine a situation critically.

        • Mike, it seems like you are misunderstanding Karissa. I think re-reading her remark with a more open mind and not viewing her as adversary would do you well; you agree on more than you disagree with them.

          With regard to the Radio Lab folks, I have very little sympathy for them myself. If they were really looking for the Big-T truth, one would imagine they wouldn’t have edited out portions of the interview in which Eng attested to being a beekeeper with extensive lived knowledge of the geography and ecology of the area, which gives him perception of credibility. Or, if they wanted the Big-T truth, they might have chosen to include parts of Eng’s account in which he apparently asserts to have seen canisters that could correspond to those from chemical weapons. Or they may have properly identified Eng and his niece as more than “Hmong guy” and “Hmong guy’s niece”–setting up a straw-man battle of hearsay versus SCIENCE! between a genocide victim identified only by his ethnicity and a bunch of people with Ph.D.s and/or fancy titles. Or, perhaps they may have provided a more well-rounded, nuanced discussion of the issue of “Yellow Rain” toxin testing. (It’s a science show, let’s hear about the science! How reliable were the samples taken some time after the fact? What is the hypothetical toxic compound’s long-term stability–is it plausible that it may have degraded? Et cetera!)

          It is entirely possible that there were no chemical weapons used in this particular instance of this conflict–or, at the very least, none that correspond to the appearance of the “Yellow Rain.” However, to seek to prove this, to explore the geopolitical ramifications of the “Yellow Rain,” and to explore the nature and manipulation of politico-historical “Truth,” Radio Lab did not need to verbally assail and harass a survivor of genocide, as if he were singularly, personally, willfully responsible for propagating (in their view) a planted lie from the Reagan administration. This is, I think, the common point of many responders here. There was nothing gained to the story in this interview as it was presented. Robert has no empathy.

          • Jack,

            Karissa and I fundamentally disagree, and frankly I find your flippant remarks on my supposed “close mindedness” insulting.

            At the end of the day, Karissa will always give some deference to “eyewitness accounts” she makes this clear in the second post here. I believe (and scientific evidence bears out) that eyewitness accounts are some of the least reliable pieces of evidence available to mankind. I don’t care what the guy being interviewed saw, there’s every possibility it was 100% wrong. Karissa fails to acknowledge this.

            At best, we agree that Rob could have been more tactful, but there is a clear divide here on how we should treat eyewitness accounts when searching for the truth of the matter.

    • Change the word Hmong with Jew, and ask again if their experience is “hearsay”. Or see if you’d ve making the same question at all. Some genocides, including methods, seem sacrosanct while others are questioned by those who weren’t there and have no way of knowing either way. Questioning survivors that way is at the very least insensitive, but also reveal an arrogant race bias and beg the question, how do we go about ethically discussing genocide.

      Andrea

  6. Kirti Kamboj says:

    This was moving and insightful, and very well said. Thanks for writing and sharing this.

  7. I’m old enough to remember when this was happening. That means I’m old enough to remember various responses to it. One of these was the American government sending in representatives to interview the native people about the yellow rain.
    What struck me was how the interviewers discounted the narratives of the native people, because when they went back and re-interviewed them some time later, the native people said virtually word for word what they had first said. The conclusion of the interviewers was that someone who supported the idea of what yellow rain was, must have come in and rehearsed the locals. “Normal” human beings don’t tell the same story verbatim in this manner.
    But I’m American Indian. I know what it means to come from an Oral Tradition. It means an awareness your culture is only one generation away from extinction. It means you are raised to listen in a different way than most Americans are taught to listen. In fact in our language, one introduces a story by letting your audience know if you’re about to tell them a story that has something to teach them—or if you’re about to tell them something about your Oral History. When we tell the Oral History of how our treaty was signed in 1855, the elders will explain precisely the time of day, what direction the wind was blowing, where the Chiefs and the non-Natives were standing, and what was said. When you tell a teaching story, that sort of information isn’t useful.
    In other words, for people with an Oral Tradition—like my community, or like the Hmong, we do have the capacity to tell the same story the way we told it the last time. What troubled me was hearing the Hmong testimony being dismissed because it didn’t follow the belief system of non-natives.
    It was Jay who suggested it doesn’t take creativity to know you’ve got the wrong answer. It takes creativity to know you’ve got the wrong question.

