Why the RadioLab interview went wrong

The Public Radio podcast show, RadioLab, the radio version of which is heard on MPR on Saturday afternoons, is getting significant pushback for its handling of an interview with a Hmong veteran in the Twin Cities. on last weekend’s broadcast

Eng Yang, was living in a village in Laos in 1975, when it was targeted by Viet Cong and Pathet Lao. Eng says it started with isolated killings, until one day, his whole village was attacked, the story goes.

He and thousands of other Hmong fled their homes and went into hiding in the jungle. And that’s when they started seeing it — yellow droplets that fell from the sky and splattered the landscape, followed by dying plants, animals, and eventually friends and family doubled over with stomach problems.

When US scientists looked at the yellow spots, they found poison, and pretty soon “Yellow Rain” as it was known, had become a flashpoint in the cold war.

It was alleged that the Soviet Union was responsible, so the U.S. created its own chemical weapon bomb.

The “yellow rain” turned out to be bee feces.

That’s when host Robert Krulwich went back to Eng Yang, and his niece Kao Kalia Yang, who was translating.

At that point, the tight editing and fancy production values of the show ended, and Eng Yang was put on the spot, with Krulwich arguing with both as if he were a cross-examining attorney.

RadioLab appeared to sandbag the family in the most embarrassing way:

What makes the interview particularly uncomfortable is that RadioLab already knew how it ended before beginning to tell the rest of us the story on Saturday. It led us down a particular pathway of a story, and then dropped the end of the interview on us, as if they didn’t know the pain they found. One producer noted — correctly — that the story appeared — at least to Eng Yang and his niece — to invalidate the Hmong loss and suffering in Laos. If it knew that, why not package and edit the story in a more sensitive way?

Jad Abumrad of RadioLab wrote an update yesterday:

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.

That’s not a point we set out to make. It’s something that arose organically when our producer, Pat Walters, realized, and then openly admitted on tape, that he felt he’d missed something. That is why we included the lengthy and painful exchange with Kao Kalia Yang, even though it may not have been flattering to us. Our goal in our ending conversation was not to be pedantic or insensitive but to be transparent. That was an honest in-the-moment conversation about honest differences.

All that said, the thing I’d most like to respond to is accusations that we were cavalier in our response to the pain that Kalia and her uncle Eng were expressing.

We were all profoundly troubled by the interview with Kalia and Eng. Before heading into the studio, we argued with one another for weeks about what it meant to us personally and what it meant for the story. If we gave the impression that we approached the ending conversation casually, without much consideration or sensitivity, that’s on us. And that is something I’d like to correct. So I’ve inserted a line in the story that puts our ending conversation in a bit more context.

A commenter to that post (and I strongly encourage everyone to read a vibrant discussion there) captures the problem perfectly:

In my view, there were multiple mistakes but a profound one was the lack of acknowledgement of power in truth-telling and truth-adjudicating. Yes, that yellow rain was probably not a chemical weapon is the truth and has moral and political consequences. Yes, that the Hmong experienced terrible suffering and an attempted genocide is the truth and has moral and political consequences. But as you so ably demonstrated, determination of the first truth has advocates and interested parties in two of the most powerful governments in the world, multiple science labs, and your own reporters. Determination and dealing with the second truth, and the reckoning with justice and reparations and pain it might require, seems to have been left by the wayside by everyone but the Hmong who experienced it.

In the wake of this silence, the idea that Eng has any responsibility to act as a witness in the ongoing dispute between all of these powerful parties regarding yellow rain feels ludicrous compared to his ongoing mission to awaken people to the reality of what he and his family experienced. In your post-interview conversation you acknowledged that part of why the interview may have been so difficult for Eng and his niece is that the telling of the Hmong story is tied to this issue of yellow rain, and losing the latter feels like losing the former. But you didn’t acknowledge that this is the case precisely because yellow rain has been the only lens through which non-Hmong have been interested to hear Eng’s terrible story, which seems a much bigger blindness to the truth, and to the “fact of the matter,” than what you chose to focus on.

Another commenter made a more antiseptic point: Science isn’t pretty.

Science isn’t exactly compassionate and the devil needs an advocate if we’re looking for scientific truth. But science with all the beautiful, interesting and innovative things– science is not everything.

I think you handled it well. I mean, how do you properly handle the genocide of the Hmong in a science show? That moment was something bigger than you expected and you kept yourselves honest. I respect that.

There’s another reality, however, that the show underscores. Many people in the United States do not fully comprehend the suffering of the Hmong people on behalf of the country that walked away from them.

That comprehension might’ve caused RadioLab to tell its story in a more sensitive and equally accurate way.

Finally, there’s an important lesson in this controversy for journalists: if you’re not sure what the point of a story is, you’re not ready to tell it.