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Image of Asian Americans and Asians in US Media

Geoff Cowan

The issue that I am personally most interested is the image of Asian Americans, Asia and Asians in the American media.

In fairness, the media never portrays anybody the way they want to be portrayed. It's simply a truism that everybody feels that the media is unfair. But I think the media has been particularly unfair in its treatment of Asians and particularly of Asians in this country.

I know that this is a sore point with many people who feel it most profoundly. It was true a couple of years ago in the campaign-finance scandal stories. It turned out that a lot of people had given money improperly to President Clinton's campaign and to other officials and candidates. But there was a huge emphasis on the number of donors who came from Asia.

This in turn led to -- and we know it -- to discriminatory treatment at the places where those people work. And it led to discriminatory kind of investigations. It is something that I know people throughout the Asian American community in this country feels deeply about.

Last year, I went to the annual conference of the International Communication Association up in San Francisco. One of the sessions was called the Roundtable Discussion of the Western Media Coverage of China. People there felt passionately about what's happening, including a number of our own students from Asia, who were energized by this issue and deeply wounded by this issue and even that preceded Wen Ho Lee.

When Wen Ho Lee targeted by the government, many of the media's stories about him only referred to him as 'Chinese.' But consider: Who in the media today would say so-and-so target was a 'black' target or a 'Jewish' target or any other ethnic group target?

There is a serious lack of knowledge in the American press. There's this assumption that, well, he is Chinese, so of course he's going to give the secrets to the Chinese government. They don't ever stop to think, 'Hey, wait a minute, he is Taiwanese,' and so wouldn't Beijing be the least likely group for him to give secrets to if you want to focus on a person's country of origins as a way of determining motive? Duh.

But, too many people in the American media too often don't to have that level of sophistication and they tend to go on without reflection. In the end, the prosecutor said they thought he was collecting information and is trying to sell it to a foreign government. What foreign government? Was it the Swiss? The Australians? Who? Why probably the Chinese. Because he was Taiwanese?!?

This is not a new topic. ... In fact the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a current exhibition up on it now called [Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 19002000]. We know how much discrimination there has been against Asians in California particularly. Through this last century, you see many times Asians who were treated very badly by the media in this country.

They have endured very painful experiences that sometimes are not well remembered by people today. It is very important for us to study this issue, just as we studied the way African Americans are portrayed or Latinos are portrayed or Jews are portrayed or other groups are portrayed. Indeed, as women are portrayed maybe even the way Conservative Christians are portrayed.

The news media in America needs to be more aware of the impact it is having, because it has a real direct effect on people, on the public policies affecting them, and on the way they get discriminated against in the workplace.

To be sure, by the same token, we need to study the ways in which the Asian media are treating the United States. Because often the US is portrayed in a way that contains similar kind of caricatures and it's not good for any of us.

Certainly in Washington, there is a certain syndrome that takes place: You do tend to respond to the press. In the spy case, what probably happened is that there were people in the government who deliberately gave the story to the press maybe because they think that the government investigation into alleged spying by China was going to slowly. Then the press ran with the story, and of course wouldn't disclose the investigators' names or the frustrated officials' names because they were protecting their sources. But that journalistic tradition also makes it impossible for anybody involved in what they were saying to check it really carefully.

Then the US press --- in particularly here I blame the editorial page Of The New York Times --- says that the government is going at it much to slowly in prosecuting this. The government feels the media pressure, So Sandy Berger goes to Face the Nation, or Meet the Press, and is asked by a journalist on nationwide TV: "Are you not going to do something about this?" And they feel the pressure to do something.

Sure, the source-press relationship is not new and has been a symbiotic relationship for a long time. But it's one for which I think the press must begin to take more responsibility.

(Asia Pacific Media Network 01/12/2001)

(Geoff Cowan, former Voice of America director, now dean of the Annenberg School for Mass Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California)

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