Why the RadioLab interview went wrong

The Public Radio podcast show, RadioLab, the radio version of which is heard on MPR on Saturday afternoons, is getting significant pushback for its handling of an interview with a Hmong veteran in the Twin Cities. on last weekend’s broadcast

Eng Yang, was living in a village in Laos in 1975, when it was targeted by Viet Cong and Pathet Lao. Eng says it started with isolated killings, until one day, his whole village was attacked, the story goes.


He and thousands of other Hmong fled their homes and went into hiding in the jungle. And that’s when they started seeing it — yellow droplets that fell from the sky and splattered the landscape, followed by dying plants, animals, and eventually friends and family doubled over with stomach problems.

When US scientists looked at the yellow spots, they found poison, and pretty soon “Yellow Rain” as it was known, had become a flashpoint in the cold war.

It was alleged that the Soviet Union was responsible, so the U.S. created its own chemical weapon bomb.

Here’s the full segment:

The “yellow rain” turned out to be bee feces.

That’s when host Robert Krulwich went back to Eng Yang, and his niece Kao Kalia Yang, who was translating.

At that point, the tight editing and fancy production values of the show ended, and Eng Yang was put on the spot, with Krulwich arguing with both as if he were a cross-examining attorney.

RadioLab appeared to sandbag the family in the most embarrassing way:

What makes the interview particularly uncomfortable is that RadioLab already knew how it ended before beginning to tell the rest of us the story on Saturday. It led us down a particular pathway of a story, and then dropped the end of the interview on us, as if they didn’t know the pain they found. One producer noted — correctly — that the story appeared — at least to Eng Yang and his niece — to invalidate the Hmong loss and suffering in Laos. If it knew that, why not package and edit the story in a more sensitive way?

Jad Abumrad of RadioLab wrote an update yesterday:


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.

That’s not a point we set out to make. It’s something that arose organically when our producer, Pat Walters, realized, and then openly admitted on tape, that he felt he’d missed something. That is why we included the lengthy and painful exchange with Kao Kalia Yang, even though it may not have been flattering to us. Our goal in our ending conversation was not to be pedantic or insensitive but to be transparent. That was an honest in-the-moment conversation about honest differences.

All that said, the thing I’d most like to respond to is accusations that we were cavalier in our response to the pain that Kalia and her uncle Eng were expressing.

We were all profoundly troubled by the interview with Kalia and Eng. Before heading into the studio, we argued with one another for weeks about what it meant to us personally and what it meant for the story. If we gave the impression that we approached the ending conversation casually, without much consideration or sensitivity, that’s on us. And that is something I’d like to correct. So I’ve inserted a line in the story that puts our ending conversation in a bit more context.

A commenter to that post (and I strongly encourage everyone to read a vibrant discussion there) captures the problem perfectly:

In my view, there were multiple mistakes but a profound one was the lack of acknowledgement of power in truth-telling and truth-adjudicating. Yes, that yellow rain was probably not a chemical weapon is the truth and has moral and political consequences. Yes, that the Hmong experienced terrible suffering and an attempted genocide is the truth and has moral and political consequences. But as you so ably demonstrated, determination of the first truth has advocates and interested parties in two of the most powerful governments in the world, multiple science labs, and your own reporters. Determination and dealing with the second truth, and the reckoning with justice and reparations and pain it might require, seems to have been left by the wayside by everyone but the Hmong who experienced it.

In the wake of this silence, the idea that Eng has any responsibility to act as a witness in the ongoing dispute between all of these powerful parties regarding yellow rain feels ludicrous compared to his ongoing mission to awaken people to the reality of what he and his family experienced. In your post-interview conversation you acknowledged that part of why the interview may have been so difficult for Eng and his niece is that the telling of the Hmong story is tied to this issue of yellow rain, and losing the latter feels like losing the former. But you didn’t acknowledge that this is the case precisely because yellow rain has been the only lens through which non-Hmong have been interested to hear Eng’s terrible story, which seems a much bigger blindness to the truth, and to the “fact of the matter,” than what you chose to focus on.

Another commenter made a more antiseptic point: Science isn’t pretty.


Science isn’t exactly compassionate and the devil needs an advocate if we’re looking for scientific truth. But science with all the beautiful, interesting and innovative things– science is not everything.

I think you handled it well. I mean, how do you properly handle the genocide of the Hmong in a science show? That moment was something bigger than you expected and you kept yourselves honest. I respect that.

There’s another reality, however, that the show underscores. Many people in the United States do not fully comprehend the suffering of the Hmong people on behalf of the country that walked away from them.

