Jad Abumrad: How Journalism Taught Me A New Way To Resolve Conflict

Sep 4, 2020

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Finding Another Way

Radio journalist Jad Abumrad spent years developing a formula for storytelling—then one contentious report upended it all. He shares his journey of finding resolution in stories where truths collide.

About Jad Abumrad

Jad Abumrad is a radio host, composer, and producer.

He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is, as a podcast, downloaded more than 120 million times a year. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. Most recently, he created Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring an iconic country music star at the center of America's culture wars.

Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He received his BA from Oberlin College.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - new ways of resolving conflict. We've talked about conflicts in relationships, conflicts in nature, and now we want to turn to conflicts in politics and perspective.

JAD ABUMRAD: Given that we live in a country that is extremely divided and where we just seem to have lost the simple ability to speak across difference, I really do feel like figuring out how to bridge different realities is the work.

ZOMORODI: This is Jad Abumrad.

ABUMRAD: I host stuff. I host some things.

ZOMORODI: Jad's probably best known for Radiolab, the show he created in 2002, but before we get to his new understanding of how we can resolve conflict, let's go back to how Jad first started telling stories.

ABUMRAD: Initially, the idea was just to tell stories about complicated things where you find beauty and meaning in those things. And at that point, mostly that meant science.

ZOMORODI: After several years of telling stories about science, Jad felt things were getting repetitive.

ABUMRAD: Essentially, every story, I developed this kind of template where you go off and you explore the known universe, and you interview a scientist or something...

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

STEVE STROGATZ: Congregations of fireflies along riverbanks in Southeast Asia and Malaysia or Thailand.

ABUMRAD: ...And then you slowly lead your audience to this moment of wonder.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

STROGATZ: All flashing in sync like a Christmas tree.

ABUMRAD: ...And it's that precise moment when the music comes in and you say the cosmic thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

STROGATZ: It's one of the most hypnotic and spellbinding spectacles in nature.

ABUMRAD: And everybody just goes, ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

STROGATZ: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's amazing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Wow.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

ABUMRAD: And that became the move. That became the thing that I tried to do every story, every show. But it all felt so hermetically sealed in some way, like, kept away from the messiness of the world.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I guess, like, most stories aren't completely simplistic, right?

ABUMRAD: Yeah. And I also was running into stories that challenged the idea that science is the only way to know the world.

ZOMORODI: Mmm hmm.

ABUMRAD: You know, there were stories that I bumped into where people just disagreed with the science or the truth that was in the room at that moment. You could express it scientifically, but there was a much deeper truth hiding right behind that. And so when I say I got tired of the wonder stuff, it wasn't that I didn't want to do that anymore. It's just that I felt like that was actually a smaller piece of a larger mission.

ZOMORODI: And so you made a change - right? - like, from stories that evoked awe to stories that were really all about conflict.

ABUMRAD: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: But you had a problem with that, too. There was one episode I think that kind of summed it up for you.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, it was an episode that - I think this was 2012. We ended up investigating the idea that post Vietnam, the Soviet Union used chemical weapons on the Hmong villagers in the mountains of Laos. So it's this really perilous moment. And so we ended up speaking to a guy who was there and claimed that chemical weapons had been used on him and his fellow villagers and a lot of people died. And it was a horrible situation. The problem was that some Western scientists went there and measured to see if there were in fact chemical weapons being used - didn't find any chemical weapons - and then basically figured out - I mean, I should call it a theory, I guess - that in fact what was being mistaken as chemical weapons was bee poop.

ZOMORODI: Pollen, basically.

ABUMRAD: That was the theory. That was what the Western scientists said. My co-host Robert Krulwich was talking to this fellow and asking him, did you see the stuff?

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

ROBERT KRULWICH: Did the source of the rain...

ABUMRAD: Can you firsthand account for the fact that this came from planes?

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

KRULWICH: Was there always a plane and then rain?

ABUMRAD: And the guy couldn't, but he said, I know what the scientists say and they're wrong because I know what I experienced.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) I speak to what I've seen, and there is no inkling in my mind. It was chemicals that were killing my people.

ABUMRAD: This went back and forth and back and forth for a long, long while.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

KRULWICH: But he himself is not clear whether it's the bee stuff or whether.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: It feels to him like this is a semantic debate.

ABUMRAD: And then it just - the interview ended badly.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "RADIOLAB")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: There's a sad lack of justice that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard who's read these accounts.

