Radiolab responds, Wellstone's moment, the swing ovulation vote, spreading Kevin's love, and the kid who wanted to build a car.
The chief content officer of the New York public radio station that produces the podcast Radiolab is denying allegations by a Minnesota Hmong family in the wake of its controversial handling of an interview with a Hmong veteran in its story -- Yellow Rain -- about alleged chemical warfare in Laos (all the particulars here and here).
Kao Kalia Yang, the veteran's niece and interpreter in the interview, released an essay this week alleging racism in the way her uncle's story was presented and questioning the ethics in the story's production.
Judging by the comments on the Radiolab website, it reignited a debate over the show's approach to the story that was so amplified in public radio circles that a conference looked at it earlier this month in a panel on the ethics of storytelling (the public radio newspaper Current released its review of the controversy this week)
Last night, WNYC (New York) chief content officer Dean Cappello rebutted Ms. Yang's essay:
October 24, 2012
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.
If you go back and listen to the podcast, and also look at the statements we've published, you will see that we have tried at each step to deal with the issues raised in a sensitive and transparent matter.
I've attached below a document that reviews how the story developed and our discussions with Ms. Kao Kalia Yang and her uncle. It also addresses specifically the charges you made in your post.
I would also note that the podcast presents in detail what happened to the Hmong people, including the genocide they were subjected to following the American withdrawal from the region. What we attempted to do was to examine the Yellow Rain story in the context of what constitutes truth.
The podcast clearly provoked strong reaction, especially around the tone of Robert Krulwich's questioning and after some consideration the producers and Robert apologized publicly.
Feel free to call me if you have any questions.
Chief Content Officer/WNYC
RADIOLAB "YELLOW RAIN" MISCONCEPTIONS
1) On the accusation that Radiolab did not inform Kalia Yang and Eng Yang of the interview topic in advance.
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.
On May 10, Pat sent Kalia an email that included the following:
Here are my 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?
Please let me know if you want me to clarify anything.
2) On the accusation that Radiolab selectively ignored news clippings offered by Kalia Yang.
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. Pat had already spent several months reviewing nearly 20 years' worth of academic papers and media reports on Yellow Rain. He declined her offer not out of callousness but because he had already completed an in depth examination of competing theories to the "bee feces" hypothesis.
There continues to be debate about whether or not chemicals were used in attacks on the Hmong in South East Asia. We don't disagree with Kalia's assertion "how do you make bombs if not with chemicals?"
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.
3) On the accusation that Radiolab refuses the statement submitted by Kalia Yang.
The day after the broadcast, Radiolab reached out to Ms Yang, as they do with all of their guests, to let her know the story had gone live.
Kalia initially sent Pat a very kind email. The email praises Pat for the powerful balancing of perspectives.
A day later, when the team asked her permission to run her response, she declined and followed up with a very different response. Our team evaluated her criticisms openly and honestly.
And Robert's public apology was a response to her note.
The comments section of the website reflected a wide range of viewpoints, including, within days, comments posted by Kalia's husband that voiced her concerns.
3) On the accusation that Radiolab selectively omitted facts that bolster Mr. Yang's version of events.
That is not true.
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.
• The fact that the samples provided to the US government contained not only pollen but pollen shells, proving that they had passed through the digestive system of a bee.
• The fact that bee hairs were found in the samples.
• The fact that a government investigation found that nearly all Hmong who previously claimed to have seen Yellow Rain have now recanted those claims.
Radiolab strongly believed, based on their research, that the accumulation of evidence would not have served the story or Mr. Yang's version of events. In fact, they believed it would have further questioned Mr. Yang's experience.
4) On the accusation that Robert Krulwich refused Kalia a copy of the interview "without a court order."
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.
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."
She then requested that we send her a copy or link to the piece when it airs, and we did.
5) On the accusation that the show tried to wipe away "incriminating evidence" by editing the original podcast.
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.
6) 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.
It was 10 years ago today that the plane carrying Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, daughter, and staff crashed in bad weather while the pilots were trying to find the Eveleth Virginia airport, days short of election day. Wellstone was in a close race with Norm Coleman. He'd earlier pivoted on his pledge to only serve two terms, and just three weeks earlier, Wellstone voted against authorizing war in Iraq.
