Radiolab apologizes for treating source rudely but defends podcast

Hyphen | Radiolab | Minnesota Public Radio | Current.org
A cohost of the public-radio show Radiolab says he “pushed too hard” in an interview, but the station that produces the show has pushed back against accusations that a segment it released as a podcast was unfair.

Kao Kalia Yang wrote a long piece, published Monday, about her treatment by Radiolab and its producers. Cohost Robert Krulwich interviewed Yang’s uncle, Eng Yang, a Hmong man who survived attacks by the Viet Cong that many people believe involved chemical weapons. She translated for her uncle during the interview.

Krulwich “told me that I would need a court order” when she asked for a copy of the unedited interview, she writes, saying also that Radiolab spurned her offer of materials that supported her uncle’s position. Radiolab released the report as a podcast Sept. 24 and edited the podcast twice, she writes, first to add more context, the show said, then to add an apology by Krulwich.

Krulwich also published a blog post Sept. 30 apologizing for the tone he took in the interview “I pushed too hard,” he wrote.

I didn’t understand how I was coming across. I now can hear that my tone was oddly angry. That’s not acceptable — especially when talking to a man who has suffered through a nightmare in Southeast Asia that was beyond horrific.

The interview is very uncomfortable to listen to. You can hear it go south at 18:28, when Kalia Yang stops translating; she starts expressing her unhappiness with the interview at about 19:35, and then ends the interview at about the 20-minute point. During the interview, Krulwich pushed Yang to defend statements that the yellow substance that fell on Hmong people was a chemical weapon; some scientists believe it was in fact solid waste from bees.

Dean Cappello, the chief content officer of Radiolab home WYNC, answered some of Yang’s charges in a communication to Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins, sharing the questions Radiolab sent Eng Yang and Kalia Yang in advance, and saying that a Radiolab producer had decided the materials Kalia Yang was offering weren’t compelling.

Cohost Jad Abumrad told Current’s Andrew Lapin, “I don’t feel like an outcry of emotion should necessarily divert a line of questioning which is valid.” Poynter’s Kelly McBride spoke at a conference at which Abumrad also spoke and told Lapin that, as he puts it, “the lack of diversity on Radiolab’s staff may have played a role in its perceived insensitivity toward the Hmong people.”

“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.

The “Yellow Rain” story has not yet been broadcast; Lapin reports it will air sometime in 2013.

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  • Carlos Ovalle
  • http://twitter.com/LoopingState Jane Doe

    Imagine if Krulwich sat down with a holocaust survivor and disputed their story. Obviously, it’s important to get the facts right (whether it was bees is an interesting question), but the Radiolab team didn’t understand the centrality of this story to the people they were interviewing.

  • https://twitter.com/misterjayem MrJM

    “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)

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    What’s been largely overlooked in this discussion is Radiolab’s commendable transparency in including that section of the interview at all. The easy and far-too-common approach in news-gathering circles would be to just omit the heated exchange and make it sound like the conversation ended with Eng Yang defending his stance that the yellow rain was a chemical weapon. As a longtime listener, I was impressed that they included a section that risked making the hosts sound almost ghoulish in their pursuit of objectivity.

    Anyone who has interviewed a victim or relative of a victim knows that it’s incredibly difficult to challenge their perceptions of a crime, but it’s an important role for journalists to play. In this case, I would actually argue Radiolab was being compassionate to Kao Kalia Yang by including her frustrated appeals and disappointment when she saw where the interview was headed. (I’ve only listened to the original podcast version, so I’m not sure how this was addressed in later updates.)

    The episode was dedicated to the pursuit of truth, which as journalists we all know can be a messy and heartbreaking thing. Usually, we just don’t make our audiences experience the awkwardness with us.

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    What’s been largely overlooked in this discussion is Radiolab’s commendable transparency in including that section of the interview at all. The easy and far-too-common approach in news-gathering circles would be to just omit the heated exchange and make it sound like the conversation ended with Eng Yang defending his stance that the yellow rain was a chemical weapon. As a longtime listener, I was impressed that they included a section that risked making the hosts sound almost ghoulish in their pursuit of objectivity.

    Anyone who has interviewed a victim or relative of a victim knows that it’s incredibly difficult to challenge their perceptions of a crime, but it’s an important role for journalists to play. In this case, I would actually argue Radiolab was being compassionate to Kao Kalia Yang by including her frustrated appeals and disappointment when she saw where the interview was headed. (I’ve only listened to the original podcast version, so I’m not sure how this was addressed in later updates.)

    The episode was dedicated to the pursuit of truth, which as journalists we all know can be a messy and heartbreaking thing. Usually, we just don’t make our audiences experience the awkwardness with us.