An episode of WNYC's On the Media podcast TLDR was unceremoniously removed from the On the Media website today, and people are not at all happy. Rightly so. (UPDATED: This post was updated on 2/13, to include comments from WNYC.)
The TLDR episode featured tech blogger Amelia Greenhall criticizing male "women in tech expert" Vivek Wadhwa. Greenhall explained how Wadhwa has come to dominate discussions of women in tech by setting himself up as a coach for professional women. The upshot is that Greenhall feels that Wadhwa is actually part of the problem, not a solution.
Then On the Media producers at WNYC appear to have taken down the show with Greenhall's opinions. So what happened?
Wadhwa, a Silicon Valley investor and the author of a book called Innovating Women, has established himself as the go-to expert on women in tech for a variety of prestigious media organizations. With his academic credentials (he has appointments at Duke and Stanford) and entrepreneurial background, he has leveraged his accomplishments into a secondary stint as a spokesperson for diversity. The most recent Wadhwaism appears in Newsweek's recent cover story on women in tech. "Wadhwa says shaky self-confidence is one of the chief things holding women back," the article reads.
Many actual women (and men) in the field are frustrated that Wadhwa has positioned himself as a sort of TechLadyWhisperer. Intentions aside, Wadhwa's voice as a spokesperson for women in tech often eclipses the voices of actual women in tech. This inspired Greenhall to write a scathing critique of Wadhwa's patronizing advocacy in a blog post called "Quiet, Ladies, @Wadhwa Is Speaking Now." Greenhall slammed Wadhwa for calling himself an ally, when so many women feel that he isn't.
Many tech feminists (such as myself) like to mock Vivek Wadhwa as "The Guy Who Gets Paid to Talk About Women in Tech," but what he does is a serious problem that hurts women in tech in tangible ways. By appointing himself the unwanted spokesman for women in tech he has kept actual, qualified women's voices from being heard widely in the mainstream media.
Many people commenting on the show appreciated Greenhall's takedown, saying that they feel frustrated when men talk about women's experiences, without actually listening to what women have to say.
TLDR host Meredith Haggerty contacted Greenhall to record an episode riffing on her piece. Haggerty released the episode on February 7.
Wadhwa was not happy:
Understandable. Who likes being told that they're wrong? But what's less common is what happened next: NPR affiliate WNYC chose to take the podcast down. The episode is no longer available through On the Media. A message on the site says simply:
TLDR episode 45, published Friday, February 6, has been removed. We are working on a piece for On the Media that will include a range of views on advocacy for women in technology.
(You can still hear it elsewhere on the internet.)
Greenhall and others speculated that Wadhwa had put legal pressure on WNYC to remove the podcast.
So basically, it looks like a podcast about a guy muffling the voices of women in tech has been silenced by the muffler himself.
Wadhwa, however, tells a different story. I asked him if he had directly contacted WNYC or had lawyers contact them. "I did not engage any lawyers or make such a threat," he told me via email. Wadhwa repeatedly said that he had never asked for the podcast to be pulled, and that he has asked for the podcast to be reinstated, though he did want a chance to respond.
So if Wadhwa didn't actually threaten libel, what happened? I've asked WNYC to clarify exactly why the podcast was removed, if not because of legal threats, but they have not responded as of this posting.
WNYC decided to remove this episode, because it centered on an internet debate about author Vivek Wadhwa and we failed a basic test of fairness: we did not invite him to comment. We are planning a follow-up that will address both the original issue and the ensuing conversation around the removal of the episode. We are keenly aware of the discussion out there and will release the new piece as soon as it is ready.
The media's presentation of stories about abuses against women has always been scrutinized. In the wake of last year's poorly-reported and credibility-hemorrhaging Rolling Stone story on fraternity rape, the importance of doing due diligence when picking apart the patriarchy is especially critical. But so is ensuring that stories are not picked apart simply because they are critical of sexism. In this case, it is poor form that WNYC will not explain why they took down the podcast. Did it actually contain libelous statements? Or is this a knee-jerk reaction to criticism that the podcast is too mean to an influential man?
It is one thing to pull or disavow something published because it contains factual errors or has been objectively misreported. It is another to pull a story because of the hurt feelings of a powerful person. The first case is prudent. The second case is dangerous kowtowing that undermines what is important about journalism.
WNYC should clarify if there was an actual breach of journalistic ethics that warranted the takedown. I will update this post when WNYC responds to my questions about why they took the podcast offline.
In the meantime, Greenhall's recommendations for Wadhwa are a terrific blueprint for how male allies with opportunities to speak in public can actually help women in tech:
Wadhwa needs to shut up about women in tech already! (And forever, preferably. Should we start #stopWadhwa2015?) When reporters call him about women in tech, he should suggest that they speak to an actual woman in tech on the topic instead - perhaps any of the women he has invited to come visit him at his office. We women are waiting for the email that says, "Vivek recommended I speak to you instead, because you are more qualified." Vivek could donate twice the funds raised by the women in tech book to actual tech feminist non-profits. He could credit the women interviewed in the book by asking permission to put their names and links to their work on the book's website. He could advocate for the creation of a gender studies faculty position at Singularity University. He could talk about something (anything!) that he has actual experience with, other than women in tech. May that day come soon!
Top image: Newsweek