Ten years later, that vote may seem more like a no-brainer, but it wasn't then. A poll showed most Minnesotans favored going to war, and the few voices against the plan were met with questions of patriotism.
When he rose on the Senate floor, Wellstone had made an unpopular decision to speak out, putting his political future at risk.
It was a compelling speech, one that is often lost in the events that would occur weeks later. But it also marked why Wellstone was a unique politician: there were some things more important than the next election.
Related: In today's MPR commentary, Rick Kahn, the campaign official recognized mostly for his speech at the Wellstone memorial service, says "we can only speculate about how different things would be, but I think we need to answer a different question. The real question is whether that which was possible with Paul, is still possible without him."
Here's Kahn's memorial service speech:
CNN has killed the story but it's still circulating the Internet. It reported that the coming election may hinge on the ovulation cycles of women:
The researchers found that during the fertile time of the month, when levels of the hormone estrogen are high, single women appeared more likely to vote for Obama and committed women appeared more likely to vote for Romney, by a margin of at least 20%, Durante said. This seems to be the driver behind the researchers' overall observation that single women were inclined toward Obama and committed women leaned toward Romney.
Here's how Durante explains this: When women are ovulating, they "feel sexier," and therefore lean more toward liberal attitudes on abortion and marriage equality. Married women have the same hormones firing, but tend to take the opposite viewpoint on these issues, she says.
It's time to have an election and stop the nonsense.
Pink isn't enough for Kevin Love to call attention to breast cancer. That requires a shaved head. And that requires Arizona Cardinal star Larry Fitzgerald.
Your 12-year-old daughter comes in the house and says, "I want to build a car." What do you say in response?
(h/t: Matt Watson, Stacy MN)
Bonus I: A new documentary looks at Saint Paul's changing University Ave.
The Pioneer Press profiles the film and the man who made it.
Bonus II: Schools may be reluctant to talk about the suicides of students, but some students aren't. The Fargo Forum today carries the story of Lucia Smith of Moorhead, whose friend died by suicide a few weeks ago. He was, she says, where she was a year ago.
"As cheesy as it sounds, I want everyone to realize that everyone's going through a battle, and your interaction with them every day could be the best moment of their day," she tells the paper. "It could be the only time that they're smiled at. It could be the only time someone talks to them."
Some observers speculate that the winner of the popular vote in this year's presidential election might lose in the Electoral College, as happened in 2000 and several times in the 19th century. Today's Question: What's your view of the Electoral College?
WHAT WE'RE DOING
Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) - First hour: Texting and driving.
Second hour: How is social media changing our political conversations, and our relationships with friends who might have different political leanings?
Third hour: Author Justin Cronin discusses The Twelve, the follow-up to his bestselling vampire thriller, The Passage.
MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): Sasha Aslanian's documentary on the deep roots of the gay marriage debate.
Talk of the Nation (1-2 p.m.) - Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson join host Neal Conan. Plus, Sylvia Poggioli on the prison sentences for Italian scientists who failed to properly assess the risks of an earthquake.
All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) - What dishes delight and surprise cookbook authors and chefs? NPR says for some, it's an unlikely cut of meat -- the heart of a cow.
Ugh, Rick Kahn. One wonders what might have been if his speech had been vetted, or if someone had had the sense to just turn off his microphone.
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.
Re: the Radiolab controversy, I don't think this letter rebuts anything. It still seems (and the comments on the RadioLab website say this too) that, rather than going to investigate, the show set out to prove and already-decided upon hypothesis. Mr. Cappello's letter does nothing to disprove that. I'm also suspect any time they have ONE researcher trying to uncover the "truth"...and not many.
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.
The truth is messy; RadioLab makes it all appear entirely too neat and tidy.
#3 "Researchers" find that women vote based on their hormones. Nice throwback to the argument that women aren't able to reason as well as men because of their "women's issues." Well, I guess researchers need to have a previously unexplored niche in order to receive grant money.
