by Claire Castleman
Wow. Did anyone just catch what happened on TLDR?
TLDR is a spinoff podcast from NPR’s On The Media (OTM), hosted by Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield¹. Usually a beacon of class and journalistic integrity, OTM has won several awards for outstanding public service and investigative reporting. Starting in September of 2013, OTM turned a blog they ran into a companion podcast: TLDR: the internet, shorter. Hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman started their foray into the podcast world with the journalistically questionable “Something is Going to Happen in 7 Days,” about the weird stuff that was happening on the Pronunciation Book YouTube channel. Their later episodes got a lot better and consistently told great stories for about a year, at which point they left TLDR to start their own (similar) podcast, Reply All, which is also great. In December 2014, Meredith Haggerty took over TLDR with the aim to use the podcast as a forum to amplify women’s voices on the internet and in the media. This is a necessary and noble goal, but so far Haggerty has had a bit of trouble telling stories that are engaging and important.
This changed two weeks ago, when she aired an interview with Amelia Greenhall, a user experience designer from San Francisco, in an episode called “Quiet, Wadhwa,” after a blog post Greenhall wrote called “Quiet, Ladies. @wadhwa is speaking now.” In the interview, Haggerty basically let Greenhall rant about Vivek Wadhwa, a male academic whose research focuses on technology, specifically women in tech. Greenhall and others find it indicative of the oppressive, misogynistic patriarchy that this man should so often be consulted as the Voice of Women in Tech instead of, y’know, women in tech. There are lots of things to complain about when it comes to Vivek Wadhwa, but in the interview Greenhall pointed to a few specific examples that were particularly infuriating to her, including his profiting from being the Voice of Women, whether monetarily and/or in popularity and visibility; his slightly creepy Twitter habits (deflecting public arguments into private direct messages and inviting women who disagree with him to visit his office; and his insulting (but supposedly innocent) misuse of “slang” like referring to women as “token floozies.”
The episode was a much-needed airing of grievances about the many ways women are constantly silenced, especially in industries where they are a drastic minority. It was an insular conversation between two women in tech complaining about the position of women in tech. There was no counterpoint from Wadhwa, or anyone else, in the 11-minute podcast. I enjoyed it, thought, “This guy seems like an asshole” and forgot about it.
I cannot link to the episode through the official TLDR page because it has since been removed. Wadhwa threw a hissy fit complained; accused Haggerty, TLDR and NPR of libel; and then WNYC removed the episode, replacing it with “Episode 45”, a non-episode apology statement. Then TLDR aired a follow-up.
In “Episode 45 Redux,” Haggerty is first interviewed by Gladstone. It reads as an appropriate flogging. Why didn’t you ask for comment? What were you thinking? Were you producing this episode in a bubble? All seemingly valid critiques. But then Haggerty brought in Wadhwa to the studio. To comment. And comment he did. The episode was an excruciating 20 minutes of Wadhwa making repeated, scattered accusations that Haggerty (alone!) destroyed his career and his reputation, steamrolling over every point she tried to make, and generally mansplaining and making flimsy counterarguments. Haggerty started by apologizing for not asking him for comment in the original episode, to which Wadhwa replied “Is that the only apology I’m getting, Meredith, or do you also feel remorseful about the false allegations you made and how you disparaged me and how you laughed at me?” It only devolved from there, including one moment where Wadhwa explains that critiques of his constant appearance in interviews as the Voice of Women are invalid because “women don’t understand journalism.”
It was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been listening to a podcast. Both Wadhwa and Haggerty were petulant. It was clear Haggerty felt that removing the original episode and apologizing for tarnishing Wadhwa’s reputation were excessive overreactions. She apologized for a journalistic mistake and then tried to stay calm and respectful, but was often unable to suppress her thinly veiled rage and disgust. Frankly, she kept significantly more of her cool withstanding Wadhwa’s sexist, patronizing abuse interviewing Wadhwa than I would have had. The interview is aired unedited, in order, I suppose, to keep any further accusations of misrepresentation at bay. This only adds to the feeling that you are in the studio, observing a very uncomfortable power play. I recommend listening to it if you haven’t yet hit your daily quota of disgust for patronizing jerks talking down to younger women.
