Last month, Radiolab decided for reasons that are unclear to produce a podcast on a nearly 30-year-old story about allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Laos. And in a single interview with a Hmong man and his niece, it managed to offend the people it was interviewing, the Hmong people generally, and many of its listeners.
As you will see, the people being interviewed thought that this was an opportunity to finally tell the world about the disaster that befell their people during the final years of war in Indochina. Radiolab had a very different idea about what the interview was meant to do.
On Sept. 24, Radiolab released a podcast of the interview with Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, about whether the Russians had used chemical weapons–so-called "yellow rain"–against the Hmong people in Laos in the 1970s and 1980s. Robert Krulwich of Radiolab pressed them repeatedly about whether the yellow dust seen on the leaves of trees was a poison, or whether it was bee droppings, which is what Western scientists have concluded.
The scientific issues here were raised years ago, in a press conference that I covered for the AP in Detroit at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1983. The scientific issues have long been resolved. But issues concerning the brutal attack on the Hmong people remain sensitive and painful for the Hmong themselves. As we learn from Radiolab's interview, they still fervently believe they were victims of a chemical warfare attack. As Krulwich pressed his subjects to provide evidence that the yellow rain was a poison, Kao Kalia Yang began to realize that this would not be an opportunity to tell the Hmong side of the story. "It feels like there is a sad lack of justice," she said, "that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard that's read these accounts." She continued speaking and started to cry:
My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silent, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used.
It's heartbreaking. I teared up listening to it.
In a conversation in the studio afterwards, Krulwich and others said "this interview troubled us." Krulwich added, "Her desire was to monopolize the story, and that we can't allow."
This week, Kao Kalia Yang published a scorching critique of Krulwich, Radiolab, and its producers and personalities for ignoring information she sent them, asking for a response from her and refusing to publish it, and telling her she would need a court order to obtain full copies of the interview, which she had asked for.
She writes that on Aug. 6, two days after she underwent 26 hours of induced labor to give birth to a stillborn child, a producer called her asking for information for the credits. She said she had just lost her baby and did not want to call back. She says he sent an email saying, "If you feel better, you can call in."
There are far too many allegations here for me to sort out; I suggest you read her critique and form your own opinion.
On Sept. 30, after "a lot of email and angry notes" about the podcast, Krulwich wrote an apology. "Looking back on it now, I see that I was insensitive: I sound hectoring and uncaring. For that, I apologize."
The podcast was supposed to be about "truth, how different people experience different truths and how those differences can be painfully hard to reconcile" he wrote.
It's unclear why Krulwich and Radiolab wanted to reopen a 30-year-old story. Asking a Hmong man who lived through a brutal attack on his people to address what was essentially a scientific question was a gross mistake–akin to asking a Western scientific expert on yellow rain to answer questions about what Eng Yang experienced under constant threat of death in Laos.
It was a rare misstep for Radiolab, but a very sad one.