Rick Kahn's politicizing of a memorial service is what I've come to see as a typical example of the hysterical behavior of Wellstone acolytes. As I said at the time--because of that kind of talk, I felt compelled to donate to a Republican competitor.
@#3 I thought the election depended on the weather?
Now it's menstrual cycles?
Where is the study that shows it depends on the candidates?
@#5 If it were my daughter, I'd say "Really a Fiero?"
Maybe push for a delorean instead...
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.
The show topic is salient. It would have been better done if they had explored what it means when selectively chosen scientific research suggests things that are at odds with reason and the well documented obsevations of nonscientists. I guess that's what we're getting now. I think if Mr. Krulwich had sought in himself the kind of epistemological humility he demanded from Yang, they'd not be in this mess.
I adore RadioLab. I will side with Kao Kalia Yang on this one. Truth is highly subjective to the human experience, and for RadioLab to assert that Eng Yang's truth isn't as important as RadioLab's truth is fairly classic imperialist behavior (to borrow Kalia Yang's phrasing).
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.
Methinks RadioLab doth protest too much
// without getting Radiolab's side of the story, even though it's taken them weeks to figure out their side of the story.
FTR, I considered Ms. Yang's essay to be the rebuttal to the Radiolab side of the story, which had been presented. Everything that Radiolab had to say on the story has been presented. Then and now.
I do think both sides are talking past each other at this point. The issue that is most fascinating -- to me -- is the broader one that the Current (newspaper) brought up, the cultural differences between the people producing content today and the people to whom it is aimed.
There is clearly a cultural divide here that is an issue in ALL newsrooms and it would be a mistake to ignore that part of the story in favor of who said what when.
The lines of difference have now been clearly stated on all sides. The compelling part of the story now is how it will be resolved and how each side will begin to understand how the other is reacting and why. I do think the majority of the comments on the Radiolab website have framed this particular issue pretty well.
I'm not yet convinced the journalism community as whole completely understands why this is important and why it's a discussion that needs to be amplified. But I see that as more a cultural issue than an indifference to wanting to.
There is a ncessary -- if messy -- human process to getting to that, however, and that's what we're seeing play out now.
So, Bob, what is MPR doing to bridge the cultural divide between its staff (those producing the news) and those listening to it, especially given the diversity of cultural backgrounds of its local, regional and even national listeners? What diversity exists on MPR's staff or in its stories?
// What diversity exists on MPR's staff or in its stories?
Honestly? Not enough. And I can tell you who agrees with that, Chris Worthington, who runs this operation and who continually is calling the institution's attention to the fact that Minnesota is a far more colorful state than ever before and noting the challenges that presents to an institutional culture. The problem Minnesota faces are mostly related to the white culture confronting change.
We were talking last night -- while discussing this story -- that MPR did a lot more Hmong stories years ago than now. Now, we focus more on the Somali community, almost as if we can only pick one.
I've said this for years, however, that the bias that exists in news isn't the bias of a story, it's the bias we all have when choosing stories.And when reading them. When I choose, say, an aviation story, it's not because I'm indulging my own interests, but because I think it's something the audience will find interesting and I bring my expertise to it. But I'm not under any illusion that the issue doesn't get a bump because I'm a pilot.
When I amplify stories of mental illness and suicide, it's because I have an expertise from having it be -- in some way -- part of my life, although privacy issues prevent me from telling you how. That doesn't mean mental illness and suicide isn't a legitimate issue; it is. And it is undercovered because there aren't enough people in the news business who have that (unfortunate) expertise.
By the same token, if we had more homeless people working in news, we'd have better coverage of the homeless, for example.
As an industry, we can't deny that any of this is part of the sausage-making process of journalism and that we have an obligation to expand it to include more expertise that puts issues on a track to become stories.
How do we make that happen? Unfortunately, slowly. We're not going to fire all the white people in the newsroom who've worked here for decades and continue to do good work. We are bringing in more journalistic talent with different backgrounds and this will be an incremental and slow change. Most cultural change is.
I've been out front on this story precisely so the conversation ends up exactly where it is right now.
So I don't have the simple snappy answer here that a lot of people want to have when this question comes up.
But I would say the next step is simply not to be afraid to have it and have it in a respectful and productive way.