That comprehension might’ve caused RadioLab to tell its story in a more sensitive and equally accurate way.

Finally, there’s an important lesson in this controversy for journalists: if you’re not sure what the point of a story is, you’re not ready to tell it.

  • http://www.kpnp1600.com Peter Phia Xiong

    A helicopter flew low over us, as a child, we saw the pilot clear and thought VP and the America were back.

    A few minutes later, the heliopter flew off. We noticed some yellow stuff were in our little bamboo house.

    The itching in our skin is terrible. I sill have mark on my private parts, my legg, arms, stomach, back, event in my head.

    Something happened.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Great piece, Bob. I ran into some of the same challenges when interviewing victims of human rights abuses: ascertain and verify cold hard facts vs display compassion.

    In a perfect world, it would be a both/and as opposed to an either/or.

    Perhaps the goal of the competent, humane journalist could be to come as close as possible to achieving both.

  • Heather

    Seriously? Bee feces? *I* haven’t ever seen bee feces, just in the course of being outside. H How many bees could there have possibly been. for this bee feces to be so pervasive? Sounds like bull feces.

  • Der

    Good analysis, Mr. Collins. I appreciate your genuine effort and honest thoughts on the controversy at hand.

  • Lee Pao Xiong

    Do you believe in everything that the government is telling you? Just imagine, first they found poison. Then later it was nothing more than just bee poops. Just think, the United States, in particular US Congress and American people, did not know that the US was conduct covert operation in Laos until 1972 when a reporter did a write up about it, when in fact, the war in Laos when US Special Forces were sent to Laos in 1959. In 1961, after taking office, President Kennedy ordered the bombing of the Plain of Jars. More bombs were dropped in Laos than during WWII.

    And you still believe in what the government is telling you? We must understand the context in which this evidence was pushed under the rug. This was a time when the United States and the USSR were trying to end the Cold War. Introducing the Hmong element into the conversation would only inflame the relationship further. In fact, i would not be surprised if the chemical usage on the Hmong was not brought up as a bargaining point. We will never know until the papers during the Reagan era are released.

    To suggest in the interview that we do not know the difference between bee poop and chemical toxins when people who come into contact with these elements are dying is just plain insulting. Radiolab and its hosts should apologize to the Mr. Eng Yang, Kao Kalia Yang, and the entire Hmong population that died during this period.

  • naanie

    Thank you so much for writing about this. I listened to this yesterday and couldn’t believe what I heard. I thought Radiolab and Robert Crulwich in particular really botched the segment and offended a whole lot of people who seldom get their story told on such a large scale. I immediately lost a lot of respect for the show.

  • mdel

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue as it assured me the feelings I felt were real. There was no mistake that RL was rude and disrespectful with the tone of voice and interrogation. This tainted good radio and I cannot stop questioning or wondering if I can trust radio journalism again.

  • Michael Broton

    I found the segment a bit biased. It seemed to value one groups observations and analysis much higher than another’s. Science is in part born out of observation. Many of the Hmong people who witnessed this lived in an agrarian society and were outside living in their environment much more than many of us do now. To not have an oral tradition of this phenomenon of rampant bee feces in the form of yellow rain and to be utterly unfamiliar with it seems unlikely. I wish the segment would have taken this into account. Sometimes science starts with lay people making an observation. I think you maybe did not give the observation and description of the witnesses enough credit. Especially since the bee feces explanation seemed quite thin.

    Mike Broton

  • Bob Collins

    // if I can trust radio journalism again.

    Just to repeat: This was a podcast, not a radio broadcast. I rather doubt this segment is ever going to make it to the radio.

  • Bob Collins

    // I think you maybe did not give the observation and description of the witnesses enough credit.

    I’m not sure who you’re referring to when you say “you.’ I can say the post i wrote has nothing to do with what “yellow rain” was or wasn’t.

  • Chong Lee

    Lee Pao Xiong, your comment is great and I support your idea. I think what have been raised during the interview was only partially, but not all what happened in those days. I believe some of the information have not been declassified by US Government.

  • Alan Ashton

    Much of the criticism has been off-target and (in my opinion) disrespects both Robert Krulwich and Eng Yang. The two of them are intelligent adults. Both are apparently capable of expressing themselves and pursuing their own goals. Allow them to disagree.

    I have seen much reference to that fact that this was taken from a two-hour interview in which Eng Yang shared a lot more personal experience. Robert Krulwich appears to have lost patience at the end of the interview. It appears he had a goal in mind — to boil it down to exactly what was seen and experienced. (Yes, much like a cross-examining lawyer.) I, too, cringed when he started talking about “hearsay.” Without hearing the whole interview, it isn’t fair to jump to conclusions about whether he had legitimate reason to take his approach with Eng Yang or not.

