The Crucible  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   May 1999

The Crucible   

Reporting on their own ethnic groups can be an excruciating challenge for minority journalists. Does it bring about better coverage?

By Gigi Anders
Gigi Anders is a freelance writer and the author of the upcoming memoir "JUBANA! Confessions of a Jewish Cubana Goddess."     

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EVERYTHING DEPENDS UPON the nature of the story and the reporter. Feature writers aren't Metro writers aren't sportswriters. There are temperaments and interests that lend themselves more fluidly to certain slots, and transcend race and sex. Good editors are the first to recognize that.
"Different kinds of people will bring you different kinds of things," Seibel says. "But this is a funny conversation to be having because we rarely say, `We have to send a white reporter out.' It all hangs on what you want from the story. You try to hire the person who's got the skills to cover the story in the manner you want it covered and get the job done."
"I believe that the premium ought to be placed on knowledge," says Coleman, "not skin color. If I'm an editor, I want to send my best, most knowledgeable and effective reporter to the scene. The one who brings a specialty to the table, not by carte blanche or fiat, but by expertise, just as David Broder does when he covers politics."
Fair enough. But when Juan Tamayo covers Cuban American politics, he could probably use a hard hat and some body armor. The Miami Herald foreign correspondent, who's Cuban by birth, goes through the same angst-filled dilemma every time he sits down to write a story, and it never gets any easier.
"I'm constantly questioning myself," Tamayo says, "in order to make sure I'm not bending over backward being too hard on Cubans, and then checking to make sure I'm not being too soft. If I'm critical of Cuba, then I must be a right-wing Miami exile crazy out to screw Castro. That's what non-Cubans outside the Cuban milieu and Cubans living in Havana think.
"If I'm willing to look at Cuba on its own two feet, then I'm accused by the Miami Cuban crowd of being a self-hating Cuban and la mano larga de Fidel Castro [the long hand of Fidel Castro]. I wind up debating this thing for, like, five or six hours in every story because it's so highly emotional and involved. Ultimately, I make the right decision. But it causes mental stress of six hours."
Politically charged Miami and the fetish of Cuba represent a special case. You can debate the politics all year long, and people do; that's totally expected and acceptable. Tamayo can deal with that. He can cope with the obnoxious "You traitor!" letters and the nasty "You sell-out!" phone calls. All reporters of color receive those from time to time. What isn't as easy to shrug off and what really gets under Tamayo's skin is when people in and out of the newsroom challenge his integrity and fairness as a journalist because of his heritage.
The "you're-only-saying-that-because-you're-Cuban" attitude.
"That hurts the most," Tamayo acknowledges. "Suddenly you see your journalism standards questioned in ways you never felt before. And to some degree, that's racist, pure and simple. It can get ugly. That's why I think my job is one of the most mentally demanding, because it pulls me and pushes me in such awful ways. It's tough on me and tugs at my heart."
That's a high price to pay, but it's the built-in seesaw that ethnic reporters ride every day. The support balancing the ups and downs is that the Tamayos of the newsroom have an innate cultural advantage--in his case, for covering Cuba. If you grasp an issue or a community from the inside out because you were raised in that culture--especially a complex, argumentative one--chances are you've got a head start and will nail it forcefully.
It's that cultural tripwire thing you have to be prepared for, what Tamayo's Herald colleague Liz Balmaseda calls "getting muscled" by sources just because you're of the same ethnicity. The Cuban-born columnist learned that lesson the hard way nearly a decade ago, when she wrote a column called "Cuban Men: They Just Don't Get It." The openly critical piece took Cubanos to task for their sexist, macho-man ways, for infantilizing Cuban females, regardless of age, by calling them "mamita" (little mama) and "muchachita" (little girl). The column ran and...BOOM. All hell broke loose.
"I didn't anticipate it at all," Balmaseda recalls. "I think I was naive about it. I felt the protection of a byline, sitting in a little office. I thought I could write what I feel and be firm about it. I was finding my own voice, shooting from the hip and thinking, `Who's gonna know?' I mean, whether they liked it or not, I was not going to write like una vieja que vino hace mil a–os de Cuba [an old lady who came a thousand years ago from Cuba].
"So it was, like, quiet, quiet, quiet--and then The Noise. It went from C-SPAN in my mind to Jerry Springer in reality. I thought they were gonna rip their wigs and shirts off! My God, every Cuban male in Miami was insulted! They totally proved my point! Then they had their little secretaries fax me, and they called my editors. I got branded a traitor by the Cuban exile political establishment. It was a real eye-opener."
Later on, in a small local Spanish-language tabloid, the headline read: ÁBALMASEDA COMUNISTA! "Which is funny," Balmaseda says. "It was scary at the time, though. I was being pressured to be `more Cuban.' I'm from Hialeah. How much more Cuban can you get?"
For Balmaseda, that headline meant that she was expected to revere the testicular octopus of Cuban masculinity, including all its hard-line tentacles: the strong right-wing voices on the radio, the militantly anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, the embargo.