#1 Did RadioLab actually send you, Bob, an email? Weird, sort of.
Maybe this is a dumb question but why aren't beekeepers jumping in to the fray?
For this yellow rain to be talked about on the scale it is I would think that the amount of bee's needed and the time frame of the yellow rain that it is either plausible or not. Since many people have never heard of this yellow rain, I find the bee story very suspect.
#3 What about male cycles?
// #1 Did RadioLab actually send you, Bob, an email? Weird, sort of.
I like to think it's not. Nobody in the news business, as near as I can tell, has followed the story as closely as MPR/NewsCut has (for the reasons mentioned above). I think the gentleman from WNYC respected that.
After reading that response from Dean Cappello, it's clear to me that still, no one at WNYC or Radiolab really gets the problem(s). I'd love your thoughts on it, Bob.
It still bothers me that no beekeepers have stepped up to verify that this is normal bee behavior. I would like a beekeeper would have this happen to them every spring when they wake up their bees.
Google produced no bee poop stories. No stories on beekeeping sites to not wear your good beekeepers outfit when you wake them up because they poop en-mass.
If this was happening in just one spot on just a few days perhaps, but sounds like this happened all the time over a long period.
We have beekeepers in the city and I don't recall anyone mad because bee poop stained their car or home.
They said in the story the bee pooping en-mass was normal and they (the guy that said it was bee poop) observed it in warm weather bees. Since he had the most to loose wouldn't another bee expert's voice have been used to validate this side of the story?
OK that is my ramble for the day.
FWIW, my daughter's boyfriend has 3 bee hives in their backyard. He's never mentioned bee poop and this summer I saw no evidence of yellow stuff on leaves or table tops.
When I listened to the Radiolab story I was driving on the highway and started to cry, because Kalia's pain, and her uncle's pain, were so evident.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the RadioLab story, Bob. You wrote something that I'd like to augment: "The compelling part of the story now is how it will be resolved and how each side will begin to understand how the other is reacting and why." This is an important narrative, yes, but I believe that the more compelling part will be how RadioLab begins to understand how it is reacting and why.
What I found interesting in watching Rick Kahn's speech was that I was witnessing a profound level of grief that was pouring out of him. We rarely see that in public. Jackie Kennedy is our role model for quiet, dignified grief. It can be uncomfortable to experience the rawness of grief, but it felt very authentic to me considering the passion that Wellstone brought out in people. It made me sad to see how it became political fodder.
"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."
Despite what is meant, the reality is that it is disrespectful, as women know. "Guy" implies an adult and "Girl" denotes a child. Would they call an adult man they were conversing with/interviewing "Boy"? I think not. I also think most of us know why. To call adult women "Girl" really isn't all that different.
Your response to the response to the Yellow Rain story shows a deep unwillingness on the part of the producers and creators of RadioLab to examine your own motivations and privilege. Even the title of this piece is insensitive: "The Yellow Rain fallout"? Really?
After following a tweet from Jad Abumrad to this response, I expected to find something worth reading. Instead, 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.
I thought I'd just point out that it seems like RadioLab doesn't get why people said the piece smacks of racism. Their counter points are really simplistic.
The problem is actually what Bob sort of said in a way -- we all, whether we know it or not, are drawn to certain stories (or even certain interpretations of stories). The danger really comes when you're in the business of telling stories and you're surrounded with people who think like you. The staff at RL is white (in NYC, no less), and obviously not super reflective about that considering this mess.
We all have stories we're drawn to, people that we understand better, etc., but it's really okay to check yourself when you've messed up. They keep shooting themselves in the foot here -- they're more concerned with showing that they're right than they are with understanding why people are upset with them or think that they've done wrong.
And that ain't a scientific way to go about things.
REPOST OF A GREAT COMMENT.
The hosts behaved badly even IF Mr. Yang were totally wrong. I would expect the folks at Radiolab to know enough about eyewitness testimony and the nature of memory to know that there are a lot of important reasons why Mr. Yang was predisposed to experience the event as chemical warfare, and for the memory of it as such to be strengthened over time.
