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.