Follow Up: Radiolab's Underwhelming "Juicervose" Autism Coverage

Mali, shortly after getting into a verbal
sparring match with Demetri Martin
At a 2011 Radiolab show in Berkeley.
[Image description: girl with beige skin and
brown fuzzy hair pulled back, wearing
wire-framed glasses, smiling,
wearing a multicolored long sweater,
in front of a blue screen with white
words inside a black box reading:
with Thao Nguyen
and Demetri Martin

One week later, I am still so sad that Radiolab bungled their Juicervose autism episode. I've been wanting and waiting for them to do a truly autism-focused episode for just about ever. I even wrote about what I'd like to see in a Radiolab autism episode, in 2011. But, aside from the stories from Owen Suskind and his family, most of the reporting was the same superficial, negativity-based autism coverage the media almost always provides. Almost always. I expect better from Radiolab, and I said so, at Thinking Person's Guide to Autism:
You need to know that such tiresomely biased storytelling robs autistic people like Issy Stapleton not only of their victim status but of of their humanity. It turns autistic people — already the target of sloppy media prejudice — into villains. It perpetuates the dangerous and dangerously contagious notion that it is “understandable” for parents to murder their autistic children, if those children cause too much caregiver stress. You told your fiercely loyal and trusting audience, directly, that 'unsuccessful' autistic peoples’ lives are of lesser value.
People pushed back. The Radiolab staff pushed back, seemingly in surprise. When Emily Willingham tweeted about the TPGA critique, Jad Abumrad asked her, "Did you actually listen to the piece?" which was ... an equally surprising response. Though after a few more exchanges with Emily and various TPGA folk, Mr. Abumrad did say that he heard us and was listening, sincerely.

Other responses included assertions that the Juicervose episode could have been worse. I'm pulling Emily's response to that comment out, as it's a dead-on critique of the episode's overall flaws:
"It could have been a whole lot worse" is a pretty low bar to set for a show that bills itself as being "about curiosity" and presents itself as a place "Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience." The richness of the autistic experience, for better and for worse, is not encompassed in Temple Grandin, is not conveyed by trite repetition of the same harmful memes of "lost, locked away children" whose aggression brings nothing but pain and hopelessness, and is not well served by turning to the usual suspects (eg, Simon Baron Cohen) as sources. That's a surface treatment sourced from the world's most cursory google search, coming from a quarter whose audience typically expects a little more than that. A lot more than that. And who should have given better to that audience. This isn't Donald Trump mouthing off on Twitter. It's NSF-funded Radiolab, hosted by a MacArthur fellow, for God's sake. 
Imagine this were a show about the experience of being a woman, communicating as a woman, making yourself understood as a woman. Imagine that they open by describing women as "passive" and "emotional." They present a couple of women who seem to transcend this 'problem' of being a woman but suggest that for the rest of women, the outlook is not so rosy. They talk with a researcher who's got a pet idea about what makes a woman a woman. They give us Betty Crocker and a 1950s gynecologist when they could have given us your mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, wife -- a rich tapestry of the experience of womanhood that defies stereotypes, not in unique or unusual ways but in ways that surprise the audience with their generality, that open the minds of the audience to new ways of thinking about women and about how women themselves think. But no. We get tired memes about women, a tired narrative about sporadic transcendence of getting past all that woman-ness, and they serve up a faux-gritty reality of what it allegedly *really* means to be a woman for most women and that reality is all negative and harsh and, sniff, someone hand me a tissue 
That's not journalism. That's not being honest with your subject. That's not being "real" or tackling grey areas. That's being shallow and lazy and letting your own blinders about your subject block your view--and thus block critical perspectives that could have enriched your narrative--and your audience. 
Responding to allegations that we only want reporting on "happy" autism stories, which, erm, no, we are pragmatists and supporters of autistic people's inviolable humanity, Autistic writer Chavisory also commented:
There's a difference between "reporting on darker sides of a story," and "reporting" a story in such a way as to reinforce thinking about a subject that devalues the lives of the people being reported on, and makes the story of autism really the story of how the people around us are disappointed in our existence. 
And frankly, that's an old, boring story. 
It is past time that the story of autism was not defined by how worthless we [autistic people] are to other people.  
Keep listening, Radiolab. Curiosity is only how you find your stories. Listening is what makes your stories different, and makes them matter.

And as a side note: you might want to let colleagues like Andrew at NY Public Radio know that it's a bit disingenuous to leave comments such as "Please take this post down as you are hurting the cause of good journalism by demanding only activist-oriented reporting" without mentioning that they are commenting from a NY Public Radio IP address.

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