Radiolab Update: Privilege in the Podcast, Hope in the Comments

Matthew Salesses offers a critical examination of the disappointing response from Radiolab to the criticism of their callous interview with Hmong refugee Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang.

Radiolab is finally getting more of the pushback it deserves, following the recent (heartbreaking) essay by Kao Kalia Yang, in which she details multiple ways in which the show manipulated the story of Yellow Rain to marginalize the Hmong genocide. Over at the Minnesota Public Radio site, Dean Cappello, Chief Content Officer at WNYC, has publicly responded to Kalia Yang’s “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 see Yang’s piece here). Reading Cappello’s letter, it’s easy to become depressed about human nature and the receding shores of empathy. So thank God for the comments on the site, which go a long way toward restoring my faith in humanity. Wonderful that the listeners of Radiolab display how much more intelligent and empathetic they are than the interviewers (I have thrown out trying to write unemotionally here, as you can see), though also disappointing, considering Radiolab creator Jad Abumrach is a winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Below are a few choice excerpts from each of the 6 numbered arguments in Cappello’s letter, with a response from the comments and/or my own rebuttals.

Dear Bob,

As someone who oversees a news operation, I was surprised and disappointed that you wrote a blog post about Kao Kalia Yang’s account of her experience with Radiolab without getting Radiolab’s side of the story. As a result, I fear that you have presented a number of false allegations.

From the comments:

I like how Mr. Capello starts off his letter by guilt-tripping Bob about the fact that Bob chose to cover the story without getting Radiolab’s side of the story, even though it’s taken them weeks to figure out their side of the story.

Thank you, commenter. Irony! It will get you every time!

♦◊♦

Six days before the interview, Radiolab producer Pat Walters sent Kalia an email with the following questions. Although our reporters generally do not send questions in advance, in this case, recognizing the sensitivity of the story as well as possible language barriers, Pat wanted to be sure that Kalia and Eng Yang were informed of the exact nature of the interview. He and Robert did not know the answers to these questions beforehand.

[My own note: Actually, she mentions this. She writes, “I asked for questions. Pat submitted questions about Yellow Rain.”]

These are the questions:

Tell me about where you lived in Laos. 
What happened after the Americans left?
Was your village attacked?
At what point did you first hear about the yellow rain?
Where did the name yellow rain come from?
How does one say yellow rain in Hmong?
Did you see it yourself?
What did it look like? Did you touch it? See evidence of it on leaves or houses?
It made people sick? What happened to them?
Who specifically got sick?
Did people die from the sickness that came from the yellow rain?
When did you leave?
Tell me about the journey out of Laos.
When did you arrive in Ban Vinai?
Did you hear stories about the yellow rain there?
Do you know about the theory scientists have that the yellow rain wasn’t a poison weapon, but instead was bee droppings?
What do you make of that?

Only the last two questions, though, have to do with the bee poop. 2 out of 17. 12%. And that was supposed to indicate to Kalia that the episode’s focus was that the yellow rain was really bee poop? Crazy of her to think Radiolab was interested in the story of the Hmong suffering, right?

♦◊♦

Kalia Yang did offer Pat Walters newspaper clippings disputing the dominant view within the scientific community that the yellow rain was bee feces, not chemical warfare. These were, however, media reports, not academic papers.

Radiolab’s piece set out specifically to investigate whether yellow rain was the chemical weapon the US Government said it was. They concluded it was not.

From the comments:

—– The SCIENCE
If you want to know just how irresponsible RadioLab was about the science of yellow rain, chase down an article in “Politics & the Life Sciences,” 24 August 2007, starting on page 24.
The RadioLab team had access to this article, as well as a dissertation written by one of its authors, well before they interviewed Eng Yang. The article proposed a methodology for evidence collection, chemical analysis, & attribution assessment allowing for transparency “so that assumptions and rationale for decisions [and theories like Matthew Meselson’s, one would think] can be challenged by external critics.” The authors used a wide variety of previously unused evidence, including “8,529 pages of United States government documents, declassified . . .and released through a Freedom of Information Act request, including medical records, laboratory reports, diplomatic communications, internal memos, and protocols originating primarily from the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center. . .and interviews with 48 individuals with expert knowledge related to Yellow Rain, including 20 who were directly involved in investigating allegations. . .”