KRULWICH: But as far as I can tell, your uncle didn't see the bee pollen fall. Your uncle didn't see a plane. All of this is hearsay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: My uncle says for the last 20 years, he didn't know that anything - anybody was interested in the death of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened. And what we know has been questioned again and again. It's not a surprise to him or to me (crying). I think that - I think the interview is done.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: I felt - I felt horrible.

ZOMORODI: Jad continues his story in his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: Like, hammering at a scientific truth when someone has suffered, that wasn't going to heal anything. And maybe I was relying too much on science to find the truth. And it really did feel at that moment that there were a lot of truths in the room, and we were only looking at one of them.

It was one of those, like, 90-minute conversations that ended up getting edited down to three minutes. And in those three minutes, it looked like we bullied the guy. And I feel like we kind of did, to be honest. I don't think we did it right on a number of levels.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: So I thought I got to get better at this. And so for the next eight years, I committed myself to doing stories where you heard truth collide. We did stories about the politics of consent where you heard the perspective of survivors and perpetrators whose narratives clashed. We did stories about race, how Black men are systematically eliminated from juries and yet the rules that try and prevent that from happening only make things worse, stories about counterterrorism, Guantanamo detainees, stories where everything is disputed. All you can do is struggle to try and make sense. And the struggle kind of became the point. I began to think maybe that's my job, to lead people to moments of struggle because truth is no longer just a set of facts to be captured. It's become a process. It's gone from being a noun to being a verb. Increasingly in this confusing world, we need to be the bridge between those differences. But how do you do that? How do you end that story?

ZOMORODI: So, Jad, you have some epiphanies along the way in your career, and you realize that you do want to tell stories about conflict, but you also realize that you can't just end those stories without some kind of resolution. How did you discover that? And, I mean, how did you know if that was even possible?

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of a weird Genesis story. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

DOLLY PARTON: Are you having fun so far?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: This is what brings me to Dolly - or Saint Dolly as we like to call her in the South. I want to tell you about one little glimmer of an epiphany that I had doing a nine-part series called "Dolly Parton's America" last year. It was a bit of a departure for me, but I just had this intuition that Dolly could help me figure out this ending problem. And here was the basic intuition. You go to a Dolly concert, you see men in trucker hats standing next to men in drag, Democrats standing next to Republicans, women holding hands, every different kind of person smashed together. All of these people that we are told should hate each other are there singing together. She somehow carved out this unique space in America. And I wanted to know, how did she do that?

ZOMORODI: OK. So you and Dolly Parton - talk to me about how you came together.

ABUMRAD: So the Dolly project for me started in 2016. And this is at a moment when the presidential election is heating up...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

ABUMRAD: ...The last one, obviously. And it was getting really gnarly. So I pitched her on a thing, and, initially, that thing was just, like, let me just interview you. But it just ended up becoming a much bigger project where it was really a story of America as seen through Dolly. Her life was an interesting study in how to cut across differences which you could think were fixed, but somehow she embraces them all, most of the time for better and sometimes for worse. It was just an extended dialogue in difference for me. That's what the whole series was about.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

PARTON: Ask me whatever you ask me and I'm going to tell you what I want you to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: I mean, over and over again, she would force me beyond the simple categories I had constructed for the world. I remember talking with her about her seven-year partnership with Porter Wagoner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PORTER WAGONER: Look forward to having you around a long, long time.

PARTON: Well, I hope to be, and thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: 1967, she joins his band. He is the biggest thing in country music.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

PARTON: He had one hit record after another.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WAGONER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: She is a backup singer, a nobody.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

PARTON: New in Nashville at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: Within a short time, she gets huge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Pretty Miss Dolly Parton.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ABUMRAD: He gets jealous. He then sues her for $3 million when she tries to leave.

And so I was asking her a lot of questions about the middle part of their partnership when things started to go bad and the assumption in my questions was he was a type. He was, like, a patriarchal type of person who was preventing her from being who she was destined to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

ABUMRAD: This is a guy - I mean, you see it in the videos, too. He's got his arm around you. There's a power thing happening for sure.

PARTON: Well, it's more complicated than that.

ABUMRAD: And it was really interesting to me that she never, ever bought the assumption.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

PARTON: It's just - I mean, just think about it. He had had this show for years. He had - he didn't need me to have his hit show. He wasn't expecting me to be all that I was either. I mean, he didn't know how many dreams I had.

ABUMRAD: And she was like, you can't summarize this relationship. There was power. There were all these other things happening. But there was also a lot of love. There was a lot of affection. There was a lot of musical chemistry. So don't just pretend it was one thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

PARTON: Porter and I had a love-hate relationship. You could never untangle all of that.