    Look at the theme of the episode: “The fact of the matter.” All three stories concern the problem of getting to the truth. The point wasn’t to discredit Eng Yang’s experience, it was to explore the doubt on the official account — bee poop or chemical weapon? Reagan had 30 years ago stated that they had “conclusive proof” that it was the latter. It is a legitimate enterprise to look to see whether the official account holds water.

    What if the interview had been with a US government official instead? Would people have been so hard on Krulwich then? I suspect not. The identification of Eng Yang as the weaker party, the victim, seems to be a first requirement in the current round of criticism of him and the rest of the Radiolab crew. If you view him as a strong, independent agent capable of expressing himself, its hard to see what the fuss is all about.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand that Radiolab has the power of the soapbox here. If they ignored good info provided by Eng Yang in that interview which may support the official account, that is a problem. Expediency and bias are a problem for every legitimate journalist everywhere. At least give Radiolab credit for not trying to duck the issue.

    I don’t see how Radiolab has done anything to discredit the experience of the Hmong people. There was no holocaust denial here. No one suggested that the Hmong hadn’t been pursued, murdered, tortured, and otherwise subject to genocide. Whatever their intentions, Radiolab has people talking about it, and they have handed Eng Yang and others a spotlight to shine on their experience.

    Did Radiolab set out the case that the Hmong weren’t attacked by a chemical weapon, or only that there is legitimate reason to doubt the official account? Either way, none of that should in any way discredit the experience of the Hmong OR take away their right to insist that, in fact, chemical weapons had been used.

    If they hadn’t talked to Eng Yang, we’d be sitting here criticizing them for ignoring the first-hand experience of the people who were persecuted. If Krulwich had taken it easy on him, we’d be sitting here criticising him for being an intellectually dishonest bleeding heart liberal who blanches at the first sign of tears. He didn’t do either of those things. That doesn’t make this bad journalism.

    My advice (for what it’s worth:

    Mr. Krulwich, I do think you were a bit of a jerk. Next time the word “hearsay” is coming out of your mouth talking to someone who has first-hand experience of a genocide, it might be time to back-off just a little. Otherwise, you’ve been a good poster boy for the right to free speech.

    Radiolab, stick to your guns. You’ve offended some sensibilities. Let Eng Yang and his supporters have his voice and criticize your methods and conclusions; some of it might stick and land, but that’s what you get for taking on a hot issue.

    Eng Yang, carry on doing what you are doing. If Radiolab and a few scientists want to cast doubt on the idea that you were attacked by T2 spores, go ahead and counter if that’s what you want to do. Yes, “yellow rain” got wrapped up in international politics, and it colors the whole thing. But you were there. Your voice is as strong and important as any one of theirs. Don’t let anyone (least of all some of your well-meaning defenders) treat you like the weak party.

    IMHO

  • Jim Shapiro

    Alan Ashton – Well said.( Are you THAT Alan Ashton? If so, Mitt could have used a wise mentor like you :-)

  • Bob Collins

    As I said before, the issue of Yellow Rain wasn’t the point of the post.

    // Mr. Krulwich, I do think you were a bit of a jerk.

    that was .

    // isn’t fair to jump to conclusions about whether he had legitimate reason to take his approach with Eng Yang or not.

    Actually, once the hosts themselves introduced the question of whether they had taken the correct approach, it was entirely fair game.

  • Paul

    The problem is not only with Krulwich’s rudeness–and yes, he proved to be a world-class horse’s ass. It is with their cherry-picking of the scientific evidence they used to establish their “certainty” about yellow rain. It is only this “certainty” that gives Krulwich and company the “credibility” to tell Eng Yang he is completely wrong. As others have pointed out, Yang says in Hmong, on the podcast, that the Hmong raised bees, knew their habits, and certainly knew what bee crap looked like. They didn’t tell the audience that because it would have undercut Krulwich’s “certainty.”

    But Radiolab also INTENTIONALLY OMITTED real scientific concerns about Matthew Meselson’s theories. Radiolab was given access to an Ivy League-trained scientist (Krulwich, after all, suggests that our choices are a Harvard-educated scientist or a superstitious, traumatized old man) who found significant fault with the bee crap theory. Proving that bees poop in the jungle does not equal proving that yellow rain does not exist. There are questions about delays between collection and analysis. The ability to detect trichothecenes in a potential sample (to say nothing of determining whether one has a valid sample) greatly diminishes over time, since the substance would degrade, especially if improperly stored. Some have even suggested that mycotoxins metabolize so quickly through the body that they would disappear within weeks of an attack. Then there are verified maladies suffered by the Hmong that cannot be explained by naturally-occurring phenomena. There are other arguments, but my point is that while the State Department wouldn’t clear an interview with this person, Radiolab had access to the work, summaries of it from others, and an individual familiar with it.

