WNYC’s Radiolab is one of my favorite podcasts of all time. For years, the show has informed me, delighted me, and astonished me. I have even gone to see their live show in Seattle twice. But this week, they failed their listeners in a spectacular way.
Over the past few weeks, the show has been doing an extended meditation on truth, starting with a rather frightening episode about that new video technology that lets you make anyone say whatever you want them to. This exploration culminated this week with the release of a now-removed episode called “Truth Trolls.”
“Truth Trolls” documents the trials and tribulations of Shia LaBeouf’s “He Will Not Divide Us” art project. From that project’s official website:
Commencing at 9am on January 20, 2017, the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, the public is invited to deliver the words “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” into a camera mounted on a wall outside the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, repeating the phrase as many times, and for as long as they wish.
Open to all, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the participatory performance will be live-streamed continuously for four years, or the duration of the presidency. In this way, the mantra “HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US” acts as a show of resistance or insistence, opposition or optimism, guided by the spirit of each individual participant and the community.
Of course, in today’s political environment, no good deed goes unpunished. Through multiple locations and permutations, trolls from online forums were able to locate the art installation and basically lay waste to it. “Truth Trolls” tracks one particularly inventive attempt to do so, in which online commenters used forensic evidence to track down the location of a “He Will Not Divide Us” flag being live-streamed.
On Saturday, Radiolab’s creator/producer Jad Abumrad announced that they would be pulling the episode. Abumrad made a post on Radiolab’s blog explaining the takedown:
Radiolab has decided to take down our episode called “Truth Trolls.” Some listeners called us out saying that in telling the capture the flag story in the way that we did, we essentially condoned some pretty despicable ideology and behavior. To all the listeners who felt that way, and to everyone else, please know that we hear you and that we take these criticisms to heart. I feel awful that the things we said could be interpreted that way. That’s on us. It was certainly not our intention, and we apologize.
I’ve listened to the episode and I agree with Abumrad’s decision. In fact, the episode never should have run in the first place.
“Truth Trolls” was almost a self-parody in how it attempted to apply Radiolab’s form of awestruck investigative journalism to a loaded political situation. The hosts portrayed the online trolls in an almost heroic fashion, and described their pursuit of truth (in this case, the truth of where the flag was located) as “comforting.”
Hearing the show’s hosts chuckle and banter light-heartedly when you’re talking about how sound waves work is one thing — it’s quite another when they’re talking about one of the most toxic forms of politics that’s out there right now.
Obviously, many other folks felt this way:
One of the commenters on Radiolab’s website purports to be Luke Turner, a creator behind the “He will not divide us” project:
This is truly abhorrent and irresponsible reporting from Radiolab, describing white supremacist vandalism and harassment here as “a really encouraging story” and “comforting.”
As the artists behind this project, we have been targeted incessantly, received death threats, been subjected to extreme racist, antisemitic, homophobic and misogynist abuse and harassment from these far-right groups.
Because of a political movement that received great support from the likes of those featured in “Truth Trolls,” lives have been ruined. And we’re at the end of a weekend where people have died trying to stand up against the nationalism and hatred that’s slowly sweeping the country.
I don’t think one bad episode can erase a decade’s worth of goodwill that Radiolab has built up. But it definitely made me question what exactly they were thinking when they ran this episode in a way that evinced almost no understanding of the broader implications of the subject matter.