Words have been flying in the Asian blogosphere about the recent Radiolab “Yellow Rain” debacle. For those not in the know, here are the key facts that I managed to glean from that massive series of tubes we call the interweb.
- Yellow rain refers to a chemical substance that was supposedly dropped in South East Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. The US claimed it was chemical warfare by the Soviets.
- Scientists have stated in a number of papers that the substance was in fact honey bee pollen, and that the US was using Yellow Rain as a piece of propaganda to drum up Cold War fears.
- Many Hmong refugees have claimed to have seen evidence of the presence chemical weapons, partially in their own health and also because it apparently ate away some of the foliage.
- Radiolab decided to do a “Fact of the Matter” report on the incident, where they wanted to expose the falsehood of the claims that Yellow Rain was in fact chemical weapons.
- They invited Hmong refugee Eng Yang and his niece, award-winning author and activist Kao Kalia Yang, on their show, where they apparently bullied Eng’s claims to have witnessed the effect of Yellow Rain.
- After some amount of public outcry— many claiming that the interview smacked of “white superiority over indigenous people” prejudices— Radiolab wrote a few “We’re sorry we came off so harsh but the story was ultimately correct!” letters in response
- Later, Hyphen magazine posted a very insightful emotional response from Kalia that gave further details on the interview that made Radiolab look like even more of a asshat.
It took me a lot of pondering before I could figure out my stance on this boondoggle of a minor journalistic scandal. The tricky thing is that the truth about Yellow Rain (is it bee poop or a deadly chemical?) gets convolved with people supporting RadioLab (Team Poop) versus criticizing them (Team Death Rain).
I’m not going to give a scientific letter of support either way; I haven’t read the papers cited by either side beyond the abstract, and besides, I haven’t taken a chemistry class since 10th grade AP Chem. Luckily, I don’t have to because taking my stance on the subject— that Radiolab did some shittastic reporting— doesn’t actually depend on knowing the “ultimate truth.”
The outrage I’ve seen expressed on the Asians blogs generally follow the logic flow “The interview was racist, therefore it was a bad piece of journalism.” This is sort of a standard line of criticism for these sort of “Oops, did we sound racist?” situations.
I think we need to reverse that logic to “The interview was a bad piece of journalism. One of the causes was racism.” The show was a bad piece of journalism. It neglected to mention any of the existing scientific evidence that was contrary to the argument that Yellow Rain was bee poop, even though Kalia had sent those above mentioned paper to the producers of the program. Instead of discussing and debunking these theories, thereby offering a complete view of the debate, Radiolab went with avoiding the issue entirely.
The interview was a bad piece of reporting because Radiolab purposefully cut a section of the interview where Eng explained that the Hmong have deep knowledge of bees and experience with bee polen, being the indigenous people in that ecosystem. Since the aim of the show was to some extent about the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, it seems deeply damaging to exclude key aspects of the rationale behind those eyewitness beliefs.
The reporting was bad because it failed to give the full background of the two interviewees, listing them only as “Hmong guy,” and me, “his niece” despite the fact that they gave the titles and affiliations of all the other scientists they interviewed. (Kalia is an award winning writer and Eng an official radio man and documenter of the Hmong experience to the Thai government.) So Radiolab effectively presented an interview of “some dude and some chick” giving the audience no reason why they might be relevant beyond their ethnic identification.
The reason why these lapses in journalistic integrity happened is probably some sense of intellectual superiority of the established ivory tower over the indigenous knowledge of native people. Or, simply put, they wanted to present the “Fact of the Matter” kind of story that can only include the one dimensional and overly simplistic interpretations of complex arguments— which in this came down to “Look at these stupid natives.”
In this world where half of people worry about trying to be sensitive and PC, and the other half worry that we’re all being stupidly overly sensitive and PC, I think it’s important to get away from “Racism is bad because racism is bad” kind of thinking. Racism isn’t just bad because it’s offensive, like a dirty word. Racism is bad because its an inaccurate way of interpreting reality, which lead to incorrect or spurious conclusions. Racism is bad because it makes you unable to construct a argument for or against a debated topic that isn’t distorted in some way. Radiolab should remember that before writing a letter to defend themselves by arguing that they “didn’t mean to offend anyone.” And that’s the “Fact of the Matter.”