  8. Oh, by “time and space” I meant specifically during the interview. In my opinion, it’s not sensitive to debate facts with a survivor of a genocide while he’s recounting his tale. Facts have a place, yes. But this was Robert missing the forest for the trees. The man is telling him something, a truth bigger than the facts he was in pursuit of, and here Robert was, focused only on the fact, and his narrow agenda for a story. He failed to see how actually, in the context of ENG’S STORY, that fact didn’t matter. What mattered was his people were dying, targeted in large groups. For a show usually so great about turning something on its head and finding the philosophical, gray-area in facts and science, it was disappointing that Radiolab didn’t seize this opportunity to demonstrate how you can go searching for one thing, and find something even larger.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that eyewitness testimonies should be considered irrefutable. I don’t disagree that eyewitness accounts should be scrutinized and that sole reliance on eyewitness accounts can be dangerous. Our criminal justice system doesn’t rely only on witnesses for a reason (and yet we DO give substantial weight to witnesses, especially if testimonies can be corroborated…) At the same time, I think the problem here is partially in HOW he is portrayed as a witness. Why is the testimony of a man who saw people dying with his own eyes, who saw loved ones, friends poisoned, who knew his land well, less reliable than a scientist from Harvard who probably has never set foot in Laos (I think it was said that they went to Thailand, not Laos, to look at the bees). This isn’t two eyewitness accounts going head to head. It isn’t even an eyewitness account followed by a scientist who lived through the same thing and collected data at that very moment. It’s a man who lived and breathed this versus a guy from the West. If it had been a Harvard scientist who had seen this same type of massacre with his own eyes in, say Boston, would we doubt it had happened as much? Especially if a bunch of other Bostonians corroborated? Would we be as quick to dismiss the possibility of chemical warfare? (There’s a great essay that articulates this contextual bias much better than I am here: http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2012/10/deliberate-distortions-radiolab-and-hmong-story). I don’t think Eng is falliable, or that he absolutely must have all of his facts all straight. I don’t even think he is saying that. Human memory, yes, is, can be unreliable, especially in the details. But I think he is certain his people were being poisoned chemically, and that it happened to occur after yellow drops came from the sky, and I doubt you forget something that traumatic. Maybe that’s not the simple truth, and maybe there’s some other science that is unclear at work, but to question his reliability in what he and countless others saw, seems to be partially a problem of Western bias. Western science didn’t provide a definitive alternative either, didn’t solve the mystery of what WAS killing them if it wasn’t Yellow Rain, so how do we know Eng isn’t right?

    Hard questions should be asked. Of course. But what are the hard questions here? I would say that the questions were asked of the wrong people. That even it was the wrong questions to be asked. If this segment truly wanted to focus on just the outcome of mistaking bee poop for chemicals, and the shock of that, then why is it important to disprove a survivor? Shouldn’t the question not be “Did you actually SEE the Yellow Rain fall” to the Hmong survivor, and more to the government and why they (and we) feel the need to exploit this kind of stuff for political purposes? The first time I listened to the segment (before I’d heard the final interview), I WAS aghast and discomforted by the fact that we almost went to war on this as well, wondered why we jumped the gun and didn’t do more homework on it. If that’s the story they wanted to tell, and that’s the only truth they were interested in pursuing, well the onus on THAT truth, it’s not on the Hmong people. It’s on us/the US government. So the questions should be posed for those in the government.

    The thing is, if Eng went ahead and agreed, said, “Okay, I guess we were wrong, it was probably just bee poop,” does that negate the truth of the matter that his people were massacred? That he suffered? Does any of that change for him? If not, then why ask him? What do we gain from his admission of (possibly) being wrong other than superiority? And in the process, have we demonstrated that we listened or even cared about HIS story beyond how it affects US?

    Maybe the hard question is the one we should ask ourselves (I include myself in this because I am also definitely a product of the privileged West). Why we only care about certain peoples’ suffering only when it is convenient for us. Why it is that we expect that the Hmong people should care about OUR truths when we haven’t demonstrated any care towards theirs.

  9. Radiolab didn’t lose me as a listener, mainly because they were brave enough to air the interview and subject themselves to the criticism I’m sure they knew would follow. Nonetheless I was equally surprised that Jad and Robert seemed to completely miss the tragedy they were minimizing in their pursuit of the yellow rain story.

    I think Robert’s ‘we can’t allow our story to be monopolized’ comment deserves a little bit of a break. The government’s use of a pretext to justify assembling chemical weapons is a sufficiently important story that should not be automatically swept aside because RL’s investigation brought them to the doorstep of the Hmong tragedy. I believe that’s what Robert was trying to express.

    Still, I was quite baffled they utterly failed to grasp why the Hmong guests were so upset, even given the benefit of retrospect while they were preparing the show. To them ‘yellow rain’ meant an act of genocide. To Radiolab ‘yellow rain’ meant unscrupulous politics. Neither side realized the vast difference in agendas until the term ‘yellow rain’ broke down under scrutiny.

    This misunderstanding was sad, insensitive, and disappointing, but not a mortal sin to me.

  10. Thank you so much. You just made me feel so much less alone. This recommits me to the work I’ve begun with inner-city teens at madscimag.com and to empowering all communities to share their truths, their stories and their rarely-acknowledged *knowledge* of science.

  11. Thank you for this. I was deeply upset by this interview and by RadioLab’s subsequent responses. It was one of my favorite radio shows and now I think I’m done.

  12. thank you. just….thank you.

  13. Great piece. It’s a good reminder to pay close to attention to the media and information I am consuming. With so much information out there, it’s sometimes hard to see the truth. Especially when you trust those that may be giving you the information and believing they have personal integrity.