1. On being predisposed to experience the event as chemical warfare. Prior to the war the Hmong people lived in remote subsistance farming villages. Suddenly they are being bombed, asked to fight, and hearing things (and maybe even experiencing) defoliants such as Agent Orange being dumped on jungles. Skip ahead. They are in the jungle. Yellow spots appear everywhere. People are dying. Whether they saw planes or not it makes plenty of sense for the yellow spots to be interpreted as causing harm.
2. There is no cognitive psychologist worth his or her salt that would claim that people have verbatim memory of life events. Scientific consensus is that memory is constructive, fragile, and prone to suggestion. Given that, why would Robert badger an eyewitness about whether he saw a plane in a jungle decades ago? Even if, as the hosts suggest, the whole story WAS incorrect, years of oral history and retelling of the chemical warfare version of things would result in compelling memories to support that version.
Finally, I don't understand what the hosts expected to gain from their conversation with Mr. Yang. Given that they were convinced of their version of events, and that they knew what Mr. Yang's story would be, what is the best case scenario? Perhaps they hoped Mr. Yang would respond like this:
"Well yes, maybe there wasn't an airplane! Boy, we sure have learned a lot about the nature of truth. No one in this country knows about the abject suffering my people experienced, but at least now they know that it's slightly less bad than we were saying it was before! Still pretty terrible though."
// Your response to the response to the Yellow Rain story shows a deep unwillingness on the part of the producers and creators of RadioLab to examine your own motivations and privilege. Even the title of this piece is insensitive: "The Yellow Rain fallout"? Really?
Not sure who you're addressing here. *I* wrote the title of the post but I did *not* write the response that is the post.
I think when you say *you* here you're referring to chief content officer of WNYC. He did not make the title of the post.
Dean Cappello obviously took a bit of time to construct a response for you to share his facts with readers of the News Cut blog, but nowhere did he mention reaching out to Kao Kalia Yang. Ms. Yang's October 8th email to Mr. Cappello posted on Hyphen magazine ends with her writing, "I await your response to this email." It would seem that in the 1.5 weeks between her sending him the email and its posting on Hyphen, Mr. Cappello felt no need to construct an equally thoughtful response to the people at the center of this debate, the Yangs.
Mr. Cappello did not send this rebuttal to clarify and maintain transparency, he sent it to prove that he and his colleagues are right and Ms. Yang is wrong.
My greatest issue with this is that at the end of the original story Jad Abumrad says that there are three different truths to this story and that all of them are right-- so why does everyone associated with Radiolab keep trying so hard to prove Kao Kalia Yang and Eng Yang wrong?
"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."
This is ludicrous.
They started with a story from a CIA officer and then went out and found people who supported the CIA officer's story. They simply ignored, dismissed, or edited out any information that didn't fit the thread of the story, which was that Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig tried to justify a massive expansion of chemical weapons production and did so when the "yellow rain" they "exposed" was really just bee dung.
RadioLab ignored logic and common sense; they ignored eyewitness testimony; and they ignored the science of others who published studies after Meselson. (See previous post) They didn't "conclude" anything. They sold us a story based on incomplete and disingenuous "research" that was far more political than scientific.
5) KIDS TODAY, EH?
I would love to know what the parents do. Many of the tools she needs are expensive. And the space for a car.
Super cool. I'll have to show this to my daughter tonight!
They keep shooting themselves in the foot here -- they're more concerned with showing that they're right than they are with understanding why people are upset with them or think that they've done wrong.
And that ain't a scientific way to go about things.
Actually, that is the scientific way to go about things, which may be the problem.
In science you are concerned with proving a hypothesis, which you are supposed to do without regard to anyone's feelings on the matter.
However, in telling a story, feelings and presentation very much matter. Especially when you invite someone else to help you tell that story and then rake them over the coals.
