Yellow Rain and the Power Imbalance of Interviewing

[A friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook timeline to “The Science of Racism“.  The piece is a response by Kao Kalia Yang to the 24 September Radiolab story for which her uncle, Eng Yang, was interviewed.  She served as his translator.  As you’ll see in the introduction to her response, Radiolab was widely criticized for how it handled the Yangs’ story.  The following is a modified version of my reply on Facebook to the link post, so it’s not a proper, well thought-out blog post, but I wanted to share it anyway.]  

When I heard the Radiolab story about Yellow Rain, I was on the train back to Brooklyn.  As the segment where Eng Yang was interviewed grew tense, I almost squirmed in my seat.  It was one of those moments where you look around to see if the other passengers are as disturbed as you are by what you’re hearing until you remember they’re not privy to what’s coming out of your headphones.  

Robert Krulwich, a host of Radiolab, one of my favorite podcasts, was aiming to get to the bottom of a story about whether Soviets had used chemical weapons in Laos or whether it was, as later investigations suggested, the result of a natural phenomenon.  What seems like a straightforward exercise in weighing the facts (the whole episode was about facts and discerning truth) became more complicated when it became clear that the discourses of scientific truth and emotional truth were clashing, and that the goals of the interviewer and the interviewee were at odds.  

As I read Yang’s article and compared it with Robert Krulwich’s response to earlier criticism about the story, I can still see the divergence. In terms of tone and apperance, even, you have on the one hand the Instragrammy photo, the narrative style, and the evocative way Kao Kalia Yang weaves her miscarriage into the story and then on the other hand you have Robert Krulwich’s dopey-looking professional photo and a description of his credentials, bullet points, and brevity.

In terms of substance, Yang’s article addresses power imbalances, racism, and sexism – she uses the emotionally overwhelming metaphor of losing a child in parallel with what she sees as a miscarriage of justice. Krulwich boils down to an apology over tone which he impies is important, but not as important as his search for the Truth.

The whole thing was a collision of different goals and aims. I think Radiolab wanted to address a sciencey story with a compelling emotional element, which is their thing. They wanted to talk about how the facts of the story played out, above all, ‘proving’ that what had been thought to be chemical warfare had really been a natural phenomenon. The Yangs wanted to share an undertold story of suffering. In a way, though this is an imperfect equivalency, this was scientific truth versus emotional truth.

The problem I see goes back to the beginning – Yang says that Radiolab ambushed her and did not explain the details of the story, of what they were trying to do. And while I realize that it would’ve been impractical for them to detail where the story was going since the story probably unfolds as they take in new information, they had every responsibility to be sensitive to the fact that they were asking this man about killings and destruction that befell his family and friends.

I get where Radiolab’s coming from – their project was neat and tidy: “this is the story about alleged chemical warfare, here is the consensus on what happened, here are some new facts, this is what we now think in light of these facts”. They brought in Yang for further illumination, an emotional ‘accent’ if you will to bring gravity to the subject. I think what Krulwich meant about Yang “monopolizing” was that she and her uncle wanted to share the horrors suffered by the Hmong people and that simply didn’t fit in their time schedule or into their simplified truth-finding.

And thinking about all this makes me question the interviewer-interviewee dynamic. The interviewee is a subject to be examined, someone from the interviewer is extracting truth. The interviewer does have the power because it is their discourse alone in this format that is deployed, their goals that are being furthered. I wonder about the ethics of this. I wonder if there’s a more collaborate alternative where the interviewer and the interviewee have a stake in determining what’s important to talk about and what direction they’d like the interview to go in. That sounds really messy of course, but I think that’s missing in our society that’s preoccupied with provable facts and how to extract, sanitize, and elevate them to some kind of currency of the ‘real’.

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