    When I sent Pat Walters a very testy e-mail about this, his excuse was that they didn’t have permission to interview Meselson’s critic. Apparently, unless someone could spoon-feed the information to them on tape, they felt no obligation to represent their very credible findings in some other way.

  • Sharny

    I have to say I believe those yellow drops on the foliage and leaves were chemical. I was young (5-7yrs old), traveling with my father to hunt or otherwise farming. I saw it with my own eyes. My father would constantly bash me for getting too close, he would sway us out of the way of the yellow drops. I recall those do not look like any feces out of any animal…rather look more like being drop from the sky. How do you explain it being bee feces if they are on the tree, on the rocks, on the river, all the way to the ground…100% is not bee feces. It was to poison the food, and livelihood of the Hmong areas.

    -

  • Mee Vang

    I guess ignorance is bliss.. as long as people can sleep at night, right?

  • Tub Hmoob

    I always respected Radiolab for its imformative nature.But after listening to this piece, my thought on Radiolab and that of NPR is that it is simply a piece of political toy being used by people with a political/hatred agenda, not being faithful to the truth and sensitivity of the information. I am disappointed in NPR for putting it on, claiming it in the spirit of free speech. NPR should afford the same time to our side of the story. Whether it is Yellow Rain or Bombies, the United States has committed one of the gravest crimes in human history, and it should pay for its crime, similar to what it did to the Japanese. No wonder it lost the war in Vietnam, and it’s losing the one in Afghanistan. Native people, whether Hmong, Laotions, Vietnamese, Japanese, Germans, Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, etc. have the right to be treated fairly. The United States should support effort to clean up left over garbages from the Vietnam war such as unexploded bombs/mine fields, disabilities sufferred by those people, such as PTSD. Do your research and support efforts wherever you live to hold the United States accountable to its actions, today, yesterday and tomorrow.

  • Losa

    I am not a news reporter, a radio host or a show, but the reason it make the interview went wrong is because the interviewer did not listen to the story from the interviewees. The interviewer was telling the interviewee that the yellow thing is not chemical because a scientist from Harward scientist said one of the collection is from bee and the interviewee do not see the bee and the plane that produce the yellow thing.

    I would say reporters and interviewers need to collect more data yellow rain is chemical or bee ass. So far, my record did not show much of research being done. I did not see much of statistic and historical research being done.

    We all (including GOD) known that yellow chemical (yellow rain) existed.

  • Ethan Rocke

    All of this, I think, just punctuates the theme of the show and the “point” the producers set out to make about human understanding of truth–big-T vs. little-t. The criticisms in the wake of this production are focused on the ethics of the journalists/producers. But I think the value of the information and message they brought into the public sphere with their reporting is undeniable, and I would critique this backlash as the product of our innate desire for an ultimate big-T Truth. Unfortunately, at this point of our existence, such Truth remains beyond our reach, but that fact rarely deters us from vehemently arguing that the truth as we perceive it is, in fact, the Truth that all must see.

    I don’t think there could have been a better ending to the Yellow Rain piece because it captured an important truth about human fallibility as it pertains to our understanding of what is “True.”

  • vang

    After listening to the segement, I don’t see how you 3 can sit there and debate what was more important. What was the real reason to have done the interview? To find out if there was yellow rain or to simply just HMONG People on the spot. Let’s just say that you were in their shoes and Hmong people were sitting in your seat now. What would you have taken this interview as? Why bring Hmong people in for interviews when their words and voice are being doubted everyday by a different race. Everyone who has been apart of a war is looking for closure not for others to point fingers and accuse them of lies.

    What is this bee poop? Have you every seen bee poop without a bee being there? I certainly have never even seen a bee poop before ever, even being stun by a bee. This was a interview to bring out the truth of yellow rain, but has turn into a debat of whose position is higher than others. AND those people are mainly right just because they are well educated. Those people who never had ever expereinced the day of seeing their people dying in front of their eyes without knowing what is going on, but a yellow mist of water droplets just killing people. And what the government has covered up. Someone with so much knowledge from a well educated college would never know, because they don’t have access to the information of the war besides what is written in the books.

  • K Her

    This story was wrong on multiple levels.

