After reading a lot of email and angry notes about our most recent podcast, "The Fact of the Matter," I want to respond, and apologize for my harshness during the interview.
It was not my intention -- it's never my intention -- to make the people we interview uncomfortable or angry. My intent is to question, listen, and explore. But in my interview with Ms. Kao Kalia Yang and Mr. Eng Yang, and later in the conversation with my co-host Jad and our reporter Pat Walters, I pushed too hard. 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.
This episode of Radiolab was about truth, how different people experience different truths and how those differences can be painfully hard to reconcile. In this segment, our subject was President Reagan's 1982 announcement that he believed the Soviets had manufactured chemical weapons and were using them on Hmong people in Laos -- and a subsequent announcement by scientists at Harvard and Yale that the President was wrong, that the so-called "weapons" were not weapons at all, but bees relieving themselves in the forest.
While there had been previous accounts of this controversy, very few journalists had asked the Hmong refugees hiding in that forest what happened, what they'd seen. That's why we wanted to speak with Mr. Yang and his niece, Ms. Yang.
We sent them a list of questions in advance, including these:
- "At what point did you first hear about the yellow rain?"
- "Did you see it yourself?"
- "What did it look like? Did you touch it? See evidence of it on leaves or houses?"
- "Do you know about the theory scientists have that the yellow rain wasn't a poison weapon, but instead was bee droppings?"
- "What do you make of that?"
Many commenters have suggested that we "ambushed" Mr. Yang and Ms. Yang, but I feel that it's important for you to know that was not the case. Mr. Yang and Ms. Yang were informed about what we were looking for: our goal was to find out if President Reagan's statement was true or false.
We never suggested that Radiolab planned a comprehensive story of the tragedy that befell the Hmong during those years. We had no set view of whether yellow rain was or was not a chemical weapon. We went to Mr. Yang because we thought his voice and perspective should be heard.
I forcefully questioned Mr. Yang to find out if he had actually seen the source of the "yellow rain" because I was trying to understand if the scientists had considered all the evidence. I care deeply about getting the facts right. Looking back on it now, I see that I was insensitive: I sound hectoring and uncaring. For that, I apologize.
I should have listened harder, and been more compassionate.
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.
If you listen to the whole segment, you will hear that we took the time to tell the story of the Hmong's flight into the woods, the Pathet Lao's assassinations, and the cruel chaos of that war. We did not leave that part out. I just wish I had done my part more gently and with more consideration for their suffering.