"My mom always goes, `Why can't you write about nice things?' She just worries because the reactions I get are so violent. She's like, `Please be careful when you go out, Elizabeth.' But I don't get scorned in public at all. The stuff I get, a lot of it is just cowardice. I try not to let it bother me anymore. If it's anonymous, then to me that's not dialogue. That's like keeping daggers close to your heart."
"Some people always find fault with something you write," says Kevin Merida. "Me, I take criticism seriously. Maybe I didn't see something. I'm not infallible. But I must say, I find that I get an awful lot of calls from black folks who appreciate what I do, who say I bring something different to the section. And I'm appreciative of that support. I feel extra good when it's a black caller. It's gratifying when it's someone from my own neighborhood."
"I think it's important to listen to our readers," agrees Nora Villagrán, a feature writer at the San Jose Mercury News. "I have no problem being criticized. That's how you learn."
That criticism cuts both ways, however. In one column, Villagrán, who is Mexican American, wrote about how her daughter Lisa, then a high schooler, felt confused by an American culture that adored Mexican food, Mexican jewelry and the movie "La Bamba," yet simultaneously seemed to so dislike the people who make those cultural contributions. The response to that one was a sheepish "Oh-my-God-you're right!"--as contrasted with the flip-side hit Villagrán took from readers of Irish descent when she guilelessly used the word "Anglo" in an arts story delineating whites from Hispanics.
"I got literary rug burns on that one, and deservedly," Villagran recollects. "It slipped right past me and my editor. To me, `Anglo' and `white' were interchangeable words. William Safire may disagree with me, but here in San Jose where the sun shines, I don't have to meet his wrath. `Anglo' worked for me. But I was contacted by a group of Irish Americans who told me how historically they've suffered at the hands of the English, and they hate them with good reason. `Imagine what it feels like for us to be called Anglos.'
"I'm going, `Oh my God, I've become the lingual oppressor!' I felt terrible,'' Villagrán says. "But I was grateful because it was a real wake-up call."
OK. But doesn't there ever come a point where you just have to let it go? Where people's cultural sensitivities are just too...sensitive? Don't most people realize the term "Anglo" is simply descriptive, not pejorative?
"Well, we don't call Native Americans `Indians' anymore," Villagrán counters. "Unless they want to be. I think people have a right to be called what they want to be called. We don't call Randy Shilts [the late gay San Francisco Chronicle reporter who was among the first to report on AIDS], who covered the biggest fire story of all, anything but gay--if that. We just call him a journalist. I like accuracy. Journalists need to be careful wordsmiths. Words have great power. I hesitate to call anybody oversensitive, because it's all so subjective."
"I think we can be oversensitive--and ignorant," says Chuck Stone, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "Look at what happened with D.C.'s mayor, Tony Williams, and his aide [David Howard, who resigned in January when his use of the word "niggardly" to describe how he'd manage a fund's tight budget angered a group of city employees]. It shows the ubiquitous semantic ignorance of society. It's up to journalists to correct that, and yet we're the ones who need to keep the sensitivity levels at the forefront."
Stone, who is black, says that while race-blind assignments are always preferable, there's a certain "propinquity of ethnicity" (i.e., less wariness, more candor) when it's black-on-black reporting. Interestingly, when he was a Philadelphia Daily News columnist in 1986, there was, he says, virtually no reaction when he wrote that Jesse Jackson was "a theological Superfly."
"And he is!" says Stone, laughing. "He's a very successful hustler."
And a very attentive reader. Jackson immediately telephoned Stone to complain. As Stone remembers it, Jackson said, "Brother Chuck, I'm upset. I thought you were my friend." "You should be glad I wrote what I did, Jess," Stone replied. "At least I called you `theological.' "
Jackson did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"I call it like I see it," Stone says with a shrug. "I'm not gonna back down or take something back just because a brother or two were troubled by it."
"It can get hostile," Liz Balmaseda says. "HOS-tile. You have to watch yourself because you can get baited by this stuff. Inside it can really push some buttons. You wonder about getting portrayed by readers as some militant out there."
Balmaseda says her initial tensions with the Cubanos pale in comparison to when she writes about language. Although she's unapologetically "anti-English-only," she knows she's going to have a hot debate on her hands every time she propounds her views. In part because the reality where she lives and works is that you've got to have Spanish in order to have access to the political players who count. And there are Anglos, er, make that non-Spanish speakers, who take mordant offense at that.
" `Swamp nigger, get back on your banana boat and go home!', swastikas painted on hate-mail stationery, you name it, I've heard it and seen it," Balmaseda says. "Now, if we're going to debate with respect, that's one thing. But the minute I hear, `You Goddamn Cubans', no one can make me talk. It's like, `This conversation is over.' CLICK."

