by Pat Holt
Friday, August 24, 2001
BILL WONG: "YELLOW JOURNALIST," PART II
Here we are at a fundraiser banquet in Oakland, California, where a real "knee-slapper of a joke" is about to occur - followed by a shocking pronouncement.
As Bill Wong describes it in a report for East-West News that's part of his gripping and important collection of past articles, "Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America" (Temple University Press), the purpose of the fundraiser is to honor Wendy Tokuda, "the most prominent Asian American journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area," Wong reports.
Tokuda, co-anchor at the local CBS-TV station for some years, shares delivery of the news with an avuncular and much-loved reporter named Dave McElhatton, whose "stout and balding" features, as Wong describes them, are well-known to all in the room.
So they're all ready for a guffaw when David Louie, an Asian American reporter at the local KGO-TV station, "stepped up to the microphone at Tokuda's right, stood shoulder to shoulder with her and said, 'Don't I look like an Asian Dave McElhatton?' "
According to Wong, "the crowd of 300 roared" at the resemblance of the slightly balding Louie to McElhatton. But then came the shocking pronouncement.
"Tokuda turned solemn as she began an off-the-cuff commentary on a subject she said has gone on too long to ignore - why Asian American men aren't anchors of television news shows, locally or nationally.
" 'The reason why David and other Asian American men aren't anchoring news shows,' Tokuda said, with a now-serious Louie at her side, 'is simply racism.' The banquet room hushed. It was a remarkable moment. Here we had the Bay Area's most visible Asian American television personality calling a spade a spade. "
Outside that room and that community, few reporters in mainstream journalism had publicly discussed - let alone mentioned - what Wong calls "the Asian male news-anchor brouhaha." But as he writes in the East-West piece, the issue "isn't new, and it isn't receding into the background."
In fact, he tells us, at the first national Asian American Journalists Association convention, "the subject pervaded the hallway gossip among broadcast journalists." One Chinese American male television reporter said to Wong that "he was told by his news director, whom he described as a friend and mentor, why he would never anchor a news show.
" 'This guy said that when people see me on the screen, they see someone who does karate, or kung fu, someone aggressive and threatening.' " And in our typically contradictory culture, as Wong notes, people see Asian American men "as wimps, as having little or no sexuality."
Wong also talks directly with a "gutsy" Tokuda and comes to the conclusion that television producers, always looking for the "least offensive combination of anchoring talent," consider Asian women "exotic, or as objects of libidinous desires," and Asian men as "threatening or, worse, as non-entities."
Wong calls this "The Connie Chung Syndrome," which would be an amusing and revealing label if it weren't for Chung herself, famous in some communities for her neutrality toward (if not ignorance of) Asian American politics and history, as Wong explains in an eye-opening piece called "Kowtowing to the Queen."
Today a "sprinkling" of Asian American men do anchor TV news. But it's too bad such reports rarely if ever surface in mainstream media. If they had, readers might have considered the underlying issues while watching Connie Chung on TV. Eventually, instead of being aired in special interest newspapers like East-West News, the issues might have gained a more public forum.
So here's my question for veteran journalist Bill Wong:
With mainstream newspapers in the United States losing circulation and advertisers like crazy, why don't newspaper publishers seek new writers who would attract new readers from untapped sources - say, Latino, African American and especially "Asian America," which Wong has been covering for three decades?
"I'm not sure why newspapers aren't more aggressive about this," Wong said in an interview. "But they're missing a good bet, I think, because Asian American audiences are growing fast."
How fast? "When I started out as a reporter in the '70s, Asian Americans constituted less than one percent of the U.S. population, with the bulk of them coming from the Philippines, Japan and mainland China, and most of them living in California and Hawaii.
"Today, Asian Americans make up 4 percent of the population. They've come not only from mainland China, Japan and the Philippines but also from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, India, Hong Kong and Taiwan. They live everywhere in the United States, particularly Wisconsin, Massachusetts, south Florida and Iowa, and in cities ranging from Queens in New York to Dallas, Texas."
This is an "explosion" of an enormous readership base, Wong believes. It consists of immigrants, surely, but also of many generations of born-in-America "readers who would love to subscribe to mainstream media," says Wong, "if they found something of their own lives reflected as part of the general circulation."
Because they AREN'T reflected there, classic misunderstandings continue: Asian Americans are the "invisible minority" until they speak out or protest (about affirmative action, bilingual education, reparations for the Japanese American internment during World War II, for example), at which point their "mass identity" often becomes suspect.
For this reason it's great to see Bill Wong's piece in Salon.com - about as mainstream a 'zine one can find on the Internet - about a meeting in Silicon Valley to honor the liberal Democrat from San Jose, Assemblyman Mike Honda.
There Wong was surprised to note that several high-ranking conservative Asian Americans - for example, Ling-chi Wang, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California at Berkeley - were there to support Honda, even though they opposed Honda's bill demanding that the Japanese government apologize and pay for World War II atrocities."
This is an issue that's still "tearing apart Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans," Wong tells us, yet there are as many different perspectives on the issue as there are people arguing over it.
At the meeting in Silicon Valley, one could easily lose track of all the players, their personal politics, their "root country issues" and their community alliances. But Wong has a knack for guiding us through these tangled thickets in a conversational yet erudite manner that educates as well as entertains.
"Each part of the Asian American community has so many agendas and is so schizophrenic that you have to be careful of avoiding the stereotypes set by a celebrity culture or a USA Today mentality," Wong says.
"The truth is that patterns do emerge after you've looked through enough windows, and an instinct develops for understanding the nuances, which is what you expect of good journalism.
