Quiet, Everyone is Yelling: TLDR #45 & #46

This is what a PR nightmare looks like: on Friday, February 6th, TLDR aired an episode, “Quiet, Wadhwa,” in which guest Amelia Greenhall sounded off against author Vivek Wadhwa, who she accused of appointing himself as the male representative of women in tech. The 11-minute episode was an extension of a blog post Greenhall wrote, “Quiet, Ladies. @wadhwa is speaking now.” On the show, Greenhall and host Meredith Haggerty ran down a litany of charges against Wadhwa, including silencing women in technology, taking credit for their input, profiting from the conversation, and sending unwanted direct messages on Twitter to women who lambaste him. Immediately the Internet did what it does with both supporters and critics of Wadhwa and TLDR weighing in–often angrily–about whether the characterization was fair. WNYC pulled the episode a few days later, stating that it “failed a basic test of fairness: we did not invite him to comment.” Wadhwa did comment, though, through a Huffington Post article, “My Response to the Podcast That Unfairly Attacked Me” (how’s that for on the nose?).

If you heard the first conversation, it would be easy to characterize it as a hatchet job. Haggerty and Greenhall seemed to delight in bashing Wadhwa, even laughing at his so-called contributions to helping women in tech. The women called him “condescending and paternalistic” and his behavior “creepy.” The discussion felt a little mean-spirited and extremely one-sided. Listeners were left to wonder, ‘Who is Wadhwa and is he really this terrible?’

WNYC correctly assessed the episode as problematic in failing to invite Wadhwa to comment. Even after they pulled it, a move that’s a bit like shutting the barn door after the horses have escaped, they were no longer in control of the story. Rather than opening a discussion about how women in technology are represented, they were on the losing end of a debate about how Wadhwa was represented.

This past Thursday, TLDR released a follow-up episode, “Episode #45 Redux,” on which Wadhwa was able to respond.

It’s a gripping and exciting conversation, but only because Wadhwa is filled with self-righteous anger, not because we actually get the benefit of him weighing in on the accusations–or the larger discussion about how women are depicted in Silicon Valley. Much of the exchange centers on Haggerty doing her best to admit she was wrong while scrambling for a foothold in the argument. Wadhwa asserts that he has not profited off women, but instead donated money on their behalf, and that he has gone to great efforts to offer women a platform on which to speak.

Haggerty remains poised throughout the conversation, and god knows I admire her for it. She took the reins of the successful show just a couple of months ago, and I’m sure she never dreamed she’d be in this kind of hot water over her reporting. However, it remains unclear to me–still–whether she has actually done her homework on Wadhwa. Her counterpoints feel like distillations of others’ arguments and she doesn’t dig into the original accusations of impropriety. Also, has anybody read this guy’s damn book?

For his part, Wadhwa does little to repair his image, overselling the wounded and offended part. He runs roughshod over Haggerty and argues that her coverage damaged his career and even compromised his health. However, the guy has a right to be pissed and WNYC knows it. In broadcasting an episode so heavily biased against him, it offered him carte blanche to shoot the messenger and ignore the message. There was as little nuance in this episode as there was in the first one.

Taken together, TLDR‘s #45 and #46 episodes serve as reminders of how important it is to get the story right the first time when you still have a leg to stand on. They also underscore the role of a host, which is not to join a guest in condemning or praising their subject, but to interrogate their viewpoints and investigate their assertions. When these lessons are forgotten, a show runs the risk of becoming the story rather than airing the story.

What we don’t learn anything about is the treatment of women in tech. If Wadhwa does indeed want to rob them of their voice, he couldn’t have orchestrated it any better than this.

Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.

  • Robin

    I think there is a disconnect between the mission of TLDR and the larger mission of NPR News. TLDR tells quirky stories about quirky corners of the Internet. Granted, this particular episode took on a more serious topic, but it was still just a straightforward story about the irony of a man becoming the go-to spokesperson for women in tech. I think the real root-cause problem is that the full weight of NPR News hangs over the show, so when it went pear-shaped, NPR got into its “NPR That Accepts Money From The Taxpayers is Under Attack Once Again For Liberal Bias Oh No!” mode. So then there had to be all this on-air mea-culpa’ing, with Brooke Gladstone scolding Meredith (totally demeaning and unnecessary), and Katya Rogers rending her clothing. The actual removal of the episode by NPR is telling: it’s as if they don’t even understand what a podcast is! Don’t they know your can’t un-ring the podcast bell! If this had occurred on Gimlet or on one of the Slate podcasts, I think the hosts would have been a lot more fiery in their own defense instead of just caving.