There were many critiques of this whole debacle, but the first and loudest was its lack of journalistic integrity. (“How could you not ask for comment?!”) I contend that this argument is kind of bullshit. I don’t think TLDR has EVER been a beacon of journalistic integrity. Not since Haggerty has been hosting it, and not when Vogt and Goldman were. That first episode, “Something is Going to Happen in 7 Days” is just Vogt interviewing one reporter, Gaby Dunn, who thinks she’s solved the Pronunciation Book mystery. She thinks it has something to do with Battlestar Galactica. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.) The comments posted under this episode are all along the lines of “Why was this even aired” and “This is not reporting; this is signal boosting an already obnoxious advertising campaign”. By the end of the episode, Dunn ends up maligning the character of several people, all named, and the focus is on one woman ranting about how some assholes have wronged her. They were not asked for comment. The episode was not removed. No apology was issued from NPR, WNYC, OTM, TLDR, or the hosts.
Obviously, there are differences. In “7 Days,” the story focuses more on Dunn, who is the person being interviewed, while in “Quiet,” the story is about Wadhwa, who is not. In “7 Days”, the implication is that the men mentioned are big jerks who made Dunn feel like she was living in the Truman Show. In “Quiet”, the implication is that Wadhwa is a creepy asshole, but also that his entire life’s work is hurting the cause he’s been working for. It’s definitely not a subtle jab. But by proclaiming that THIS episode and THIS host destroyed the ethical journalistic foundation on which TLDR stands seems ridiculous to me. Podcasts like TLDR are not about journalistic integrity. They’re about telling one side of a story. Usually in about 8-15 minutes. There is not time for nuance here. There is time for two women to commiserate about how they feel silenced and abused in technology and in the media, and to use one man as an example. Accusing Haggerty of lacking journalistic integrity is an overreaction that can only be justified by taking the entire show out of context, and smacks of the same sexism Greenhall and Haggerty are railing against. On top of that,the redaction and follow-up accomplish EXACTLY what they were complaining about in the original episode: two women’s voices are silenced — literally deleted from the internet and my archives — in favor of signal-boosting one man’s rant belittling them for 20 minutes.
Commenter Jesse Wright summarizes like this (emphasis mine): “I get why it’s important to get someone’s perspective and to include a response most of the time, but in this situation, where Wadhwa’s behavior and his positions were so public and transparent, a critique of his manner and his positions seems academic and therefore it would not necessarily require his input. … His craziest and most offensive statement was when he said women don’t understand journalism. He says this because you rightly criticize his omnipresence as a commentator in the media … Ignoring, for a minute, how offensive, wrong and ludicrous that statement is, the whole reason he was upset with you is … because he couldn’t get his say in on women. In. The. Media.”
By falling all over themselves to apologize for how “Quiet, Wadhwa” was handled and replacing it with “Episode 45 Redux”, TLDR essentially reinforces all the sexism and abuse Haggerty and Greenhall, and many other women, including me, are completely sick of. I was uncomfortable at the tone of this episode for sure. But it wasn’t that uncomfortable exchanges necessarily shouldn’t be aired, or that Haggerty was too sassy with Wadhwa. It was that the voices of women trying to raise concerns about a not so secretly problematic industry were erased and as a woman I felt I was being scolded and belittled for 20 minutes by proxy. When it seems perfectly plausible that TLDR could have kept “Quiet, Wadhwa” on the air, aired a one-minute apology statement from Haggerty and then moved on to a *new* episode on a *new* topic, and linked to a comment from Wadhwa posted on another platform, I am confused and upset that so much effort and air time were devoted to allowing one more patronizing asshole to complain about the scary mean Feminists who have wronged him, especially on a platform that is supposedly devoted to giving more women a voice instead of more Vivek Wadhwas.
¹ Ironically, Garfield also hosts (and I use the word “hosts” loosely) a podcast on grammar through Slate to which I will not link here because they aired one of the most disgusting sexist 26 minutes of programming I’ve ever had the misfortune to listen to on the topic of vocal fry. His work in this podcast is not journalistic excellence by any means. More on this in a later rant.