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Ben Fong-Torres
The Facts on Larry Ching
May 2003

'Better Luck' This Weekend
April 2003

Old Memories, a New Museum
March 2003

'Twixt Teen and Michael Jackson
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In a Confused State of Mind
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In the Trenches with Trent, Jon Lovitz, and Johnny Rivers
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The Pioneering Performers of The Forbidden City
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A Letter to Writers, and How the Wiest was Won
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A Singing Career? I Think Not.
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Sheryl Crow: All She Wants to Do is Have Some Lunch
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Bruce Springsteen: Still the Boss
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Commencement Speech at Thurgood Marshall College
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A Senior Moment and a Reunion with a Pop Star
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We Love New York, Part 2002
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A Flick, a Rock Fantasy, and An Alternative to the Laptop
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March Madness, the Musical, and a Joint Effort with Willie Nelson
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Bringing in 4700 with a Parade of Wild Horses
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Taking a Q from Quincy Jones - It's His Party
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Asian American Males on TV: Old News is Bad News
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Life's Lessons from a DJ and a Songwriter
May 2001

Gawk and Roll at the Hall of Fame
Apr 2001

Shakin' It Up at Harvard
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Creole Ladies and Crazy Times Down in New Orleans
Feb 23, 2001

A Parade of Dragons, Lions, Serpents -- and Strippers?
Feb 5, 2001

Asian American Males on TV: Old News is Bad News
by Ben Fong-Torres

AsianConnections 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 Crowe.

It's 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 said.

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.


This article, published by East West, July 17, 1986, originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the Sunday Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Male Asian Anchors Missing on Television
by Ben Fong-Torres

Connie Chung, 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.

Wendy Tokuda, 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 $80,000.

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 New York.

None of the two dozen broadcasters this reporter spoke to could name a male Asian news anchor working anywhere in the United States.

Don Fitzpatrick, 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."

Asian women 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?"

Asian women 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."

Asian males are typically encouraged by parents toward careers in the sciences and away from communications.

Because there 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.

And, according 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.

Helen Chang, 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 acceptable."

"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."

TV executives, 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."

Bruno Cohen, 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."

That image, 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!"

The Vietnam 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."

Today, says 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."

Veteran KRON 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 un-employment.

In contrast 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."

Emerald Yeh, 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."

Despite the 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?"

George Lum, 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."

Headhunter Don 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."

"With Japanese 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."

Still, most Asian male reporters do think about the fame and fortune of an anchor slot. Those thoughts quickly meet up against reality.

David Louie 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."

Mitch Farris 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.

Fred Zehnder 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.

"I'm seeking 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.

He mentions an interesting possibility: Ken Kashiwahara.

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."

Thesis writer 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."

 

For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com


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