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The ethics of attention: unpacking “Yellow Rain”

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.

15 thoughts on “The ethics of attention: unpacking “Yellow Rain””

  1. The ethics of responsible journalism require an explicit – even if it’s just spoken – contract between the interview subject and the reporter. I think your analysis is correct, but Radiolab is being let off the hook for exploiting the desires of the Yangs. Krulwich et al., were insensitive. They should apologize for being manipulative.

  2. Thanks for this analysis. I largely agree, esp with the idea that the reporters were pursuing two stories that were at cross-purposes with their interviewees and they handled it very clumsily. What continues to trouble me about this episode is a claim I keep hearing that uncovering the truth behind these events is somehow invalidating the experience and suffering of the Hmong. I suspect for many people this RadioLab episode was their first encounter with that atrocity, which certainly counts for something. Moreover, it’s hard for me to square the notions of ‘respecting the desires’ of the Yangs with the value of giving a full accounting of their history, which would honor the Hmong much more, it seems to me.

  3. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” — Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990)

  4. 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 very strange to me that so many people (such as yourself, the Radiolab hosts, etc) keep on saying that Eng and Kao Kalia Yang weren’t interested in talking about the controversy over yellow rain, when from all accounts, they talked about it in considerable length. It was only when it became apparent that this wasn’t the story that Radiolab was interested in (see: Radiolab’s dismissal of eyewitness accounts of the aftermath of chemical attacks as hearsay; their refusal to consider that Eng Yang might have expertise on bee behavior in the mountains of Laos, where the Hmong had harvested honey for centuries; their portrayal of Dr. Meselson’s dismissal of Hmong accounts of chemical weapons as uncontroversial fact rather than contested theory; I could keep going on and on here) that Kao Kalia Yang stopped the interview.

    So why this bizarre insistence that the Yangs aren’t interested in the controversy over yellow rain (especially when it affects them the most directly, especially when they’ve explicitly stated otherwise) and Radiolab, with their consistent failure to even acknowledge this controversy, is?

  5. Mike, I’m not sure an apology regarding the interview is enough. Radiolab has already issued several apologies that have not been true apologies (Robert’s especially), which I think delude any future apologies that might be made. Even if these current apologies did not exist, I think an apology would not bring justice in this case. This case requires an action to correct the wrong that has occurred. As Ethan points out, the most obvious action is to provide the Yangs with a platform from which to tell the Hmong story.

    Ethan, great analysis, though I disagree that Radiolab can not provide the platform that the Yangs need. The show regularly broadcasts pieces that have little or no relationship to science (recent examples include Grumpy Old Terrorists and Crossroads.) I do not think it would be much of a stretch for Radiolab to dedicate an episode to the Hmong experience during and after Vietnam.

    In fact, I’d argue that Radiolab has to do this. The media narrative is currently “Radiolab mishandled a story on the Hmong genocide”, as opposed to “a Hmong genocide occurred and has not been properly reported.” The spot light is still on Radiolab; to make the best of a bad situation, Radiolab has to very publicly transfer that spotlight to the Yangs and anybody else capable of telling the Hmong story.

  6. Pingback: The Truth will Out: Radiolab withdraws from ‘Yellow Rain,’ sources continue the narrative « Boreal Bites

  7. I saw some of the same errors in the accompanying Morris segment, albeit to a lesser degree. I was really upset about it for awhile, until I found the Hmong segment.

    The whole set up in the photo story, which they adopt unquestioningly from Morris, is that Sontag was just speculating, whereas Morris and his photoshop friend have actual evidence, claiming Sontag was “right for the wrong reasons” as if Morris even has any idea what her reasons were.

    The “controversy” as presented by the show seems to reenforce the following framework for the endeavor: what matters here is the reasoning of techie nerd guys and their relationship to their investigations.

  8. My 10-year old son and I listen to all the Radiolab podcasts, this episode included. As the interview with the Hmong began to spin out of control, I found myself in the challenging position of trying to explain to my son what was happening here. I don’t know how well I did, but I will say this for the non-10-year olds who might read this:

    Krulwich’s behavior was reprehensible, I thought at the time. But the REASON I found it so reprehensible, I think , was because here was a radio host caught completely out of his element. The normal “gee whiz” tone of all Radiolab broadcasts was suddenly shattered by a “real” story about genocide. This is neither Radiolab’s nor Krulwich’s bailiwick. Instead of abdicating or refocusing the interview, Krulwich decided he was going to be Mike Wallace and bully a traumatized man and his unsuspecting niece. (I believe it was his niece, but it’s hardly relevant.)

    When they started in with the bee crap explanation, my son and I both were convinced that this was the set up to a joke. Could any thinking person REALLY believe for a moment that people died from exposure to bee poop? And how many bees are we talking about to mount a sustained attack? A load of B.S., to be sure.

    I am not Hmong, Asian and I was born in the middle of the Vietnam War, so I am no expert. I do know cultural bias when I hear it, however, and this smacked of just ANOTHER case of voiceless, defenseless people who were deemed worthless or expendable being denied a voice after being denied their lives.

    Radiolab should have stuck to stories about whether Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and leave the journalism to All Things Considered, Frontline, Bill Moyers or some other NPR or PBS colleague with the requisite chops.

  9. I similarly had problems with the Morris segment, parataxis, and thought the third terrible as well, due to being monopolised by the misogynist storyteller. Still, the segment with the Yangs was painful to listen to, apparent from the beginning that their view of the story was not given to respect it deserved by any of the presenters.

  10. If the evidence for chemical warfare (as it relates to this “yellow rain”) is slim, I believe Krulwich had every right–indeed an obligation–to push the point. He should have chosen his words better, no doubt, but the same can be said of Yang when, afterwards, she describes Krulwich as “an imperialist white man”. In both cases, the speaker is expressing a prejudice.

    It is unfortunate that Yang’s father’s painful testimony is juxtaposed with “bee shit”. Jad and Krulwich should have been more sensitive to this and not relished so much the kookiness of the explanation. From the Yangs’ perspective, I can totally see how Krulwich’s snorty-laughter at this point might’ve felt like a twist of the knife. For a program that is generally so well-edited, this was unexpected.

  11. Mr. Woollcott, I completely agree that if Robert was on solid ground, he was obligated to promote the truth. But he wasn’t. Pat Walters had access to scientific studies and the people who;d conducted and supervised–stuff that was conducted in this millennium, and not back in the ’80s–that at the very least would give any credible journalist pause about making blanket statements about “truth.” Check out, for example, “Politics & the Life Sciences,” 24 August 2007, starting on page 24, and you will find abundant reasons to not see the bee dung theory as iron-clad. Again, RadioLab had this information in hadn well before they commenced their now-infamous interview with Eng Yang.

  12. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (27 October 2012) » Gocnhin Archive

  13. Pingback: The Truth will Out: Radiolab withdraws from ‘Yellow Rain,’ sources continue the narrative | Boreal Bites

  14. I listened to this broadcast and was startled by Robert Krulwich treatment and arrogance of these guests. I have listened to Radiolab for a couple years and I have observed Krulwich attitude over many broadcasts. My observation is there is a HUGE ego involved with Mr. Krulwich and he has become maniacal. He really seems to be infatuated with his voice and his ideas. Public radio is great, but there are a lot of similar characters on a variety of NPR programs who swollen heads.

    The turnover is very low at NPR and if one is the master of his or her show for 20 years, then I think the god complex starts to take over. This is also seen in politics where incombants spend decades in office.

    What was even more disturbing was that they re-edited the show, cleaned it up to reflect better on Krulwich. Bad for public radio.

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