I appreciate that this conversation is happening among the radiolab/mpr communities. I am not convinced radiolab's actions were "racist" or intentionally dismissive. I'm more inclined to think they were pandering. They were trying to set up the "backwater" folk wisdom against hard science. They wanted Kao Kalia and her uncle to fit that "backwater" label, which is insulting, but I don't believe racist. What they did get wrong was that human lives were lost and that survivors often struggle to have their stories validated (holocaust, nankin massacre, rape, etc...) by "science" and the public. e.g., it's impossible to kill that many people in that short of a period of time, what weapons did they use?, is it rape if a girl is promiscuous?, etc... In the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the human trauma is often ignored. We are just now realizing that this is no longer an acceptable way of approaching victims/survivors. I hope this conversation will help journalists and scientists remember this very important point in the future.
Chris -- just a note, proposing a hypothesis presupposes that you only think you know what the answer to your specific question might be based on what you already know/suspect. If you do a research study and are hell bent on making the data fit your hypothesis, that's not a good sign. You know what I mean? If you're trying to make the data fit the hypothesis the way you want it to go, you're not being dispassionate.
I think what bothers me is the combative tone of the Radiolab responses. To say, "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." seems to miss a crucial point: why would you decide to interview a survivor of genocide with the obvious intent to disprove his experiences. Even if you found some kind of "truth" in doing so, how inhumane. If they wanted to question the evidence, then they could have found an expert whose research disagreed with the bee theory and challenge him/her in a professional capacity. It would have been less callous and probably more fruitful.
After hearing the story, I do think Mr. Krulwich's initial response was inappropriate for a reporter, and that the apology was warranted. I also think Ms. Yang's emotional interjection, while understandable, was also inappropriate for a translator. Unlike Krulwich's apology, however, Ms. Yang's essay alleging racism was unwarranted. She could have (and to some extent, did) raise salient points about the continued disinterest in the plight of the Hmong people. But instead, her essay took the form of a rant, alleging certain facts that, in light of Mr. Cappello's response, seem inaccurate at best. Her thesis seems to be that Radiolab ignored the racism she experienced, and so they were guilty of the same sin. I wouldn't say that the essay tried to "monopolize" the issue, as Mr. Krulwich initially alleged, but it was still somehow all about her. In this self-centric approach, her own pregnancy became a central point, and the story about her (even more so than her uncle) rather than the peculiar phenomenon, the historical context, and the Reagan administration's actions thereafter.
Perhaps the interview did not measure up to her or Mr. Yang's expectations, but that is not the duty of journalism. Nor does it constitute racism.
// Perhaps the interview did not measure up to her or Mr. Yang's expectations, but that is not the duty of journalism.
It's hard to tell. If you're saying it's not the duty of journalism to measure up to someone else's expectations, I guess you're right. If you're saying the feelings and sense of being victimized that the family left with is not an issue surrounding the duty of journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists would disagree as the code of ethics outlines under the section, "Do No Harm."
— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.
It seems to me that in the original interview, Kalia was reacting to the way in which the interview was conducted and the surprising lack of empathy shown by the interviewer. It seems odd that Radiolab would invite a survivor of genocide to speak about his first-person experience with the main intent to discredit his memories and experiences.
But what bothers me is the final product and what followed the release of the story. Radiolab crafted the story in such a way that Robert was allowed to contextualize Kalia's final reaction in relation to his personal experience as a journalist. He said her reaction "wasn't fair" and that she was trying to monopolize the story. That's quite a claim, since Radiolab specifically invited the Yangs onto the show and asked them to present their side of the story. And, in fact, Kalia didn't challenge their right to do the story. She challenged what she perceived to be their dismissive attitude toward her uncle's experience. As she states in her own piece, "We spoke honestly and authentically from where we were positioned. We did not try to convince anybody of what we lived through, merely, we wanted to share it. "
And here is where I think the power dynamic matters. Radiolab set the stage beforehand with its invitation and the decision on what critical lens to bring to the story. They also had editorial control afterward, determining what stayed in or was removed (or updated). They got to determine what sources and evidence counted as "legitimate" (academic work supporting the bee theory) and which did not (articles and first-hand accounts and academic work supporting the yellow rain theory). Yet they have reacted to the questions from viewers and to Kalia's negative response as if she had equal control over the content of the podcast and how she and her uncle were depicted-- as if she is, in fact, trying to monopolize the story.
