is proud to present the adventures of Ben
Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster,
and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. This
guy's our hero! Ben was a featured character in the movie "Almost
Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron
been more than 15 years since I wrote an article called "Why Asian
Men Can't Make it to the Top in TV News." It ran in the San Francisco
Chronicle, then in East West, a bilingual weekly based in Chinatown,
and was also reprinted in a book, Men's Lives, in 1989.
I've also received
requests over the past few years from university professors wanting
to use it in their classes. This tells me that little has changed
on the television landscape since that article first appeared.
Rick Quan, weekend
sports anchor on KPIX-San Francisco, has said that it was that article
that inspired him to seek an anchor position in the Bay Area. He
was doing sports in Honolulu when he read the piece and began writing
letters to news directors quoted in the story. "I wanted them to
know there WAS somebody out there who could do these things," he
He got a job
at KPIX in 1987, as a sports reporter and fill-in for the weekend
sports anchor. Later, he became the weekend anchor, but, despite
the departures of the station's top sportscasters, has been unable
to land the full-time anchor slot, except for a short stint in which
he shared it with another staffer.
And so, despite
the date of the article, and the many changes that have taken place
with the participants, it's unfortunately as revelant as ever. Courtesy
of AsianConnections, here it is.
published by East West, July 17, 1986, originally appeared, in a
slightly different form, in the Sunday Datebook section of the San
Asian Anchors Missing on Television
by Ben Fong-Torres
the best-known Asian TV newswoman in the country, is a co-anchor
of 1986, a prime-time show on NBC. Ken Kashiwahara, the best-known
Asian TV newsman, has been chief of ABC's San Francisco bureau for
seven years; his reports pop up here and there on ABC's newscasts
and other news-related programs.
the best-known Asian TV newswoman in the Bay Area, is a co-anchor
of KPIX evening news. David Louie, the most established Asian TV
newsman, is a field reporter, covering the Peninsula for KGO.
And that's the
way it is: among Asian American broadcasters, the glamour positions--the
anchor chairs, whose occupants earn more than $500,000 a year in
the major markets--go to the women; the men are left outside, in
the field, getting by on reporters' wages that top out at about
The four Bay
Area television stations that present regular newscasts (Channels
2, 4, 5 and 7) em-ploy more than 40 anchors. Only two are Asian
Americans: Tokuda and Emerald Yeh, a KRON co-anchor on weekends.
There is no Asian male in an anchor position, and there has never
been one. Other Asian women who have anchored locally are LindaYu
[KGO] and Kaity Tong [KPIX], now prime-time anchors in Chicago and
None of the
two dozen broadcasters this reporter spoke to could name a male
Asian news anchor working anywhere in the United States.
a TV talent headhunter whose job it has been for four years to help
television stations find anchors and reporters, maintains a video
library of 9000 people on the air in the top 150 markets.
There are, in
fact, several reasons proposed by broadcasters, station executives,
talent agents and others.
Asian men have
been connected for generations with negative stereotypes. Asian
women have also been saddled with false images, but, according to
Tokuda, "In this profession, they work for women and against men."
are perceived as attractive partners for the typical news anchor:
a white male. "TV stations;" says Henry Der, director of Chinese
for Affirmative Action, "have discovered that having an Asian female
with a white male is an attractive combination." And, adds Sam Chu
Lin, a former reporter for both KRON and KPIX, "they like the winning
formula. If an Asian woman works in one market, then another market
duplicates it. So why test for an Asian male?"
allow television stations to fulfill two equal-opportunity slots
with one hiring. As Mario Machado, a Los Angeles-based reporter
and producer puts it, "They get two minorities in one play of the
cards. They hit the jackpot."
are typically encouraged by parents toward careers in the sciences
and away from communications.
are few Asian men on the air, younger Asian males have no racial
peers as role models. With few men getting into the profession,
news directors have a minuscule talent pool from which to hire.
to Sumi Haru, a producer at KTLA in Los Angeles, the situation is
worsening as stations are being purchased and taken over by large
corporations. At KTTV, the ABC affiliate, she says, "The affirmative
action department was the first to go." At her own station, her
public affairs department is being trimmed. "We're concerned with
what little Asian representation we have on the air," said Haru,
an officer of the Association of Asian-Pacific American Artists.
a communications major at UC Berkeley now working in Washington,
DC, made the missing Asian anchorman the subject of her honors thesis.