A few of the many conclusions in this paper:
“Between 1979 and 1982, refugee reports of attacks were consistent with other intelligence data, including known battles and flight paths of aircraft, more than 60 percent of the time. . .
Clinical complaints and findings among self-described victims and detailed refugee accounts of attacks were sufficiently similar in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan to suggest a key common factor, most plausibly a Soviet link, in influence and support of direct operational involvement. . .
Clinical complaints and findings of alleged victims as documented by photographs, medical records, autopsy results, and third-hand accounts are consistent with mass simultaneous poisoning and not with any known natural disease endemic to Laos, Cambodia, or Afghanistan. . .
Approximately 75 percent of alleged attacks involved seeing or hearing a helicopter or airplane, followed by seeing or smelling a gas or powder fall to the ground. . .”

RadioLab sold the bee dung story—based on work conducted nearly 30 years ago— as incontrovertible fact instead of the highly debatable theory it is. And they had evidence in hand that made that clear. (Did they take the time to read it?) So it’s not just that they were rude and insensitive. They completely misrepresented the science behind the story and used their “certainty” as justification to treat Eng Yang like a superstitious, ignorant man. Eng protested during the interview [in Hmong] that his people kept bees and knew what bee poop looked like. Of course, Radiolab didn’t tell us that, either. This piece was inexcusable science, nothing close to journalism, and if only “a story,” one that cements erroneous ideas in the minds of its listeners. And all they want to admit is that they were overzealous in their pursuit of the “truth.” That’s simply a lie.

Thank you, commenter! Science where things are questioned! Scientific method! On a science journalism podcast? No way!

♦◊♦

Mr. Yang did share experiences with Radiolab that did not make it into the final story, such as his experience and knowledge of bee behavior. He and Kalia have argued that, based on his experience, he was certain that Yellow Rain could not have been bee feces.

The team did consider including this information.

They ultimately decided not to because numerous other lines of evidence, many of which were also not included in the piece, contradicted his claims.

From the comments:

It just seems like Radiolab didn’t listen to Yang’s story to help answer its hypothesis, but instead plugged in his answers where they’d be most useful–poor form for a radio show based in scientific inquiry.

Thank you, commenter! Listen to an Asian person? Listen to an eyewitness? Why would we want to do that? Certainly we shouldn’t introduce anything that encourages contradictory evidence!

Your message is basically that it doesn’t matter that you were rude, dismissive of survivors of a genocide, and unwilling to alter your own pre-built narrative, because you were right about the bee feces—though you admit “There continues to be debate about whether or not chemicals were used in attacks on the Hmong in South East Asia”, you cannot stop preaching that the bee feces hypothesis is “the dominant view within the scientific community.”

The thing is, it doesn’t matter to us that you honestly believe in the bee feces hypothesis. What matters is the fact that where you could have easily done a story about the two hypotheses which are believed by different people, chemical weapons vs. bee droppings, and how it’s hard to find the objective “truth”—the very thing the segment was nominally about—you instead did a story privileging Western people over others, and the U.S./Reagan narrative over the actual consideration of evidence and testimony on the truth of the Yellow Rain.

While the Yellow Rain segment, and the entire episode, was supposed to be about how “Getting a firm hold on the truth is never as simple as nailing down the facts of a situation,” in reality, what you wanted was to tell a story that presented the Yellow-rain-as-checmial-weapon hypothesis as a lie, so you could present the theory that “Reagan tried to use this lie to make U.S. chemical weapons” as an interesting and tantalizing “fact.” And you were angry to find anything that deviated from that narrative, and treated your interviewees and the Hmong people and their history with complete disrespect.

The entire production staff at RadioLab needs to take a hard look in the mirror and think about what “truth” you were serving here.

Exactly. Radiolab keeps focusing its response, like the podcast, on the supposed fact of bee poop, when what is making people so angry is that the bee poop is the focus of the show, is the focus forced upon the interviewees, when the real focus here should be on the story the Hmong tell of the suffering they underwent, of the GENOCIDE and their experience, whether the Yellow Rain turned out to be the exact chemical killing them or not.

♦◊♦

Towards the end of the interview, Robert explained to Kalia the general editorial policy of many broadcast organizations, which is not to offer raw interview material to guests. The interaction was relaxed and cordial, as was much of the interview [not a demand for a court order to produce the rest of the interview].

Are we listening to the same podcast? The one where Robert calls Yang’s eyewitness, first-hand account hearsay? I think we need to hear the rest of the interview, which could be solved by, oh, I don’t know, releasing all of the interview?

♦◊♦

Given the concerns raised by the Yangs and others, the team decided to amend the podcast to include Robert’s apology. They left the original conversation intact, including the language for which Robert apologized, and they then attached Robert’s apology to the end of the piece. There was no attempt to hide or obscure.

