Radiolab, an amazing radio show and podcast created by public radio veteran Robert Krulwich and MacArthur-winning musician and producer Jad Abumrad, aired a controversial episode titled “The Fact of the Matter” on September 24, 2012. Generally, Radiolab examines scientific stories using a distinctive sound and style to make complex stories approachable – the production can occasionally overhelm the story, but at best, it’s one of the best things on radio, on par with the best of This American Life.
The September 24 episode wasn’t the show at its best. The show takes on a fascinating topic, the slippery nature of truth, telling three stories, one about filmmaker Errol Morris’s quest to authenticate a 19th century photo, one about a friend who turns out to have been deeply psychologically disturbed. Neither story breaks much ground scientifically, though both are compelling and memorable.
The middle story is the one that’s attracted controversy. Called “Yellow Rain“, it examines a series of events that affected the Hmong people in Laos at the end of the Vietnam War. Many Hmong allied with the US against the Pathet Lao and the Viet Cong, and when America pulled out of the war, the Hmong were forced to flee into the jungle to avoid revenge killings by the Pathet Lao. In the jungles, the Hmong experienced what appeared to be a chemical attack: a yellow powder apparently sprayed by airplanes that were also dropping bombs. The powder left scars on plants and on people, and animals and people affected by the “yellow rain” sickened and sometimes died.
Studies of the yellow rain suggested that the power contained T-2 mycotoxin, which led US secretary of state Alexander Haig to accuse the Soviet Union of supplying chemical weapons to the Vietnamese and Laotian governments. But Radiolab introduces us to a chemical weapons expert and biologist who’ve researched the incident and believe that the yellow powder wasn’t a chemical weapon, but highly concentrated bee feces, produced by bees that have been hibernating and cleared accumulated toxins from their bodies through defecating. The bee feces didn’t kill the Hmong, the scientists tell us. They were killed by dysentery and other diseases, and by aerial bombing. The yellow dust was coincidental, but given the high mortality rate of the fleeing Hmong, they may have misattributed deaths to the unrelated phenomenon.
So far, an interesting story about a scientific controversy. But there’s another pair of voices in the Radiolab story. Radiolab interviews Eng Yang, a Hmong refugee who survived attacks in 1975 and eventually found safety in the US. Translated by his niece, award-winning author Kao Kalia Yang, Eng talks about his experiences fleeing yellow rain. Radiolab co-host Krulwich wants Eng to confront the narrative the show has uncovered about bee feces, and asks Eng Yang a set of questions about his knowledge and experience of the yellow rain: Were there always airplanes, then yellow rain? Did he see it coming from airplanes? Krulwich’s questioning takes on a prosecutorial tone – he really wants Eng Yang to admit he can’t confirm that the yellow dust was dropped by airplanes. “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.”
After that intervention from Krulwich, Kao Kalia Yang translates a frustrated response from her uncle, who tells us that he agreed to the interview because he hoped that, after many years, someone was interested in the story of chemical weapons being used against the Hmong. Kao Kalia Yang, obviously on the verge of tears, accuses Krulwich of making semantic distinctions between the bombs dropped on the Hmong and chemical weapons, and of failing to listen to the accounts of people who survived these attacks, and ends the interview.
There’s a long, silent pause, and Abumrad, who hasn’t yet appeared in the story says, “We were all really troubled by that interview.” Abumrad, Krulwich and producer Pat Walters discuss what transpired, and Pat talks about his realization that he was asking the wrong questions, focusing too hard on the story of yellow rain, not enough on the story of the Hmong’s suffering. Krulwich is not convinced. “It’s not fair to ask us not to consider the other frames of this story,” he complains, arguing that Kao Kalia Yang is pushing her frame of the events too hard. “Her desire was not for balance, but to monopolize the story.” Abumrad brings the discussion to a close, and the three talk, uncomfortably, about editing the rest of the show.
It was an interesting and, I think, admirable decision to include both the confrontation in the interview, and the discussion in the studio in the Radiolab broadcast. Interviews go poorly, show ideas don’t work out and get shelved, and it’s not hard to imagine Abumrad and Krulwich concluding that this wasn’t a story they wanted to air. I’m glad they did. But they’re getting a wave of criticism from their listeners – much of which I think they deserve – since it aired.
Abumrad responded to the criticism first, explaining that they’d aired the piece because it showed them how a search to tell one story can sometimes obscure other stories: “In fact, the point of the story — if the story can be said to have a point — is that these kinds of forensic or scientific investigations into the truth of a situation invariably end up being myopic. They miss and sometimes even obscure hugely important realities. Like a genocide.”
Four days later, Krulwich responded to ongoing angry commentary, apologizing for his “oddly angry tone” and for his lack of compassion. He specifically addressed his most egregious statement, his accusation that Kao Kalia Yang was attempting to seize control of the story: “I am especially sorry in the conversation following to have said Ms. Yang was seeking to ‘monopolize’ the story. Obviously, we at Radiolab had all the power in this situation, and to suggest otherwise was wrong.” But he defends the show against accusations that they’d “ambushed” the Yangs, explaining that they’d made clear this wasn’t an interview about the Hmong experience, but about the specific chemical weapons story.
Now Kao Kalia Yang has now offered her account of the experience on Hyphen, a magazine about Asian American experiences and perspectives. Her piece, “The Science of Racism: Radiolab’s Treatment of Hmong Experience“, is worth reading in full. She explains that she and her uncle agreed to the interview because two New Yorker stories on yellow rain failed to include Hmong voices, and she wanted to help correct that disparity. She was concerned about Radiolab’s willingness to respect her uncle’s experience and perspective, and looked for assurances that Radiolab would respect her uncle’s experience as a documenter of the massacre of the Hmong.
