|Fighting for the cause
An uproar over an offensive headline makes a reporter wonder
why she works for The Man
published April 15, 2002
1 | INDEX
I have a confession to make.
I work for The Man.
I work for an organization that effectively told 230,000 people in February that Asian Americans are not Americans.
I work for an institution that perpetuated an assumption the U.S. government once used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
I'm a reporter, and I work for The Seattle Times.
Principled people will eventually experience a crisis of conscience when the real world doesn't live up to their ideals.
I used to think you could either run and hide, or stay and fight. Reality is more complicated.
If you missed it, The Seattle Times ran the headline "Hughes good as gold: American outshines Kwan, Slutskaya in skating surprise" the day after Sarah Hughes beat Michelle Kwan for the Olympic gold medal in the women's figure-skating competition. This is why it's offensive: Hughes and Kwan are both members of the U.S. figure skating team. This headline implied that Kwan was not an American.
As if the Asian American community needed more salt poured on its wounds. We have pathetic representation in government. There isn't a single major Asian American actor in Hollywood. If I amputated a few fingers I could maybe count the number of Asian American Fortune 500 CEOs on one hand. In my lifetime I can remember seeing only three Asian American Winter Olympians compete.
If the outcome had been different would the editor have written, "American outshines Hughes?" Would anyone ever tell Sarah Hughes she spoke English surprisingly well? We've always been foreigners, and we always will be--thanks to the work of institutions like The Seattle Times. The paper didn't even learn from past mistakes. During the 1998 Winter Olympics, MSNBC ran the headline "American Beats Out Kwan," after team member Tara Lipinski beat Kwan for the gold medal, and caught fire from Asian Americans and professional journalism organizations.
The day after the February headline ran, The Seattle Times wrote an apology. But the apology was worse than saying nothing at all--it was more concerned with making excuses and explaining why the paper is not racist, when it should have sincerely apologized to offended readers. In today's P.C. world, nobody intends to be a bigot, especially not a sensitive liberal paper like The Seattle Times. But good intentions do not right wrongs. The following Sunday, the executive editor addressed the headline in his column.
My own father--who lives 1,000 miles away and hates getting a newspaper delivered because "it's just one more thing [he] has to pick up and throw in the trash"--sent an e-mail demanding how I let this get into the paper. A friend from college called and asked what I had done about it. I lamely replied that I had fired off a few emails to the executive editor and managing editor.
"Well, I'll be interested to see what you do about it," she said.
You see, she remembers someone different. While we were at Pomona College, the two of us were angry minority superheroines. We co-directed an Asian American mentor program. We filibustered at Marie Calendar's with the dean of students on a monthly basis. I wrote searing op-ed pieces for the school paper. My tagline should have read: "You name the -ism, I'll bitch about it!" Asian women fetishism, sexism, racism, class-ism, age-ism, capitalism, heterosexism.
Ironically, I grew up in upper-middle-class comfort in Los Angeles but my $25,000-per-year, private, liberal arts college education turned me into an angry minority. I launched myself into month-long fights in the "letters to the editor" section of the student paper. I organized identity workshops for Asian American first year students--moderating touchy-feely discussions on what it mean to be a minority even if you had a 4.0 GPA and a BMW. We painted "Asian American Studies Now" on a fifty-foot wall on campus. (A few years earlier Asian American students had painted the same thing, and someone defaced it to read "Asian Americans Die Now.") At a trustee dinner, we dropped a bomb of a forty-page document titled "A Call to Action," in which we demanded that the college address the needs of minority students. We had spent weeks meeting in semi-secrecy to put the document together.
I banged the race drum. I started shit.
The college listened to us. They made changes. They set up a multicultural hall students could choose to live in. More minority faculty eventually got hired. An Asian American Studies major was finally started. When I graduated, the Asian American student body gave me a service award for the work I had done.
It's easy to be militant when you're in college. It's downright scary to bring the noise against the people who pay you. When I graduated I landed a job as a managing editor of a regional magazine. Plastic surgery ads paid for my salary at Orange Coast magazine. I was learning--that's how I justified it. One popular ad: "Cottage cheese--great with fruit, not on your thighs."