From the comments:

I’m still unhappy with RadioLab, I don’t like the fake-apologies, and in my mind it calls into question the very integrity of the show. I’m willing to guess that this isn’t the only time they have twisted interviews to fit into their narrative and it’ll only be a matter of time before we hear from others who have been on the show in the past.

Thank you, commenter! Slipping additions into an episode as if it were one long thoughtful process and not (much later) additions trying to change the way the episode is received, is pretty much obscuring the original offensiveness of the piece, or trying to.

♦◊♦

To those who suggest Radiolab’s piece smacks of racism.

From the early stages of production, Radiolab sought to identify members of the Hmong community who could speak directly to what they experienced. We did introduce Mr. Yang as a survivor of this genocide, then Kalia Yang as a translator. We did not introduce her as an author because her role in the interview and the conversations leading up to it was one of translator, though we did provide a link to her book on our webpage along with other materials. Radiolab regularly takes a colloquial approach on air and identifies guests as “guy” or “girl” in succeeding references. The use of these terms was in no way meant to be disrespectful.

Radiolab issued an apology because, upon review of the piece, we thought that the line of questioning was unduly harsh given the experience of Mr. Yang and others in the Hmong community.

Okay, let’s get serious here.

  1. The argument for leaving out any credentials because Kalia’s role was not as writer but translator holds zero water when you consider that the previous segment is the story of “Filmmaker Errol Morris’s” search for the truth about two photographs. Not sure what being a filmmaker has to do with that role.
  2. Kalia Yang’s book and webpage were never mentioned in the podcast, though Radiolab often has authors on as a platform for their books and ideas. Also, and I may be remembering wrongly, but I first listened to the podcast when it was 2 hours old and went to the website soon after, and I remember those links added after the comments started rolling in.
  3. The term “guy” was not applied to Errol Morris, as far as memory serves me. And this isn’t what Kalia is upset about, I don’t think. It’s the FRAMING of them as “Hmong guy” and “girl,” or translator, or niece, rather than “official radio man and documenter of the Hmong experience to the Thai government” (from Kalia’s essay and “award-winning author.”
  4. The apology wasn’t issued upon review—Radiolab had time to review the interview even before airing the episode. It’s a highly edited podcast, and the comment Robert makes about Kalia “monopolizing” the story is made in reviewing what happened. The apology didn’t come until the comments stacked up. And even then, it took Robert even more time to apologize for himself. We had only Jad’s apology at first.
  5. Lastly, racism. Radiolab just doesn’t get it—that’s clear. The racism inherent in how the episode was handled is not the kind of obvious ethnic slur on-the-surface racism easily called out on the news or in TV and movies. It’s more pervasive. The racism is in the prioritizing of truths, in the way that the Western view is made out to be the more important view and story. It is racism and privilege that makes Jad and Robert think they own the story, that the story of the bee poop is somehow more important to tell than the story of 100,000 murdered Hmong and a man who witnessed the murder firsthand. It is racism and privilege that allows a white person in a Western culture to frame the story and to control the story of an Asian person, a man with direct experience, but whose experience and point of view is the Eastern experience. It is racism and privilege for sure, after all of that, to have the gall to say the interviewees were the ones trying to monopolize the story. It is the most I can do, instead of breaking down and tearing my hair out and giving up on the human race, to take hope from the comments that at least some people with those same privileges can see how privilege and race play into the presentation of Truth.

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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. Speaking of Point #4, on the court order, Capello writes:

    “Robert did not tell her to get a court order. Rather he said
    ‘what the reporters gather is the proprietary product of the reporter, and what we produce is open to inspection to anybody. And under court order you can always reveal other things. But generally we separate things. The things we gather we keep; the things we broadcast we make openly available to anyone.'”

    And this, in a very roundabout way, is saying, You’re free to listen to our broadcast production, but if you want the whole thing you need to get a court order. Capello’s entire response is insulting to the intelligence of NPR listeners, who really aren’t a stupid bunch.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] From my perspective as a scholar of rhetoric, communication, and debate, to call Radiolab’s game rigged would be an understatement. The interview was not conducted on an even playing field and it smacks of a white Western privilege that the writers and producers failed to fully acknowledge even in their on-air discussion following the interview. Radiolab determined the questions, edited the exchange, and retained the capacity to both frame and amend the discussion (there is a debate concerning whether or not the Yangs knew the questions prior to the interview—this discussion can be found here, Radiolab’s response here , and answer to Radiolab’s claims here.). [...]

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