The Yellow Rain fallout (5×8 – 10/25/12)

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

Dear Bob,

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.

Dean Cappello

Chief Content Officer/WNYC


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.

Thanks, Kalia.


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.

For example:

• 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?


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.