Search for ‘truth’ results in Radiolab apology

Jad Abumrad, Kao Kalia Yang and WNYC speak to Current about the ongoing controversy.

By Andrew Lapin

An interview that went awry for Radiolab co-host Robert Krulwich sparked an outcry from listeners and an unusual apology from a show unaccustomed to accusations of insensitivity.

The interview, conducted for a story that revisits an investigation of the use of chemical weapons at the end of the Vietnam War, has yet to air on public radio stations. It was distributed online Sept. 24 as part of a one-hour podcast, “The Fact of the Matter,” exploring the notion of truth.

The inclusion of co-host Krulwich’s contentious interview in a podcast left the staff of Radiolab feeling “exposed” and “vulnerable,” Abumrad said at Third Coast. (Photo: Kate Joyce Studios)

The podcast was still a point of contention two weeks later at the Third Coast Conference in Evanston, Ill., where a panel that discussed ethics in public broadcasting questioned whether Krulwich and Radiolab had been fair to their sources.

In the piece, inspired by a 1991 investigation by The New Yorker (login required to view article), Krulwich and producer Pat Walters examine allegations that the Viet Cong used chemical weapons to retaliate against the Hmong people of Southeast Asia for their cooperation with the U.S. military during the war. The U.S. government advanced the claims of Hmong eyewitnesses who recalled seeing yellow substances fall from the sky and the decimation of crops, animals and people.

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan drew upon the “yellow rain” theory as justification for renewing America’s own chemical-weapons production. Yet an investigation by Harvard scientists more than a decade later postulated that the yellow rain was most likely bee droppings.

In reporting the story, Krulwich and Walters interviewed one eyewitness — Eng Yang, a Hmong whose village in Laos was attacked by the Viet Cong by ground and air in 1975 as yellow rain fell; he had worked with the Thai government to document his community’s experience during the war. Yang’s niece Kao Kalia Yang, an award-winning memoirist, served as his translator.

Krulwich drew upon the studies that concluded that chemical weapons had not been used on the Hmong people, asking whether Yang had actually seen Viet Cong planes dropping chemicals on his village.

In a first-person account that Kao Kalia Yang gave to Hyphen, a nonprofit magazine of Asian-American interests, she recounted how Radiolab’s producers disregarded reports she presented that challenged the scientists’ conclusions about yellow rain. The program also dismissed Eng Yang’s explanation of bee behavior, which was derived from the Hmong community’s centuries-old knowledge of bee behavior and contradicted the scientists’ findings. The account was published online Oct. 22.

Krulwich’s persistence upset the Yangs so much that Kao Kalia Yang, through tears, ended the interview early, saying, “We can play the semantics game — we can. But I am not interested . . . We have lost too much heart, and too many people.”

Reflecting on the interview after returning to the studio, Krulwich told co-host Jad Abumrad that Kao Kalia Yang’s “desire was not for balance. Her desire was to monopolize the story.”

The response from podcast listeners was swift and overwhelmingly negative, with hundreds of comments criticizing Krulwich’s attitude toward the Yangs and the program’s approach to the story. In an Oct. 10 blog post for Hyphen, columnist Kirti Kamboj called the piece “an Orientalist, ethnocentric framing and narrative” that set up a conflict of “rational Americans versus backwater Asians.”

In a letter to students, teachers and friends, Kao Kalia Yang wrote that Krulwich “grew increasingly disrespectful toward my uncle’s experiences and his lack of formal education” during the interview. The letter was posted on Tumblr and with other comments on the Radiolab website, though not by Yang.

“The story is billed as a search for truth. I am a firm believer that the truth belongs to those who’ve lived it,” Yang wrote.

Both Abumrad and Krulwich wrote about the episode in follow-up blog posts, and Krulwich apologized twice — on the show’s blog and in a recorded apology to the Yangs that was inserted into a revised version of the podcast Oct. 5.

“I have to ask questions to search for truth, but in this case, given how much Mr. Yang had already suffered, I should have done it with more respect and more gently,” Krulwich said.

Abumrad, who has the final say on all Radiolab content before it airs, told Current that both he and Krulwich regret the direction the interview took, but defended their reporting methods.

“We had never actually heard from the people who were there, and we were genuinely curious: Did they see something that would allow us to rethink the story and to rethink what the scientists were saying?” Abumrad said. “I don’t feel like an outcry of emotion should necessarily divert a line of questioning which is valid.”

