This past week’s episode of TLDR, one of my favorite podcasts, followed up on its previous episode, which its parent show (and another favorite of mine), On the Media, withdrew from publication. The deleted episode concerned critiques about a man named Vivek Wadhwa, a self-styled ally of women in the American technology sector about whom many actual women in the American technology sector had a number of choice words.
I enjoyed the episode when I first heard it, and a comment made by the show’s host (regarding one of Wadhwa’s communication predilections) really struck a chord with me:
“DMs [from men to women who aren’t close pals] are the hand-on-the-knee of social media” is a strong personal takeaway from latest @tldr.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) February 8, 2015
Instant flashbacks to handful of times I’ve done this at ladies with whom I am mere mutual acquaintances. I am sorry if I creeped thus.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) February 8, 2015
When, days later, On the Media killed the episode after Wadhwa complained, it unavoidably seemed like a man who stood accused of silencing women successfully silenced some women airing their grievances about him. I can’t disagree that it looked terrible for the show. But I also found myself sympathizing with the action, because of the stated glaring oversight: TLDR’s producers did not reach out to Wadhwa for comment while putting the show together. Despite TLDR’s youthful new-media attitude, it still positions itself as a source of objective journalism, and its not even attempting to collect a very obvious second side of this story struck me in retrospect as a very unfortunate failure.
For the more recent episode, Brooke Gladstone, long-time co-host and editor of On the Media, made a rare visit to interview TLDR’s host and its producer about how that episode had come about. She also guest-edited the show — an action that TLDR’s host, Meredith Haggerty, called unprecedented. From this listener’s perspective, the show had an uncomfortably punitive feel to it, between Brooke’s “OK, so what happened?” questions — leading to confessions and apologies from the show’s staff — and the subsequent cringe-inducing long-form interview with a clearly upset and rudely defensive Vivek Wadhwa. Gladstone, an extremely practiced and deliberate audio editor, chose to allow this latter to run for so long that I had to fast-forward through the last few minutes of his childish fulmination.
Gladstone’s unexpected presence felt very much like mom coming home from a business trip to find the house turned upside-down, and then grounding the kids for the next week to clean it all up. And then write a five-paragraph essay about what they did wrong. And then go door-to-door apologizing to the neighbors for all the noise while mom stood behind them, glowering. Listening to the followup, I felt both as understanding and as embarrassed as one of those neighbors would have.
I saw reasonable people finding the failure to source Wadhwa an illegitimate reason to pull the show, since its entire point surrounded the allegation that this guy makes inappropriate use of the speaking or writing venues he finds access to, and in particular that he contradicts, talks over, or otherwise silences the women he claims to defend. Why should this show hand him yet another platform to gleefully take over?
To which I say: radio journalism, like any other journalism, interviews sources in order to obtain the building material with which it constructs stories. Interviewing Wadhwa would not have allowed him to steamroller the women speaking in the same episode (even if he wanted to), because the show — and not Wadhwa — would have remained in complete control of the order, context, and excerption of every audio clip, from all sources it collected from. Had the show’s producers not erred as they did, they could have easily and legitimately used an interview with this guy to make the story much stronger, and furthermore given him no leg to stand on when it came it complaints.
Had TLDR contacted Wadhwa for the now-pulled episode, then one of these things would have happened, in my expected order of decreasing likelihood:
He would consent to an interview, and the tone and content of his statements would fall right into line with what others interviewed for the episode had said about him. The show would include a brief, edited-down clip of their conversation, no more than necessary to serve as adequate illustration. The show’s narrative would end up much stronger and much more defensible because of his contribution, given willingly.
He would either ignore the request or decline to comment. They would note this on the episode, which would otherwise air exactly as it did in reality — but this time, the subject would have nobody to blame for his displeasure but himself. TLDR would, having practiced due diligence in reaching out to him, be under no obligation to follow up further.
He would consent to an interview, and it would somehow fly in the face of all the information the show’s producers had collected so far, and perhaps lead to evidence or sources that would blow the story wide open in surprising directions.
This last one would probably have been a quite unlikely outcome, but there’s always a chance of this when a reporter hasn’t yet collected every obvious side to a story. Further, this happening would change the story from a unified critique of someone’s actions into a multifaceted drama, which would have turned a sharp, direct story into a potentially amazing investigative piece. It doesn’t usually happen, but no reporter should pass up the possibility.
But, they didn’t do any of this, and so mom stormed in and we instead received a very painful modification of the first outcome, where the subject just rants at the show’s host for several gut-clenching minutes. If the previous episode really damaged his professional standing as much as he said it did, then I rather believe that his performance here efficiently scrubbed away whatever credibility he had left.
While I agree with the followup episode’s need to exist, I don’t think I agree that On the Media should have yanked the flawed episode entirely. I might have instead copied the strategy taken by This American Life when it famously retracted its story about the conditions in Apple-contracted Chinese electronics factories, after Mike Daisey admitted he fabricated many of the details. In that case, they removed the show’s audio, but kept the text transcript online. It doesn’t feel right to me that this TLDR episode should suffer a complete silencing for a lighter journalistic sin than This American Life committed, and especially when acts of aggressive silencing haunt the very topic the show attempted to cover.