(After a recent plane crash in San Francisco, a TV station had to apologize after made-up names for Asiana Airlines pilots were mistakenly reported on air. Photo/Getty Images )

Opinion: Respecting – not ridiculing – a nation of ethnic names

Recently, three TV producers were fired from a reputable station, two of which were senior.  All because of a play on words.

The racist equivalents hurt to read.  Would you second guess a TV graphic describing the pilots of the recent San Francisco plane crash as two Native Americans named ‘Chief Neid Mo Speed’ or ‘Chief Fall Like Stone’?  Or a headline saying, ‘Mexican Captain Speedy Gonzalez struggled with plane velocity’?

Those never happened.

These did:  Captain Sum Ting Wong, pilots Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk, and Bang Ding Ow.

When you read the fake names aloud, a chortle, regardless of your background, leaks out.  But then after a re-read and a re-listen to station KTVU’s report of alleged Asiana pilot names, it’s not funny, and not the least because three people died.

Why could this happen?

Does Long Duk Dong ring a bell? Read it aloud too. The 1984 film (“Sixteen Candles”) character’s name of an Asian student refers “humorously” to one’s privates.  In the film, Duk Dong was even called “Chinaman,” the comparable epithet to “wetback” for Latinos.  It provided a generation of unsavory fodder on who Asian Americans might be:  a mix of cultural mascot and ethnic kitsch.

Thirty years later, a misstep like that could never happen.  It wouldn’t make it past writers, editors, producers, and sponsors.  I thought.

“Chink in the Armor”:  the 2012 ESPN article headline had a picture of Jeremy Lin, describing his challenge with turnovers. The use of the C-word for Asian Americans is the equivalent of the N-word for African Americans.  Ironically, just two years earlier ESPN received a Leadership in Diversity Award from the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

That brings us to today.  If there were to be a station least likely to be caught with “Sum Ting Wong” challenges, it is KTVU.  I grew up watching the nationally respected station.  It airs the Bay Area’s “60 Minutes” of nightly news, forgoing typical early-evening shows so it can focus on an hour of news of record, no frills journalism at 10pm.  One of the longest serving Asian American journalists worked 35 years at KTVU.  The station is located in Oakland, which is 65 percent minority, and it’s next to San Francisco, which is 33 percent Asian American.

It had to be a perfect storm.  How did “Wi Tu Lo” pass the smell test on so many potential levels?  For a television news show, commonly there are multiple levels that review a news story.  A desk editor takes an initial report, an executive producer chooses a story, and the copy is usually seen by a line producer, a writer, a copy editor, people working in graphics, directors and an anchor.

KTVU and the NTSB tacitly agree with that question, and responsibly and quickly issued apologies.  KTVU went even further.  It fired three producers over the incident (not low level positions) after two weeks of an in-house investigation.  The NTSB also says it let an intern go over the incident two weeks back.  The question persists however, how was this story originally sourced?

In the meantime, there are two solutions to consider.  One, the community has to speak out.  In this case,  AAJA did, and raised awareness.  Two, consider newsroom diversity. Minorities in newsrooms rose only one percentage point the last 18 years to 12 percent in 2012.  Most important is that newsrooms, regardless of ethnicity, understand diverse views.  Many non-Asian American journalists saw “Ho Lee Fuk” a mile away.

My immigrant grandparents were named Lui Lee, and Quock Yuen Jow.  A hundred years ago, they endured plays on their names.  In the 1980s, I even ridiculed Asian names.  I wasn’t Long Duk Dong.  I was different; I was born here and didn’t have a funny name.  But then I realized I was mocking my grandparents.

“Funny-named” people come here every day.  They shouldn’t think acceptance takes a century.  Sure, we will make more mistakes along the way.  But they should know we are a country that respects more than 26 letters.  A union built on names that sound different, look different, and are tough to pronounce.  It is our badge of honor, our raison d’être.  To be a country of many names.


Richard Lui is an anchor and reporter for NBC and MSNBC. 

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