INTERNAL THRESHOLDS notwithstanding, what makes minority reporters want to explore minorities in the first place is an initial fascination with that culture that's genuine. Once you begin with that level of interest, you sit with a writer's eye, almost like an outsider, as if you're having an out-of-body experience. You detach and watch yourself there. It can be a poignant adventure.
It certainly has been for Julie Tamaki, who learned as much about herself as she did about the other Japanese Americans she covered for the Los Angeles Times' Valley edition. And many of the lessons were emotionally wrenching. In particular, stories she wrote about the Japanese American internment experience during World War II, as well as the experiences of Japanese American soldiers fighting in the Korean War, resonated powerfully.
"My own family has tried to guard me, to some degree, about the painful things they went through," says Tamaki, now a Times real estate writer. "So these stories--which I wanted to do--were chances to learn not only about the Asian American community but about what my family went through. My dad was an American soldier who fought in the Korean War, and he was a POW. My mother and her family were interned during World War II, and the process of reporting and writing shed light about their experiences. It helped us talk about it. That's one of the reasons I think minority reporters should not shy away from covering their own communities. You can gain a lot of wisdom."
Indeed, given the still relatively tiny numbers of ethnic reporters and editors working at American dailies, Tamaki, Balmaseda and Merida concur that there's no such thing as "too many" minority stories.
Tamaki: "My editors were very supportive of my decision to start covering the Asian community in the Valley. Recently, the paper as a whole has launched an effort to increase its Latino coverage, and that's been a good thing. It means a lot to members of the community to see themselves being reflected in our pages. I once wrote a story about Asian American youths and their search for identity. It became clear to me that many felt invisible and isolated because they were so underrepresented in this society's popular culture."
Balmaseda: "You never run out of good ethnic stories. You only run out of time."
Merida: "I never worry about doing too many black stories. The black community is too complex and sophisticated to be one giant blob plopped down in one geographical position. So it bothers me when people lump it together as an either-or thing; that cheapens what we're doing.
"I'm trying to chronicle the wide range of what is happening and provide an authentic mix. It's not death-destruction-mayhem-pathology or else glowing soulfulness. It's a mosaic. I've seen too many colleagues obsessed, who fret internally and wring their hands about feeling pigeonholed by editors who see a need to fill. They're worried about some career-strangling mechanism kicking in when they're doing stories they love. I say we are doing some good, juicy, amazing work. If you always focus on doing tremendous work, work that excites you, you'll be all right."