ABUMRAD: So, like, she constantly would push back against those moments for me. Like, I think about that conversation all the time because she would do this thing where she would in the same moment advocate for herself and she'd also show great empathy for the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

PARTON: Who knows? Had it not been for Porter, I may not be sitting right here in this chair right now. You know, I'd like to believe I would have made it, but if I'd have stayed forever, I might have missed my chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

PARTON: (Singing) If I...

ABUMRAD: I mean, that's what the song "I Will Always Love You" is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

PARTON: ...(Singing) Should stay...

ABUMRAD: It's about I'm leaving you because I need to go do my thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

PARTON: (Singing) Your way...

ABUMRAD: But I can see how much hurt that's going to cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

PARTON: (Singing) But I know...

ABUMRAD: I'm going to hold it all. I'm going to hold my ambition, and I'm going to hold your loss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

PARTON: (Singing) Of the way...

ABUMRAD: And so there's something about Dolly that she's able to do both those things at once. She never compromises herself, but she never throws someone out in the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU")

PARTON: (Singing) Love you. I will always love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOLLY PARTON'S AMERICA")

ABUMRAD: I have a theory that one of the reasons that you can have the crazy broad appeal that you have into so many different communities that normally hate each other is because of those acts of forgiveness. Does that vibe with you?

PARTON: Well, yeah, that I - forgiveness - forgiveness is all there is.

ZOMORODI: OK. So you realize this remarkable capacity for empathy in Dolly. And where does that take you? Like, what does that mean for you and your work?

ABUMRAD: Yeah. So, I mean, in the wake of Dolly, all of these thoughts were sort of swirling in my mind. And it was as I was thinking about all this stuff that a very good friend of mine gave me a book. It's a book by a woman named Jessica Benjamin. And the book is called "Beyond Doer And Done To." And it's sort of like the psychology of human relationships, right? And we sometimes see ourselves as these, like, autonomous units. Like, I do something to you, Manoush, and you take it in, and then you do something to me. And it's this very transactional thing. But Jessica Benjamin's idea is that when two people come together and they're both open and they're both willing to sort of face each other and really recognize each other, take each other in, listen...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

ABUMRAD: ...Struggle together, in that mutual engagement, the relationship between them is actually a separate entity. So it's almost as if magically these two people create a separate third space. And there was something about that idea that just, like, unlocked everything for me.

ZOMORODI: I mean, Jad, I think for a lot of people, this brings up marriage or even, like, a corporation, the idea that people have to compromise for the sake of an institution or an organization. But that is not what you're saying. You are saying that people don't have to settle. They need to create something new.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Because I hate the idea of common ground, that common ground thing that we say as journalists as if there's, like, some - like, you take two people who couldn't be more different and you want to assume that there's some thing that they share, which usually means they both have to dumb themselves down in order to find the most basic thing that they share.

ZOMORODI: Right.

ZOMORODI: What's more interesting to me is when two people who are very, very different come together, they make something. So it's not something to discover. It's something to create, right? That feels way more interesting to me. Like, that then becomes a little bit like an ephemeral third space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARTON: Are you having fun so far?

ZOMORODI: Like with Dolly's concerts, right?

ABUMRAD: Totally.

ZOMORODI: Like, as that being the place.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. I mean, I think there's a lot to that because everybody is welcome at a Dolly show. It's an ethical decision that she has made in her life, which is she'll not cast anyone out. And there are times, frankly, when I'm, like, disappointed by that, you know? There are elements of the country music audience that I think should be thrown the hell out. But she won't do it. Like, she is radically open. And I think she communicates that to her audience. And the way that she sees them and the way they see her back, it actually creates that third space, which is a real space. It's the physical architecture of her concerts - spiritual architecture of her concerts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARTON: Thank you. Thank you so much.

(CHEERING)

ZOMORODI: So, Jad, did you figure it out - like, you know now your mission as a storyteller?

ABUMRAD: Yeah. Yeah. But maybe for me it's - it has something to do with modeling the struggle that one has to go through to bridge those realities or to see them evolve into something new, right? That, for me, feels like the target. That's what I want to happen in every story is to get to that third. That's what I think my job is now.

ZOMORODI: That's Jad Abumrad. He's the host and creator of Radiolab "More Perfect" and "Dolly Parton's America." You can see his full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLLY PARTON SONG, "9 TO 5")

ZOMORODI: Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about new ways of resolving conflict. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more Ted Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our Ted radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.