    • dme

      Excellent points, all. Reasonable people can disagree about what connection TLDR has to OTM, and whether TLDR is merely an ‘audio blog /editorial’. But the attempted–call it symbolic?–deletion of TLDR 45 by WNYC would seem to imply that *WNYC* thinks TLDR owed it to listeners to meet higher journalistic standards. (And if so, I respectfully agree with them.)

  • dme

    Good story, missing just one thing: comment from Haggerty, Rogers, Gladstone, or WNYC News director Jim Schachter.

    The pair of stories, TLDR 45 and 46, have elicited supporters, critics, and some voices that are a little of both. Until recently Haggerty’s Twitter feed was unanimously positive about it. The comment section in the OTM/TLDR 45 section tells a different tale. It is currently running at a proportion of about three critical, to one negative, to one ‘little of both’ comments. The quality of the comments, however, is high on the whole, from both/all sides.

    Haggerty, alas, threw fuel on the fire by encouraging her followers to listen to TLDR 46 and laugh at Wadhwa. (Taylor’s comment that Haggerty still hasn’t done her homework on Wadhwa is probably right.)

    Is there anything DIFFERENT about this little scandal compared to other scuffles amongst the Internet’s Politically Correct? Maybe one or two things.

    The biggest is where it started: on a Podcast that is intimately connected to WNYC’s On The Media, whose listeners are rabid in their devotion to empirical evidence and soberly deliberated views. (Some commenters have doubted the OTM-TLDR connection, but it’s beyond question. OTM actually started TLDR, even auto-downloaded it to OTM podcast listeners for months, and TLDR’s website is part of OTM’s.) It is only because of the provenance of the podcasts that these critics’ indignation has any bite. We expect a Gawker or a Fox to smear, lie, and skip the research. We want better from Brooke, Bob and Co.

    Second is the thing I already mentioned. Although Devon’s key question–Is Wadhwa’s research sound?–has been drowned amidst other debates, the tone and content of that debate has been way, way better on the whole than what the Internet usually provides. That second fact gives one hope.

    • dme

      Addendum: Seems I was *way* off in my prediction about the effect of TLDR 45 on the size of its listening audience. Two weeks ago TLDR was holding steady in the mid-40s of the iTunes Top 100 podcasts, with OTM about 15 spots behind it in the mid fifties/low sixties. As of today (2/27/15, 21 days after TLDR 45 appeared, and eight days after TLDR 46) both TLDR and OTM have fallen completely out of the iTunes top 100 podcasts. That’s a precipitous one-week tumble.

      So maybe there is such thing as bad publicity after all.

  • Alcofribas

    “What we don’t learn anything about is the treatment of women in tech. If Wadhwa does indeed want to rob them of their voice, he couldn’t have orchestrated it any better than this.” If there’s anyone this argument could be applied to, it should be TLDR. Instead of talking broadly about women in tech, they decided to take down someone else that IS talking about these issues on the theory that the space he occupies would instead be taken by another (better) voice. Instead of talking about real issues they did a gossipy, personality-centered piece. He can’t really be criticized for taking the time to defend himself when he’s spoken on the treatment of women in tech so much. While he does strike me a bit as “overselling the wounded and offended” part, it astounds me that some people can call him a creeper based on so little, then say that his reaction is overblown. The difference being that he has cause to be outraged, unlike the people insinuating he’s a pervert for DMs.

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  • dme

    On March 16, 2015, Meredith Haggerty announced on Twitter that TLDR had been cancelled effective immediately. She added she was looking for a bar that was open at 10:30 am,

    A few hours later, Nicole Levy rebutted the claim (about cancellation; she had no comment on Ms. Haggerty’s search for an after-breakfast cocktail.) Let us pass over without further comment the appearance that, even in her parting shot, Ms. Haggerty may have been not “very thorough” (her characterization of TLDR 45) in her reporting.

    http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2015/03/8564159/wnyc-says-tldr-live)

    As of this writing, there have not yet been any new episodes of TLDR released. iTunes ratings and TLDR comment boards have not, on the whole, mourned the passing of the Haggerty era. One wonders whether WNYC can salvage the brand, or whether they’ll just move onto something new.

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