Chang spoke with Asian anchorwomen in Los Angeles, Chicago and New
York as well as locally. "To capsulize the thesis," she says, "it
is an executive decision based on a perception of an Asian image.
On an executive decision level, the image of the Asian woman is
"It's such a
white bread medium; it's the survival of the blandest," says a male
Asian reporter who asked to remain anonymous. A native San Franciscan,
this reporter once had ambitions to be an anchor, but after several
static years at his station, "I've decided to face reality. I have
a white man's credentials, but it doesn't mean a thing. I'm not
white. How can it not be racism?"
"Racism is a
strong word that scares people," says Tokuda. "But whatever's going
on here is some ugly animal. It's not like segregation in the south.
What it is is very subtle ... bias."
To Mario Machado,
it's not that subtle. Machado, who is half Chinese and half Portuguese,
is a former daytime news anchor in Los Angeles who's had the most
national television exposure after Kashiwahara. Being half-Chinese,
he says, has given him no advantage in getting work. "It's had no
bearing at all. There's a move on against Asians, period, whether
part-Asian or full-Asian."
he charges, "don't really want minority males to be totally successful.
They don't want minority men perceived as strong, bright, and articulate.
We can be cute second bananas, like Robert Ito on Quincy. But having
an Asian woman--that's always been the feeling from World War II,
I guess. You bring back an Asian bride, and she's cute and delicate.
But a strong minority man with authority and conviction--I don't
think people are ready for that."
news director at KPIX, agrees that "for a lot of people, the World
War II image of Japanese, unfortunately, is the operative image
about what Asian males are all about."
says Serena Chen, producer and host of Asians Now! on KTVU, was
one of danger. "They may be small, but they're strong. So watch
out, white women!"
war and recent movies like Rambo, Machado says, add to the historic
negativity. "You never went to war against Asian women," he says.
"You always went to war against Asian men."
Tokuda, Asian men are saddled with a twin set of stereotypes. "They're
either wimpy--they have real thick glasses and they're small and
they have an accent and they're carrying a lot of cameras--or they're
a murderous gangster."
"Or," says Les
Kumagai, a former KPIX intern now working for a Reno TV station,
"they're businessmen who are going to steal your jobs."
reporter Vic Lee listens to a tally of stereotypes and images associated
with Asian men. "All those reasons limit where an Asian American
can work. I've always said to my wife, if I'm fired here, there're
only a couple of cities I can go to and get a job based on how well
I do my work, not how I look or what color my skin is. They are
cities with large Asian American populations, and you can count
them on one hand: Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and possibly
Washington. The rest of the country? You might as well forget Detroit.
They killed a [Chinese] guy just 'cause he looked Japanese." Lee
is referring to Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death by two white
auto workers who mistook him for a Japanese and blamed him for their
to the threatening Asian male, says Les Kumagai, "Females are `exotic.'
They're not threatening to non-Asian females and they're attractive
to non-Asian males. You're looking to draw the 18-to-45-year-old
female demographic for advertising. You just won't get that draw
from an Asian male."
To Tokuda, the
Asian woman's persisting stereotype is more insidious than exotic.
"It's the Singa-pore girl: not only deferential but submissive.
It's right next to the geisha girl."
At KGO, says
one newsroom employee, "somebody in management was talking about
[recently hired reporter] Janet Yee and blurted out, `Oh, she's
so cute.' They don't care about her jour-nalistic credentials...
That type of thinking still persists."
who worked in Portland and at CNN in Atlanta before joining KRON,
says she's asked constantly about the part being an Asian woman
played in her landing a job. "The truth is that it's a factor, but
at the same time, there is absolutely no way I can keep my job virtually
by being Asian."
tough competition for jobs in television, Yeh, like Tokuda and several
peers in Los Angeles, is vocal about the need to open doors to Asian
men. "People think Asians have done so well," she says," but how
can you say that if one entire gender group is hardly visible?"
a director at KTVU who got into television work some 30 years ago
at Channel 5, has a theory of his own. "The Asian male," he says,
"is not as aggressive as the Asian female. In this business you
have to be more of an extrovert. Men are a little more passive."