WHO DECIDES WHAT constitutes a good story? Sometimes an idea that seems worthwhile right out of the box merits further conversation, some fine-tuning or midcourse adjustment. Not because--with apologies to Balmaseda--White Editors: They Just Don't Get It, but because, says Peter Hong, the premise of the story is banal or sensational, not approached thoughtfully.
For example, there was a recent newsroom discussion at the Los Angeles Times about a story on Koreans who like to eat dogs. There was an outcry from reporters who said that running such a piece was inherently demeaning. Hong, who himself has partaken of that canine delicacy in Korea--"it tasted like dark meat turkey"--says that that story is demeaning only if you accept the America-centric notion that eating dogs is something bad to do.
The story idea was canned. "I think what happened on that one was that the news angle didn't work out," he says. "But if a story is true and has a point, I have no problem covering it."
"That story was pitched in the wrong way," says the University of North Carolina's Stone. "And nobody on that staff was smart enough to realize that, because they are stupid. That's how dumb white people are, and Hong's buying into it. You take it to the next step and go beyond, you transcend it. The regional multiculturalism of gastronomy is a hell of a story! But nobody thought of it."
"Well, Chuck Stone redefined that story," says the Oregonian's Rowe. "And he's absolutely right. That might have been a great, interesting story on ethnic approaches to cuisine. But I think what we're really talking about here is that this is just a further acknowledgment of how hard race is to talk about in newsrooms and in society."
For his part, Hong believes that no group, minority or otherwise, has a monopoly on brilliant ethnic story ideas or on clichŽ-busting. The way he sees it, unintentionally prejudiced stories often make their way into newsprint. One side effect of what he sees as the industry's bigger problem of racial cluelessness, in his view, is benevolent editors' reluctance to appear politically incorrect. What editors should be, he thinks, is what we all should be: journalistically correct.
"We as minorities are as likely to posit stereotypes as anybody else," Hong says, "and they creep in. A minority reporter might say to her editor, `Men in my culture--Asian Americans--are very sexist, and there's a whole set of pressures on Asian American women as a result.' But that in itself is loaded with all kinds of stereotypes. Or it's rooted in stereotype. All cultures are fundamentally sexist and tyrannical. But the editor may not want to question this view because there's an automatic authenticity conferred to a minority reporter. I think that dumb story ideas pitched by any reporter, including a minority, should be met with more editorial resistance."
"I think there needs to be a reason for doing stories," says Rowe, "no matter what they are. If your questions as an editor are going to be, `What's the purpose? Why is this news? Why would our readers care?'--those are asked of any idea. Tough questioning ought to be at the heart and core of a newsroom. And those who are offended by that process ought to perhaps be in another business."
To be editorially rigorous, Hong believes, means that editors must be able to say, "Prove it." And not because the reporter has some cultural insider knowledge; if he's confident enough, he should have no problem proving it through research, reporting, anecdotes and interviews. "No one should be spared that burden of proof," Hong says. "While being an Asian American might give me a certain expertise--been there, done that--it doesn't inoculate me from stereotyping people."
"God, that's stupid!" says Stone. "Hong is stereotyping the minority, and that's unspeakably outrageous. Anything I do as a minority reporter in my domain is going to be better. As a Korean American, he should be saying, `I own this community, and no white reporter is going to scoop me.' "
Hong might have said and done just that--if only he'd been on staff at the Washington Post in 1991 and '92, when non-Asian Post reporter Joel Garreau wrote an affecting 12-part series on the lives of Korean immigrants. Hong--who gets into arguments with his mother all the time because she's "romantic about immigration and thinks that Koreans have more undesirable characteristics than white people"--says Garreau's stories were the best he had seen about Hong's own people.
"Garreau didn't go for the rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger stuff," Hong says. "He talked to people and really listened. He found lives of great disappointment. The profusion of little grocery stores is about a response to employment discrimination. He was speaking honestly and not using Koreans as tools. I know Garreau doesn't speak more than three words of Korean, but he's being a damn good journalist."
Why didn't a Korean American reporter scoop Garreau? Simple. In the early '90s, that was a nonissue; there weren't too many Asian faces of any kind in mainstream newsrooms. And of the few who were present, how many had the experience and were given the opportunity and the time necessary to pursue such a series?
"The best stories about blacks have been written by blacks," says Stone. "And any white editor who tells me to `prove it' is a racist. Garreau was able to do this preeminent assignment because he was there and he had the chops and he had no competition. Do editors treat white reporters differently? Of course they do! Of the 1,495 dailies in this country, 95 percent have white editors. Hong--who owes his job to black people, by the way--ought to be asking himself, `Why isn't a Korean American the publisher or editor of a major paper in America?' Because Koreans are dumber than whites? Are they less qualified? Part of the culture of racism in which this guy operates is that Koreans are just not hired! Wasn't that made abundantly clear in Garreau's series? I feel a sense of sorrow for Hong, because he doesn't understand how much our society discriminates against him."
Indeed, if Rowe were to trash a story proposed by someone in the Portland business community, she says she wouldn't think twice. But with minorities, there's greater concern because "there is an extra layer, and there could be charges and counter-charges. A white person like me feels you could be misinterpreted. There are no more serious charges to level at somebody than to call them a racist. That's the most damning condemnation you can give somebody. People rightly fear that. And the sad thing about it is that just goes hand in hand with the difficulty of addressing it. That's not an excuse, but it's the hand we've been dealt. How do we play that hand? How do we allow for true intellectual dissent without assuming that someone doesn't care?"
And, speaking of dissenters, Hong's and Stone's clashingly divergent points of view do converge at two key intersections: Both agree that it's every reporter's job to cover everything and everybody, and that minorities can't work as journalists if they can't figure out how to relate to whites.
"I had to train myself in order to do my job effectively," says Hong, "to fit in in the worlds of older white men and learn to get along with those people."
"Me too," says Stone. "Me-ee too. That's why I go around in a crew cut and three-piece Brooks Brothers suits. This is a country run by a Committee. I want to belong to it."
But many older white guys can learn to understand minorities better, too. Steve Jetton, the Houston Chronicle's assistant managing editor for local news, says that whenever he's in doubt while he's editing a potentially sensitive story, he checks in with an ethnic colleague for feedback. Two red flags are better than one.
"A black, Hispanic or Asian American editor might tell me, `Look, this is offensive,' " Jetton explains, "over something that might go right over my head. I value those opinions. And I think they don't mind my asking for guidance. It's a strength minority journalists bring to their jobs. I press them because I respect their abilities enough to ask those questions." It's a beginning.

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