  14. I have a double major degree in Journalism and Anthropology, and this entire story – which I did hear on Radiolab directly as well – pretty much sums up the difference between those studies.

    I noticed as I went through my classes that the methodologies for interviewing, distilling, and writing were frequently the same, yet the way one handles the final results were directly opposed.

    In Journalism (the real kind, not the modern 24-hour cable channel kind), the journalist gathers as many facts as possible, interviewing people, doing research, and trying to clear away the emotion, bias, marketing, hype, etc. before organizing it into a coherent story with the most important point up front followed by explanations. Where there are differences of opinion, they should be presented as factually as possible and even-handedly. That doesn’t mean giving equal weight to all parties: it means using quotations to let differences be heard but still presenting the entire piece as close to established factual truth as possible. Many modern, poorly-trained journalists misunderstand this as having to be a he-said/she-said proposition, which leads to terrible coverage of some issues where a scientific fact has been well established but the journalist feels compelled to offer “equal time” to a wacky theory. (This is a constant problem in covering the anti-vaccination movement, for example.)

    A journalist should never allow any given interviewee to control the story. The story is by the journalist and for the public, not a microphone for interviewees. This is essential in the journalist’s role as a civic watchdog on behalf of the public: demagoguery will result if the journalist does not keep control of the story. The journalist must serve as an editor on the interviewees or else everything will dissolve in everyone’s personal ramblings.

    In Anthropology, by contrast, the anthropologist gathers as much data as possible as above, but always frames it as they being a facilitator to someone else’s story. Where the journalist must never show a piece in progress to interviewees to get their opinion and let them change quotations, an anthropologist must do so. The anthropologist must ensure at all times that the people and culture being profiled see themselves accurately in the piece. What the journalist would rightly see as hijacking, the anthropologist would rightly see as sharing a mutual pen.

    Radiolab is a bit of an odd duck. It sits somewhere between journalism – because Robert has been a science journalist for ages – and anthropological radio. Some of its richest stories have been when they let something go somewhere unexpected, but they’ve also had some meh stories where they’ve let someone direct them into wacky territory for no good reason. Remember that they do promote themselves as at least being somewhat scientific – this is reflected in their major sponsorship as well – and that frequently comes up in discussions between Robert and Jad about beliefs, science, truth versus gut feeling, etc.

    The debate they had over this is entirely valid and, frankly, not solvable, because it’s two correct positions from different viewpoints.

    I wouldn’t call to abandon them over it. Rather, I’d applaud them bringing such topics to the surface where many other shows would’ve just buried the piece entirely.

  15. Fascinating and heartbreaking, particularly when paired with Kalia’s piece.

  16. Hello Matthew and others,

    Thank you for this very succinct and heartfelt account of your experience of the episode “The fact of the matter” by Radiolab. My reaction was very similar. I had such a strong reaction to how the Radiolab people responded to Kalia and her Uncle that I went online immediately after to see if I was the only one. As you know, clearly I was not the only one. I was such an avid listener and fan of the Radiolab show, but I have not been able to listen to it since. I keep hoping there well be some sort of accountability on their end to this extremely important issue. I come from both a humanistic and a science background. If there is one thing that is clear to me, science is not a picture of the Truth (with a capital T), it is merely our best description of phenomena at this moment. Looking at the history of science over time, it is abundantly clear that our understanding of the world changes drastically and constantly. Look at what Copernicus and Galileo did, for example… This is ridiculous irony of science. Science is reductionist, it takes things out of context. And the Context (with a capital C) of stories such as Kalia’s Uncle’s story, is what really gets to the Truth of the matter. There is a whole social picture and power structure to consider (among other things). And every person has a story. These matter. A lot. For Robert Krulwich and Radiolab to fall back on the Truth to continue to oppress the Hmong people and the stories they have is distressing to say the least. But I can say that I, too, felt hopeful to know there are other people out there who care and who felt the same as I do. Thanks for the article. And keep up the good fight ;-)

    Respectfully,
    Heidi

Trackbacks

  1. [...] and its ongoing callous, racist handling of the issue has since been criticized in several places, including Hyphen. When Hyphen’s R.J. Lozada reached out to Kao Kalia Yang, she graciously [...]

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  3. [...] since been criticized &#1110n several places, including [...]

  4. [...] since been criticized &#1110n several places, including [...]

  5. [...] and its ongoing callous, racist handling of the issue has since been criticized in several places, including Hyphen. When Hyphen’s R.J. Lozada reached out to Kao Kalia Yang, she graciously [...]

  6. [...] “accusations”. (For context on the episode, see what I wrote earlier on The Good Men Project here, which includes a breakdown of the story, and read Yang’s piece here). Upon reading [...]

  7. [...] This is a comment by Ty Nolan on the post “Goodbye, Radiolab: The Fact of the Matter of Storytelling”. [...]

  8. [...] since been criticized &#1110n several places, including [...]

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  12. [...] imparting an intense, visceral experience and provoking an outcry. One listener, Mathew Salesses sums up the response: “Every time I listen to this, I start to cry. Every time. About ten times now.” It [...]

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