The podcast will not air over broadcast radio until 2013, and producers haven’t decided how to edit it. Producers haven’t contacted the Yangs since Krulwich’s apology, and they aren’t planning additional coverage of the Hmong community, according to Abumrad.

During an address to the Third Coast Conference Oct. 7, Abumrad said including the interview in the podcast had made everyone on the program feel “exposed” and “vulnerable.” But they reasoned that, in an episode about truth, such transparency was important. He also used the incident to illustrate one of his talk’s key points: People who work in creative professions should keep pushing themselves into areas where they feel uncomfortable.

The ethics of storytelling

This level of scrutiny is rare for Radiolab, one of the most decorated shows in public radio. The program won a Peabody Award for Broadcast Excellence in 2010, and the MacArthur Foundation gave Abumrad a prestigious “genius grant” fellowship in 2011.

At Third Coast, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute urged journalists in attendance to think about the concept of “ethics” in broader terms than factual accuracy, saying it should also refer to fidelity to sources, to represent their viewpoints as accurately as possible.

McBride, Poynter’s senior faculty on ethics in reporting, said public-media reporters are among the most conscientious in journalism. She receives more calls for ethics consultations per capita from public-media reporters than from those working in for-profit media, and takes this as a sign that “public media has a much more thoughtful, deliberate approach to making ethical decisions.”

McBride told Current that the lack of diversity on Radiolab’s staff may have played a role in its perceived insensitivity toward the Hmong people. “I think that the people who called out Radiolab on this topic felt like that’s what happened: Because these people are not very affluent . . . because they don’t speak English, because they are so different, it’s very hard to afford them the same kind of emotional nuance that you might afford somebody who works in your own building,” she said.

Outside of Abumrad, who is Lebanese, all other Radiolab staff members are white and of European descent, according to WNYC spokeswoman Jennifer Houlihan.

While Abumrad acknowledged that diversity in public radio remains a “crucially important” issue, he disputed the idea that Radiolab has difficulty empathizing with different ethnicities.

My parents came over to America in the early ’70s as the result of a civil war that killed over 100,000 people, and a lot of people that we knew,” he said. “Sensitivity to perspectives that are outside the norm, a sensitivity to people who are isolated, whose voices you don’t usually hear from — I get that. I still think the line of questioning in that piece is not only valid, it’s important.”

Because the Radiolab segment didn’t involve questions of factual accuracy, McBride said, it poses less of an ethical quandary than the journalistic concerns she usually hears of.

“Ethically, [Radiolab] didn’t deceive anybody. They didn’t get anything horribly wrong and cause damage by getting it wrong. They just framed their story in a way that discounted somebody else’s story, and that was hurtful,” she said.

Abumrad doesn’t know whether Radiolab will change its editorial process in light of the reactions to “Yellow Rain.” He’s determined to continue taking the program into tougher terrain.

“We will be telling stories that are controversial. We will be telling stories that provoke reactions one way or another,” he said. “That’s the direction we’re going in.”

Postscript: ‘Truth’ in recollection

Yang’s dispute with Radiolab extends beyond the botched interview and the material that producers left out of the final program. In her account for Hyphen, she also questioned producers’ decision not to publish a reaction piece that she said they had asked her to contribute to the website, but withheld when she submitted a piece that was overwhelmingly negative. She also appealed to WNYC Chief Content Officer Dean Cappello to request that Radiolab air a new statement from Eng Yang.

According to Houlihan, WNYC’s spokesperson, there was an abrupt shift in Yang’s interactions with Radiolab’s producers. She initially reacted positively to the story in a private email to them, but when they requested permission to publish her comments online, she withdrew them and submitted a negative critique.

The counterevidence of yellow rain that Kao Kalia Yang provided to Radiolab wasn’t mentioned in the program because it was primarily composed of media reports, not academic studies, Houlihan said. Producers elected not to incorporate Eng Yang’s knowledge of bees because they had “numerous other lines of evidence” that would have disproved his.

“The team strongly believed, based on their research and the science available, that the accumulation of evidence would not have necessarily added to the story, but certainly would have further questioned Mr. Yang’s experience,” Houlihan said.

Although Kao Kalia Yang is an admirer of NPR and spent years listening to WNYC when she lived in New York, she told Current in an email that her experience with Radiolab “has really challenged my optimism and belief in media.”