Once the interview degenerated into confrontation, she tells us that she demanded a copy of the interview tapes and was told by Krulwich that she’d need a court order to obtain the tape. She was deeply disappointed in the piece that Radiolab aired, and wrote the show to complain that her father’s knowledge of the local ecosystem and experience documenting the Hmong experience had been edited out, and he’d been reduced to “Hmong guy”. She wrote responses to the show, which she tells us producer Pat Walters chose not to post online. One of the responses includes this passage:
“Robert Krulwich has the gall to say that I ‘monopolize’ — he who gets to ask the questions, has control over editing, and in the end: the final word. Only an imperialist white man can say that to a woman of color and call it objectivity or science. I am not lost on the fact that I am the only female voice in that story, and in the end, that it is my uncle and I who cry…as you all laugh on.”
Yang concludes her account by noting that the Radiolab podcast has now been edited, which includes an apology from Krulwich – which she finds far from satisfactory – and no longer includes some of the studio conversation between the three producers. “Radiolab had simply re-contextualized their position, taken out the laughter at the end, and ‘cleaned’ away incriminating evidence.”
What went wrong with “Yellow Rain”? Kao Kalia Yang sees her experience with Radiolab as a demonstration of racism, an unwillingness of a privileged white author to abandon his frame and consider another frame. I think it’s clear that Krulwich wasn’t willing to abandon his frame, whether from an unwillingness to value Eng Yang’s experience in the face of an apparent contradiction from scientific research, or from an interest in pursuing a story to its journalistic conclusion. His behavior was most embarrassing when he accused Ms. Yang of attempting to monopolize the frame because, of course, that’s precisely what he was trying to do. Krulwich had a story he wanted to tell about yellow rain, and didn’t want Kao Kalia Yang’s story to get in his way.
(Denise Cheng suggested I clarify my position here – it’s not that I’m arguing that this is a case of journalist privilege asserting itself, not racial privilege. I don’t feel like I have much insight on the role of racial privilege in this case, and I will defer to other commentators on that topic and focus on the aspect where I have something to add. But I’m not arguing professional privilege instead of racial privilege – it’s certainly possible both are at work here.)
Anyone who regularly works with journalists has had at least one experience where a journalist needs you to say a particular phrase so they can make a key point in a story, and steers you towards giving that quote. It’s a lousy and unpleasant experience, and generally makes me not want to work with that journalist in the future, but I’m generally able to dismiss the experience as the cost of doing business. But I’m not a refugee from a genocide, trying to tell a story that’s been underreported for almost forty years. As commenter “Calvin from Toronto” explains, it’s just not reasonable to ask a survivor of a massacre to weigh in on the controversy over precisely how enemies were trying to kill his people: “Can you reopen your deepest and most personal wound again, a wound so big that engulfs all of your people, so we can verify that you were wrong, to your face?”
I get the sense that Abumrad and Walter – and maybe Krulwich, though I’m less sure – shared this story because it taught them something about the dynamics of interviewing and storytelling. There’s a transactional nature to interviews. Often, the interviewer has something the interviewee wants: attention. The interviewer offers the promise of attention in exchange for the interviewee’s cooperation and participation. This often works well because motivations are aligned. Both the interviewer and interviewee want a story that will attract attention – it’s good for the reporter’s career and the interviewee’s cause – and are likely to work together to create a compelling story.
In a case like yellow rain, the interviewer and interviewee are at cross purposes. For Krulwich’s story to be interesting, Yang’s story needs to be undercut. (I don’t think this is true, by the way – but I think Krulwich thought it was true, and let this perception guide his questioning.) Yang’s interest is in telling his story and the story of his people – an interview in which his story is rubbished by the work of Harvard scientists isn’t going to give him what he needs from an interview. Once you’re at cross purposes, power dynamics come into play. In most cases, the interviewer has all the power – he or she can shut off the mic, cut the story, erase the tapes. (There are exceptions. If you’re a prominent politician or sports star, you might have more power in the situation by refusing to give a reporter “access” unless he or she reports favorably.) Whether Krulwich’s behavior is an example of racial privilege, it’s an example of a journalist’s power and privilege in the context of this relationship, and Krulwich rightly owns up to it in his apology.
So why did Radiolab air the story? I think, in the context of a show on the nature of truth, they felt they’d stumbled onto an intriguing discovery: searching for one sort of truth can blind you to a deeper and more profound one. What was meant to be a story on scientific controversy turned into a battle of what the story was about: scientific controversy or genocide. So Radiolab created a metastory: a story about the battle over the story. But they tell that metastory imperfectly, at best. When Abumrad writes, “In fact, the point of the story — if the story can be said to have a point…” you can feel his unease and his distancing himself from the piece he’s broadcast. As Bob Collins notes, writing about this situation for Minnesota Public Radio News, “If you’re not sure what the point of a story is, you’re not ready to tell it.”
Radiolab thought it was getting a story about scientific controversy, and ended up with a murky metastory about storytelling and competing agendas. But Eng and Kao Kalia Yang thought they were getting a story about the Hmong genocide and found themselves part of two stories they weren’t especially interested in telling, the controversy over yellow rain and the latter metastory. It’s hard to think of a satisfactory resolution to this situation that doesn’t involve addressing the Hmong story in depth and at length. Radiolab may not be able to offer that story as a science show, but they are influential players in the public radio space, and I hope they’ll work to find Eng Yang a venue to share his story and offer a fuller narrative of the Hmong experience.
Dean Capello, chief content officer for WNYC, has responded to Kao Kalia Yang’s essay in a response sent to Bob Collins at Minnesota Public Radio, which challenges aspects of Ms. Yang’s account.