The Yangs did not write to Radiolab and say, "Interview us. We have definitive proof that Yellow Rain existed." Radiolab made the decision to put their first-person account up against an academic study and see which one might be found wanting. Radiolab also gave Robert the opportunity to frame Kalia's initial reaction as manipulative, as if she were somehow a surrogate for the Reagan administration and not a niece trying to do justice by her uncle's lived experience. Look carefully at the questions Robert sent to Kalia beforehand and it is easy to understand why she and her uncle assumed that the interview would be an exploration (and therefore a validation) of his experiences, regardless of whether Radiolab thought Yellow Rain existed: 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?" But stated aggressively, these questions can easily seems like a challenge or a critique. I don't find is surprising, therefore, that the Yangs felt unprepared or that the interview felt like an attempt to invalidate what Mr. Yang had lived through. Tone is hard to intuit, especially in email, so Robert may have assumed they knew he was looking for evidence worthy of scrutiny while they believed he was looking for a first-hand account of the Hmong experience during those years.
But the thing that truly bothers me is that even in apology, Radiolab maintains that it is defending the journalistic search for "truth." ("What we attempted to do was to examine the Yellow Rain story in the context of what constitutes truth.") If that is the case, then they should have done one of two things:
A) Looked at the academic arguments on both sides of the debate and interviewed officials from the Reagan administration who support the Yellow Rain theory as well as professionals who refute it. In this instance, the story is about government narratives versus scientific narratives.
B) Framed the story around the uncomfortable gap between what scientists discover through research and what people experience, illustrating the complications, nuances and consequences of this gap.
If they had gone with approach one, then they could still have interviewed Mr. Yang, but about his professional experience documenting the Hmong experience. If they had gone with approach B, then they might have been more sensible to the fact that they were interviewing a real human being about a very real, very emotional and very traumatic episode in his life.
Radiolab needs to more fully own their aplogy and acknowledge that this was not a facebook spat between friends. This was a professional account that exploited one man's personal experience to make what they believed was a profound point about the nature of truth. It wasn't; it was a platitude.
One more thing I'd like to add, to the observations already made on Mr. Capello's rebuttal of Ms. Yang. His third rebuttal point, where he responds to "the accusation that Radiolab refuses the statement submitted by Kalia Yang", raised four pressing questions for me:
(1) How do some of Kalia's sentiments being echoed by her husband in some comments, at all refute the accusation that Radiolab refused to put up Yang's criticism of their segment? That Mr. Capello is conflating a comment with a airspace/article space is disingenuous at best.
(2) Robert Krulwich's multiple clarifications and justifications have all been published, put on the podcast, edited and put on the podcast again, etcetc. When offered the same platform, Ms. Yang sends a response that talks incisively about the underlying power imbalances that come to play in the podcast. This response is never published because initially she sent Pat "a very kind email". Yet how is her initial communication being more positive, enough to disqualify her later criticism from being valid?
Listening to Radiolab's Yellow Rain podcast, it seemed to me that the show was alarmingly backwards on both race and gender issues. For one thing, it doesn't take a PhD scientist, or several months of reviewing academic papers, to know that one of the most pervasive and damaging stereotypes in our society is that of women being naturally irrational, emotional, conniving, indecisive, manipulative, etc. Sometimes all it takes is turning on the TV, and realizing how disproportionately few women occupy positions of authority.
Radiolab's editing of the Yellow Rain story, and Mr. Krulwich's dismissal of Ms. Yang's perspective as an emotionally manipulative attempt to wrest control of said story, among other things, seemed to also draw upon and resonate with such sexist undercurrents. Yet it seems that instead of realizing any of this, Radiolab is seeking to once again justify it, and in doing so drawing upon some of those same undercurrents.
(3) A corollary to the point above: Instead of putting up Ms. Yang's words, Radiolab chose to put up Mr. Krulwich's reaction to her words. And they're using the fact that they've done this... to support their arguments that they haven't neglected her viewpoint, haven't deemed Mr. Krulwich's thoughts and reactions and truths more important and valid at every turn, that they've always been fair and balanced in presenting all viewpoints to their listeners without prejudice.
I find it rather remarkable that we're presented with contrary evidence here that manages to so thoroughly contradict itself and support the opposing viewpoint.