“The Hmong are not in the media very often — when we are, how we are portrayed is so critical to our own understanding of ourselves and our place in America,” Yang wrote. “Nothing in this experience has shown me that my support means anything to [Radiolab]; certainly my voice and the Hmong experience doesn’t.  Do they want my support?  I don’t know.”

Update (10/25/12): Radiolab producers have released the list of questions Walters originally emailed to Yang prior to the interview.
Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org
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  • Aaron

    The comments from Houlihan about Kao Kalia Yang are only statements and are not backed by any evidence. For example: I invite people to read this response on the Radiolab page from professor Paul Hilmer regarding at least one of the sources offered to radiolab in relation to this episode LONG BEFORE they went to air. “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 poop story—based on work conducted nearly 30 years ago— as incontrovertible fact instead of the questionable 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.”

  • Paul

    “According to Houlihan, WNYC’s spokesperson. . .Yang . . .initially reacted positively to the story in a private
    email to them, but when they requested permission to publish her
    comments online, she withdrew them and submitted a negative critique.”
    WOW THIS IS SIMPLY UNTRUE. I had no idea they would stoop so low to cover their behinds. I think it’s fair to say that Kalia has all the old e-mails and could quite easily and convincingly show that these claims are false and quickly becoming malicious.

    “The team strongly believed, based on their research and the science
    available, that the accumulation of evidence would not have necessarily
    added to the story, but certainly would have further questioned Mr.
    Yang’s experience,”
    ALSO APPALLINGLY UNTRUE. Read Aaron’s post above. These people are simply lying. There’s no other way to describe it. I’m sure the scientists who’ve criticized the bee crap theory will be thrilled to know they produced “media reports, not academic studies.”

    Jad, Robert, Pat, you stepped in it big time. You must know this. Be adults and admit it and stop acting like you’re fooling anybody. Retractions, corrections, and apologies are all part of your trade. It’s time to use them sincerely and effectively.

  • Wendell

    Lucky journalists, you get to choose your moments of discomfort, even at the cost of humiliating others who have already experienced horrible tragedies. As a Hmong immigrant and survivor of the war, I didn’t get to choose my discomfort or exploit it for publicity. I just had to try to live through it, which apparently isn’t as true as scholarly papers.

    Way to go Radio Lab! Your priorities have cost you my listener-ship and financial support.

  • Nick

    I think there is some evidence to support Houlihan’s statements. See the RadioLab response here. Very detailed.

    http://bit.ly/RitCVO

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  • The real fact of the matter

    Regardless of their intentions, the story we got is the truth of what happened. Cappello in his seemingly thorough response to Kao Kalia Yang’s response left out an explanation why Radiolab left out the credentials of the Yangs while they made sure all the white men in the story were attributed accurately. Additionally, the final cut of the story framed the Hmong as backwards, uneducated, and ignorant living in the “remote” “backwaters” of Laos. Cappello also failed to explain why the Hmong subjects were framed in this way and did not address Yang’s allegation there there is imbalance of privilege and power. The real fact of the matter here is that regardless of the producers intentions, their actions weren’t aligned with it and regardless of how they edit the truth from the final cut, it can’t be undone. The truth of the incredible imbalance of power and unethical treatment of the subjects cannot let Radiolab off the hook until they accept their part in institutionalizing racism through the Yellow Rain story.

  • Chris in MN

    The thing is, the mistake Radiolab made was taking the New Yorker article and the Harvard study as Gospel, and discounting the statements made by Kalia and Eng. And in my opinion, when Eng said straight out that he knew about bee droppings, and that this wasn’t it, that should have either stopped the RL report in its tracks, or drastically changed the tone and direction of the piece. You can hear Eng say this very thing in the recorded podcast itself, but what you don’t hear is when Kalia translates those words to English. That was cut out (deliberately in my opinion). Deliberate edits of information for the purpose of telling a predetermined story is what those in the business call “journalistic fraud.” It is no different than creationists who pick and choose scientific information to shoot holes in evolution because they want holes shot in it. Truth be damned.

    The fact is the Harvard study could very well have been faulty. If this toxin was Sarin or something like it, traces would have broken down long before samples made it to the lab. And since those sample came from the jungle, they would of course have polen on them. Everything did. And frankly, there’s no shortage of New Yorker hatchet pieces on Reagan. Their editors still hold a grudge to this day.

    Radiolab took the story of the genocide of the Hmong and one of the weapons used against them, and turned it into a puff piece through misleading editing and deliberate story modeling.

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