On 9/24, Radiolab aired an episode they called, “The Fact of the Matter.” The episode page has about 200 comments as of now, many expressing disappointment at the way part of the show was handled. In the segment in question, the hosts “investigate” the truth about an alleged chemical weapon referred to as Yellow Rain, which may have killed thousands of Hmong refugees fleeing the Viet Cong in the wake of the Vietnam War. Robert Krulwich, one of the hosts, pressures a survivor of the Hmong genocide to accept that Yellow Rain was actually bee poop. Yes, you read that right. In the course of the interview, Robert becomes quite aggressive; he and Jad then discuss whether the interviewees tried to take over the conversation.
On the Good Men Project, I wrote about the frankly appalling way the episode was handled, sticking to the storytelling aspect and the way that Radiolab passed over the greater, and largely untold, story of the Hmong genocide for the story of questionable findings on bee poop. In an important update, and in one of the most moving, shocking, and necessary pieces I have read all year, Kao Kalia Yang, who translated her uncle in the interview, has written about the many ways in which Radiolab framed the segment to make the survivor’s story seem less important and less trustworthy than the the story Radiolab wanted to tell. These “journalistic” decisions include leaving out key parts of the interview and the interviewees’ qualifications, re-editing the interview to take out the hosts’ condescending laughter while ignoring any further evidence offered freely by the interviewees, and refusing to print or include any response from Kalia or her uncle that might convince the listener that there was more going on than bee poop. Kalia also writes about losing her baby soon after the episode aired and about the courage of facing injustice and speaking up for those whose stories are (willfully) ignored.
Below are a few excerpts from Kao Kalia Yang’s moving essay for Hyphen Magazine:
On the date of the interview, Wednesday May 16th, 2012 at 10 in the morning, Marisa Helms (a Minnesota-based sound producer sent by Radiolab), my husband, and I met with Uncle Eng’s family at their house in Brooklyn Center. In customary Hmong tradition, my uncle had laid out a feast of fruits and fruit drinks from the local Asian grocery store. He had risen early, went through old notebooks where he’d documented in Lao, Thai, Hmong, and a smattering of French and English, recollections of Hmong history, gathered thoughts, and written down facts of the time. The phone lines were connected to WNYC studios.
Pat and Robert introduced themselves and asked us for our introductions. The questions began. They wanted to know where my uncle was during the war, what happened after the Americans left, why the Hmong ran into the jungles, what happened in the jungles, what was his experience of Yellow Rain. Uncle Eng responded to each question. The questions took a turn. The interview became an interrogation. A Harvard scientist said the Yellow Rain Hmong people experienced was nothing more than bee defecation.
My uncle explained Hmong knowledge of the bees in the mountains of Laos, said we had harvested honey for centuries, and explained that the chemical attacks were strategic; they happened far away from established bee colonies, they happened where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong. Robert grew increasingly harsh, “Did you, with your own eyes, see the yellow powder fall from the airplanes?” My uncle said that there were planes flying all the time and bombs being dropped, day and night. Hmong people did not wait around to look up as bombs fell. We came out in the aftermath to survey the damage. He said what he saw, “Animals dying, yellow that could eat through leaves, grass, yellow that could kill people — the likes of which bee poop has never done.”
On September 24, 2012 Radiolab aired their Yellow Rain segment in an episode titled “The Fact of the Matter.” Everybody in the show had a name, a profession, institutional affiliation except Eng Yang, who was identified as “Hmong guy,” and me, “his niece.” The fact that I am an award-winning writer was ignored. The fact that my uncle was an official radio man and documenter of the Hmong experience to the Thai government during the war was absent. In the interview, the Hmong knowledge of bees or the mountains of Laos were completely edited out.
Please read the full article by Kao Kalia Yang, The Science of Racism: Radiolab’s Treatment of the Hmong Experience on Hyphen Magazine.
Also read Goodbye, Radiolab: The Fact of the Matter of Storytelling by Matthew Salesses