(4) This is a very obvious point, but Mr. Capello at least seems to have missed it, so: that Radiolab generously offers to post a statement by an interviewee that praises the show, yet is totally unwilling when the interviewee submits something critical instead -- does not say very good things about the show and its open-mindedness and receptiveness to criticism!
Bob, thanks for your continuing articles on this, and your comments. I've been following this from the beginning, and have greatly appreciated both reading your take, and also the discussion space you've provided.
Also, responding to what you said in a comment, that "the compelling part of the story now is how it will be resolved and how each side will begin to understand how the other is reacting and why."
I'm on David Shih on this one, that "the more compelling part will be how RadioLab begins to understand how it is reacting and why."
That Radiolab, instead of intelligently taking criticisms into account and making changes so that something like this doesn't happen again, continues to act in the same way. That it continues to try and discredit Kao Kalia Yang's words and experience, to insinuate that she and her uncle don't deserve more voice in this conversation than what Radiolab's already so generously granted, and how surprising and disappointing it is that you didn't realize this when you presented a number of her "false allegations" (that was a particularly nice touch, I thought).
By now, to characterize Radiolab's behavior as irresponsible is to call the Mississippi a tiny little stream. And I'm really curious about what can make the Radiolab team realize this, if anything, at this point, can.
At first I was impressed with the thorough response from Cappella then I realized he omitted a response to Kao Kalia's allegation that Radiolab left out credentials for Eng Yang and her. If there was no malice and intent to promote and perpetuate prejudice then why did Radiolab frame and portrayed the Hmong as uneducated and ignorant and left out their credentials while all the white men in the Yellow Rain story were accurately credited? The fact that Cappello omitted a response to this allegation seems to further cement Kao Kalia's assertion of sexism and racism by Radiolab.
Radiolab need to release the audio and transcript of the interview in its entirety. They need to explain why they keep dipping in and editing the podcast, which is basically trying to revise history. The longer they leave it, the more guilty they look.
I finally listened to the pod cast. It was very odd. They clearly used the interview with Eng Yang as a turning point in the story they presented. I found it very odd to pit a chemical weapons expert against someone with Mr Yang's background. How does Mr Yang answer charges that the lab was tainted that first found weapon grade toxins. It's not possible for him to 'refute it'. But yet that is what the interviewer asked Mr Yang to do.
Also not hiring a professional translator was a huge mistake.
// Tone is hard to intuit, especially in email, so Robert may have assumed they knew he was looking for evidence worthy of scrutiny while they believed he was looking for a first-hand account of the Hmong experience during those years.
This is an interesting point worth considering here. Does providing, say, 10 questions -- all but 3 of which aren't about Yellow Rain's detractors -- provide a defense against an allegation that the family felt sandbagged?
I don't have an answer to that question. If the assertion is that they couldn't have felt sandbagged because they knew the three questions that were to be asked, I guess I would ask how that means they knew the interviewer was going to clearly indicate that the chemical weapon detractors were the correct ones?
They don't know that someone has done two years of research and concluded that the Yangs were wrong, so there's really nothing to suggest that the interview was going to ask a survivor of genocide why he was (allegedly) wrong about part of the very cause of that genocide.
But, what continues to trouble me about the construction of the piece is that is leads the audience to believe -- through the way it's edited -- that Radiolab visited two very nice people in Minnesota, then went back to New York and did some research on the story, discovered a significant hole in the story of the nice people, then returned to Minnesota, armed with their new discovery to confront these people on their story.
What we learned from Ms. Yang's essay is that how the show was constructed, and how the listener was taken on the journey, isn't true at all. I'm still unclear of the timing of the interview, but it sounds as if it was one of the last interviews to be done.
Is that journalism? Is it theater? Is it a little of both? At what point does it become exploitation?
I don't have the answer to that and I'm a bit disappointed that in the "you did/no I didn't" phase of the discussion that's taking place between the Yangs and WNYC (through intermediaries mostly), that isn't being discussed.
Maybe this controversy will die out or at least be made to go away. But until we as journalists consider it, it will continue reappear again and again and again in some other form, some other story, some other program.