By Assunta Ng
The news business is full of conflict. I have lived through a lot of it in the past 30 years. I strive for win-win situations. But, no matter how hard I try, the result is not always favorable.
Most of the conflicts arise from the question, “To publish or not to publish?”
The mainstream media believes in this mantra: If it sells papers, print it. If the paper gets hate mail, it’s a good thing because people are reading and watching. They have the audience’s attention.
I don’t usually go by this rule because there are unforeseen factors to consider. I know my journalistic colleagues will criticize me for that, but the Asian American community is different.
The Asian American community only comprises about six percent of Washington’s population, but it still has its share of controversy, drama, and surprises. It is also very interconnected.
By printing one story, you risk angering not just a family, but an entire clan which could include advertisers and readers.
Most importantly, the community is not unified. Each Asian segment has its own culture, values, and beliefs. No one person can claim that they speak for the entire Asian community.
Perspectives vary between Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indian Americans, and other API groups. The line between Asian immigrants and American-born is also distinct. Then, there are the great generation differences in our community.
My first test was in 1983 after the Wah Mee Massacre when 13 people were murdered in a gambling den in Seattle’s Chinatown. It was one of the worst killings in American history and is still the deadliest mass murder ever in Washington.
KIRO-TV showed the crime scene with the bodies still lying on the floor. If Kiro could do it, I thought, we can too.
That assumption brought angry letters from Asian American readers, accusing us of being insensitive towards the victims’ families. I felt guilty printing the photos.
Years later, I had a chance to speak to some of the family members of the victims. To my surprise, even within the family, the mother and son couldn’t agree on whether I should have published the photo or not. The victims’ families who supported the idea were curious about the location because they had never ventured into the gambling club. Our picture was the only source of information that they had showing where their loved ones were in the final moments of their lives.
The lesson I learned was that, whatever we do, we can’t please everyone. What the public doesn’t understand is that a newspaper’s goal is not to please. Our mission is to provide information, especially that which is hard to come by, so our readers can have a comprehensive picture of the story.
“If you please everyone, you are not a newspaper,” said Charles Herrmann, an attorney. “You are simply a PR (public relations) newsletter.”
We are not asking for our readers’ permission when we present a controversial story. We just want the story to be fair and to inform readers. Period.
Another controversial story was the food stamp fraud that happened a few years ago. While other Asian media outlets didn’t even bother mentioning it, we published a story, complete with interviews from the accused. It was a difficult story because we knew the owners well and they were our advertisers.
Of course, the consequences for printing an unpopular story include losing advertisers. Some of them still stare at me with harsh, unforgiving eyes whenever I encounter them at community events.
What the public isn’t aware of is that we also step in on behalf of the community. When mainstream television reported the food stamp fraud in the International District for consecutive weeks, we questioned their motives for targeting the Asian community. Why didn’t they focus on the fraud happening outside the ID? I am sure there are more cases of fraud, but the ID seemed to be an easy target.
I have to confess that there were times when I used my heart instead of my head. Once, a son murdered his father. A family member called me to request that I not print the story. She knew my answer would be “no.” However, she begged me not to identify the victim as the son of a prominent family for fear that the news would cause some elderly relatives heart attacks. Had the mainstream media knew about the connection, they would have released it regardless of her plea. Feeling compassion for the family’s ordeal, I made an exception for her.
Another interesting episode was when one of my staff members made a mistake typing the name of an accomplice of a murder. They changed the name to that of a prominent Kung Fu master because the names were similar. Although we printed a big apology notice and my staff went to apologize in person, even giving him a bottle of wine, the master, after drinking the wine, wouldn’t forgive us. He demanded that I hold a dinner to apologize to him in front of community leaders.
I flatly rejected the idea because it seemed like he was exploiting us for his own ego and publicity. A newspaper often made typo errors due to tight deadlines. Legally, we have no obligation to do anything except print a correction.
We cannot tell every story
Not everything I do is about writing stories and presenting controversy. Sometimes, I have avoided stories so that I could help others in a more constructive way.
Staff from a government agency once complained to me about internal problems and the lack of diversity at their workplace. Coincidentally, one of the board members (without knowing that the agency’s staff had approached me) invited me to lunch to pick my brain on diversity. I was able to nail the problem with my background knowledge. Recently, I learned that the staff is now happy with the policy and budget changes.
I still remember some Asian immigrant employees approaching me about their boss’ unfair practices. The company they worked for actually has a good reputation. The problem had more to do with internal communication issues due to the language barrier between the boss and employees.
Sure, we could have done a story. But was that the best solution for them? A story would have likely cost them their jobs. Finally, I wrote an anonymous letter in English for them, so their boss could understand some of the employees’ concerns.
Sometimes, someone will come to us with a great tip for an investigative report that we just don’t have the resources to cover. I know that their tips would make great stories, but we wouldn’t have the resources to do it well. In those instances, we refer our sources to the Seattle Times.
Was there a particular conflict that almost broke the Asian Weekly? Yes. (end)
Part two coming next week.