I never complained about the ads to the publisher. But filling the pages around liposuction ads eventually got to me.
I quit and got a job at The Seattle Times three years ago. I eventually wound up in the business section, where I now cover technology. Here was a paper that appeared to take diversity seriously, with tons of minorities on staff. The team of tech reporters at one point was 75 percent Asian American. The paper runs ads for Martin Luther King Jr. Day all over the city. But when a commitment to diversity means fixing what caused that headline, the paper has already moved on.
This isn't the first time the paper has fallen down on me. We went on strike for forty-nine days in November 2000 and when it ended, I came back to work and got over hating the company.
I saw what happened to employees who spoke out against management during the strike. Some were laid off during company-wide job cuts. Others felt they had no future at the paper and left voluntarily. Some rabble-rousers stayed and some of them suffered the loss of their columns or beats. Management claimed cuts were necessary because of the decline in advertising. But you always wonder.
Even so, I couldn't keep my mouth shut about the headline. At a newsroom-wide meeting in March, I asked the managing editor what he was going to do about it. There isn't enough diversity on the sports copy desk, I said. There's a complete lack of awareness on the copy desk that this simple mistake could be so incredibly offensive. Not enough editors proof headlines before they get sent to the presses. At the end of my speech, the uncomfortable silence of 120 people weighed down on the room. "Well, I don't know what more we can do," he finally said. "We've already apologized."
"Are we going to hire any more minorities on the sports copy desk?" I asked. The only Asian American copy editor in the sports section was never brought back after the strike last year. "No," he said. "This was a mistake made under the pressure of deadline."
"Deadline mistakes are getting the score wrong or spelling someone's name wrong," I shot back. "An Asian American would never have written that headline." Another Asian American reporter piped up and said the headline was really hurtful. One other reporter, also Asian American, said our paper was too smug about its diverse staff. The city columnist, a white woman, said she felt the apology wasn't a real apology. No men, Asian American or otherwise, said anything. Afterward, a few white reporters told me they were glad I spoke up. I've heard from only one Asian American reporter out of about fifteen who work here. I donšt even know why I'm miffed anymore by the stereotype of the silent Asian American. It's so often true.
The managing editor came by afterward and thanked me for my comments. He didn't say he was planning to make any changes, but it looks like I haven't been added to the list of troublemakers ... yet. Sometimes you have to be grateful for crumbs from the table.
I was mad for a long time. Mad at Asian American reporters with more seniority who didn't speak first and left it to me, a pipsqueak who started as an intern three years ago. Mad at all the reporters who sat mute in that auditorium while I squirmed under the managing editor's gaze.
It's been two months and the paper hasn't done anything concrete to prevent this from happening again, not even some kind of token "diversity training" for copy editors. But my protest is over. The editors know how I feel. I'm just not in the mood to circulate petitions. I feel like Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon." I'm getting too old for this shit.
Sometimes I wonder whether I've given up on "the cause."
I graduated five years ago and friends from college still ask me why I'm covering business news instead of using my job to criticize how (fill in Oppressive Institution) keeps the (fill in Oppressed Group) down. The answer usually gets long and involved--but it's really quite simple. I like my job. I find business news completely absorbing and challenging. I have the independence to write whatever I want in a newspaper that ends up on hundreds of thousands of doorsteps. I like the reporters in the business section--I've had great discussions about race with many of them. The editors here invest resources to make me a better reporter.
It was business reporters who exposed (Oppressive Institution) Enron and the lies it told to its shareholders (Oppressed Group). Is that less noble than say, being a film critic and bitching about how there aren't any mainstream Asian American actors (Oppressed Group) in Hollywood (Oppressive Institution)? No one ever bothers to ask white reporters to justify why they do what they do. But everyone expects the angry minority to dedicate her entire life to "the cause."
Here's my final confession.
I work for a paper that made a huge mistake. And I've ended my protest over it.
But I still have plenty of shit to start.
Fighting for the cause