"I find myself interested in looking at the shadow angles without being inflammatory. Some people criticize me for not being more of a table pounder because commentators in the United States today are people who are sharp and assured. I'm assured in what I write, but not with a bullhorn."
This is a tough part for Holt Uncensored to take in. People are HANDING him the baseball bat and he's going for the quiet, nonsensational and respectful approach? Heavens, mainstream media, hire this man (and all the others like him)!
Re. Fred Sandsman's comments (#258)
I am one of the writers thrust into this America Online Time Warner rights grab, and it's gratifying to see such instant supportive reactions on holtuncensored.com. Fred Sandsman is right about the SUNSET magazine contract, but there is no consistency among AOL-TW magazine titles. Contract wording, up to now, appears to track from each magazine's origins. When the Lane family sold SUNSET, I believe that they sold it to Time, Inc., because there was, as yet, no Time Warner -- of if there was, Time was presumably considered the expert in magazine publishing.
Since then, the corporation has grown mightily AOL Time Warner (second-quarter earnings of $9.2 billion) now also owns Birmingham-based SPC (COOKING LIGHT, SOUTHERN LIVING, HEALTH which was just moved down there, etc.). COOKING LIGHT issues "first publication rights" contracts with very specific percentages of the original fee or the secondary rights fee going to the writer, who continues to retain the copyright. HEALTH, PARENTING and others issue similar contracts. These terms presumably predate AOL Time Warner's ownership. I am not sure why the Time4 Media group was selected for the new sledgehammer policies of a highly restrictive contract. AOL-TW is the fifth owner of SKIING since I have started writing for the publication. It is the first to try to force a work-for-hire contract upon writers.
Holt Responds: I see that a warning from the National Writers Union appeared on the NWU home page just last week. You can find "Don't Sigh AOL/Time-Warner Work for Hire" at www.nwu.org.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Speaking of AOL/Times Warner/CNN: I was recently doing freelance writing for AOL's Digital City website, which publishes on-line reviews of events in cities across the U.S. I accepted the extremely low pay because I had an interesting gig doing 150-word reviews of art exhibits (it got me out of my office.) Things were okay until they began asking freelancers to do free work! It was under the guise of "Hey, what are your favorite 'cheap eats' in your city?" I wrote back along the lines of "Hey, what are you paying for this information?" Of course they expected us to work for free, which I told them I was not willing to do for a for-profit megacorporation that practically owns the world. They offered to "cancel my contract," which I was happy to have them do. Such is their mindset.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I emailed Upstart Press, mentioning my displeasure with Amazon.com and noted that there were independent bookstores like Pegasus and Powell's that could do the job without contributing to the demise of independent and diverse information and book sources. This is what I got. I am now fuming quietly at their shortsightedness.
Amazon.com allows us to provide books to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists in six continents of the world. We know that people all over the world have purchased the book in this way because they have told us. Gay people in many foreign countries cannot purchase gay content books from their domestic bookstores. The Internet allows them to do this. Currently Amazon.com is offering 30% off the cost of the title that you refer to. I am not aware of any other online bookseller offering that discount. Hopefully this brings the book's cost within the reach of as many GLBT activists as possible.
While we understand the argument for not doing business with Amazon.com, a similar argument could be made for not buying Kraft cheese because it is owned by Philip Morris, or not watching a certain movie because it used nonunion actors. At the end of the day one makes a decision as to whether you want a unique resource, the result of hundreds of hours of someone's labor, to be available to gays and lesbians all over the world or not... Upstart Press decided that we did...
I wrote back with the following to Upstart:
Thank you for your reply, but I respectfully could not disagree with you more. Your answer seems to imply that because Kraft is everywhere, as is union busting there, is little we can do about it and should just accept the convenience that Amazon and other similar large firms offer. This is terribly shortsighted and is just the kind of thing that gives queers a bad name with other communities that suffer discrimination for going our own way and not being very concerned about what happens to them.
I would like to recommend a book for you to examine for an explanation of why convenience can be extremely problematic. It is called Fast Food Nation and deals with this countries love affair with McDonalds and other fast food franchises that has suppressed wage, created a deliberately deskilled workforce, debilitated the health of those who eat it and helped put large numbers of American (and other) farmers out of business. All for the sake of convenience.
I would also suggest that using online independent bookstores does not mean access "to a unique resource" will be limited. As for the 30 discount, that is wonderful in the short term, but what about the long term. Wal-Mart does the same thing by offering massive discounts until they have put all the neighboring business's out of operation. Then they jack their prices up. Once again cheap means that someone else is hurt. Someone that could be an ally.
I sincerely hope you reconsider what I would argue is a deeply flawed and short sighted strategy.
Holt responds: I used I agree with Upstart - publishers and authors have to sell their books through all available channels - but by this time thank heaven enough channels have opened to give even folks like Upstart a choice.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I share your opinions regarding these "obscene advances" [of money given by publishers to celebrity authors], both as reader and as a novelist. I wonder how many deserving writers will remain unpublished because of the money wasted on these celebrities? I also wonder how much the Clintons' ghost writers will be paid. $2,500, is my guess.
All this reinforces my view that "Big Imprint" publishing is an almost-exclusive club populated by rich, greedy people who congregate behind the door, so as to bar it against impertinent upstarts who want to get in, and - most especially - to keep it firmly shut against new writers who might actually be good and different, because such works would only show up formulaic hacks as the literary drivel that they really are.
Thank goodness for independent publishers - like mine, Barclay Books - and for independent booksellers, who can recognize drivel when they read it.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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