    1. The assumptions that Krulwich made of Kao Kalia; that she didn’t want the other side of the story to be told and that she didn’t care about the deadly consequences of the use of chemicals. Some big assumptions considering that all Kao Kalia was trying to do was interpret the Hmong experience for her Uncle and for asking them not to interrogate him as if he somehow had personal responsibility for the U.S. creating chemical weapons.

    2. The “journalist” seemed confused as to if this was a story about Hmong people and the perceived harm of yellow rain or if it was about the government and their justification for creating chemical weapons. Mr. Krulwich’s after comments, “The world’s most powerful person, Ronald Regan, used this to order the manufacturing of chemical weapons…” would seem to indicate the later. How is it Hmong people’s fault that the President ordered the manufacturing of chemical weapons? Is the government not responsible for its test results? The actions they take based on these results? If the weapons are used, how does this translate into Kao Kalia not caring about people who are harmed or killed with these chemicals?

    I don’t see how their effort to discredit the Hmong experience and a man’s firsthand account helped them accomplish their goal of getting the truth out about what the government did and how they justified it. The government was looking for a reason to create this weapon. It used the Hmong people to give itself the permission to do it. Let’s not forget how the evidence of weapons of mass destruction was used to justify war with and the killing of Saddam Hussein.

  • Nina vang

    I understand bee species can turn into poison! But how can it poison so many Hmong people?! People after people died, village after village, town after town!? We’re there thousands and billions or them!? Could it be contagious!? This story will meet be forgotten because u only want to question about the juicy Hidden facts! U try to get nosey, ask hmong folks questions and bring up horrifying memories where they had suffered, and still no one can help the Hmong acknowledge our sacrifices! Don’t ever think that an interview with a Hmong person will be easy. whether us young or older generation tell a story it will hurt anyone of us because ur asking them to go back into the traumatizing days. our very own parents and family fought and suffered for us to come to America so we can live better lives and forget the past but not the hmong people who suffered! I let my parents listen to this and my father says no doubt it was from the enemies airplane he him self was a soldier and saw with his own eyes! This has brought nothing pain to me! It’s sad enough my Hmong folks suffered why now that we question the past what are u going to do? Nothing! So stop unless u can stop our hurting and painful memories!

  • Westerner in Laos

    I am working with the Hmong people of Laos and found the show EXTREMELY offensive. Krulwich was rude – I think that is the main issue here… we can try to get to the bottom of things without being rude to people and disregarding their pain.

  • V Thaow

    Dear Radiolab,

    The big problem here is that Radiolab or Mr Kruclwich could have made up your mind long before the interview that Matthew Meselson was scientifically 100% correct. You just simply tried to interview Mr Eng Yang with the hope that he would support Mathew Meselson’s scientific theory. Mr Yang, however, held tight to what he saw to be unnessarily more bee poo in the area than expected. This was so painful to Mr Krulwich to the point where he turned himslef into a defensive lawyer cross-examining Mr Yang. I don’t know what Radiolab or Mr Krulwich say to Mr Yang for him to agree to this interview. My heartfelt feeling was that Mr Krulwich had so strongly opposed to Mr Yang’s view that the interpreter bursted into tear defending the long suffering of the Hmong. I don’t feel that Radiolab or Mr Krulwich intended to find what had exactly happened in the jungle of Laos during that very difficult time. I wonder what the story would be been like if Radiolab or Mr Krulwich were in Mr Yang’s shoes that they were the ones who witnessed all the bee poos, the dying and the death of the Hmong people in that particular area at that point in time. Furthermore, if the American people were the victims of yellow rain, would Radiolab or Mr Krulwich still strongly defend that those bee poos were simply bee poos and could never have been bee poos soaked with T2 chemical toxinss associated with a very volatile chemical agent that had evaporated within a very short period of time after having dropped out of its storage container but the evaporated T2 was still equally effective in killing the American people in the vicinity?

    My second point is the last words of the interpreter which said, “I think that…I think that interview is done”. My interpretation to this would be that she or Mr Yang were no longer happy to continue with the interview. The next seriously question would be, “Did Mr Yang agree for Radiolab to publicise this interview kowingly that the interview had gone terribly wrong without a proper ending?” An official reply from Mr Yang approving the release of this interview will be a great relief to those who have suffered immensely in that vicinity of the jungle in Laos at that time.

    My last point is that the whole interview be made public so that we know the whole story to the point where the interpreter broke down. If transparency is what Radiolab and Mr Krulwich wish to achieve, then the whole interview be released uncut so that Radiolab and Mr Kruklwich at least have a portion of the transparency you initially set your goal for.

    Regards,

    Vue Thaow