Fitzpatrick agrees. "Watching my tapes, women in general are much
more aggressive than men.... My theory on that is that--say a boy
and girl both want to get into television, and they have identical
SATs and grade point averages. Speakers tell them, you'll go to
Chico or Medford and start out making $17,000 to $18,000 a year.
A guy will say, 'This is bull. If I stay in school and get into
accounting or law...' And they have a career change. A woman will
go to Chico or Medford and will get into LA or New York."
"In Helen Chang's
paper," recalls Tokuda, "she mentions the way Asian parents have
channeled boys with a narrow kind of guidance."
kids," says Tokuda, "right after the war, there was a lot of pressure
on kids to get into society, on being quiet and working our way
back in." In Seattle, she says, "I grew up with a whole group of
Asian American men who from the time they were in junior high knew
they were going to be doctors--or at least that they were gonna
be successful. There was research that showed that they were very
good in math and sciences and not good in verbal skills. With girls
there's much less pressure to go into the hard sciences."
Most of the
men who do make it in broadcasting describe serendipitous routes
into the field, and all of them express contentment with being reporters.
"Maybe I'm covering my butt by denying that I want to anchor," says
Kumagai, "but I do get a bigger charge being out in the field."
Asian male reporters do think about the fame and fortune of an anchor
slot. Those thoughts quickly meet up against reality.
realizes he has little chance of becoming the 6 o'clock anchor.
"I do't have the matinee idol look that would be the most ideal
image on TV. Being on the portly side and not having a full head
of hair, I would be the antithesis of what an anchorman is supposed
to look like."
rejects any notion of a conspiracy by news directors against Asian
American men. In fact, he says, they are "desperate" for Asian male
applicants. "Just about any news director would strive to get an
Asian on the air and wouldn't mind a man."
To which Machado
shouts, "We're here! We're here! We're looking for work." Adds Chu
Lin, "They were saying they were open to hiring Asians in the '60's."
To a man, the
news directors at Channels 2, 4, 5 and 7 say they are concerned
about reflecting the Bay Area's ethnic diversity, and point to the
shallow talent pool to explain their low counts of Asian employees.
of KTVU in Oakland doesn't think news directors respond to public
biases. Zehnder, in fact, claims to lean towards minorities, saying:
"We have no quotas; we have a pretty good mix in our newsroom."
While the news
staff may be mixed, KTVU has only one Asian male on the air, South
Bay bureau chief Lloyd LaCuesta, who is Filipino.
out the best people I can find," says KPIX's Cohen. "If I put an
Asian male anchor on the air who is not effective, I think the people
who'd lose are Asian males. ... I don't think I would ever put an
Asian male anchor on the air unless I thought the guy was phenomenal."
At KGO, news
director Harry Fuller says he's "bothered" by the fact that his
station has no Asian anchors.
an interesting possibility: Ken Kashiwahara.
a graduate of San Francisco State University, anchored in Hawaii
in the late '60's ("There were very few Asians on the air, even
there") and in Los Angeles (on weekends). He worked as a correspondent
out of ABC's bureaus in LA, Hong Kong and, now, San Francisco. He
says he's receptive to an anchor position. As to his chances of
landing such a job: "I don't know what the atmosphere is these days--or
the criteria. I'm not sure that experience precedes the cosmetic
nature of the job."
"If Asians are
going to get anywhere," says Lin, "we're going to have to get more
into managerial positions."
Chang has hopes for the future. In her paper, she quoted Wendy Tokuda
saying that change will come when "the audience can be casual with
our presence. It's the casualness that comes with familiarity that
will mark our true acceptance by American society."
But first, an
Asian male will have to get an anchor position. Says Chang: "It'll
take a lot of perseverance on the part of at least one Asian man,
who has the tenacity to get through the paying-your-dues stage,
to develop a strong following. This man probably has to have the
looks, the talent, and the charisma that it takes."