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Here's the Deal With Reporting Guidelines on Jeremy Lin From the Asian American Journalists Association

The Jeremy Lin saga continues.

On Thursday, the Asian American Journalists Association posted something on their website that has confused many professionals in the media. It gave guidelines for journalists on how to cover Asians in the news, like New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin, and how to avoid pitfalls dealing with his race, like ESPN's recent headline use of the phrase "chink in the armor." As you read them, you might think this is a joke, but it's not. And that's why we contacted the AAJA and talked with them. It was an interesting conversation.

But more on that conversation later. First, let's review the terms and topics considered to be "Danger Zones" by the AAJA when reporting on Mr. Lin or any other Asian sports figure.

By the way, the online posting was advertised with a tweet to all journalists:

But since the guidelines have driven so much traffic to  the AAJA's website, its servers have crashed. Several attempts to access their web pages have resulted in this message appearing on my screen:

Fortunately, we captured the pages before the rules disappeared.

From the AAJA post:


“CHINK”: Pejorative; do not use in a context involving an Asian person on someone who is Asian American. Extreme care is needed if using the well-trod phrase “chink in the armor”; be mindful that the context does not involve Asia, Asians or Asian Americans. (The appearance of this phrase with regard to Lin led AAJA MediaWatch to issue a statement to ESPN, which subsequently disciplined its employees.)

So the AAJA has deemed that "chink in the armor" is legitimate when used in any application that does not include Asia, Asians or Asian Americans? That seems to be confusing. And it should also be clarified that ESPN "disciplined" one employee and terminated another. The badly timed use of the term "chink in the armor" cost a man his job.

The rules continue:

DRIVING: This is part of the sport of basketball, but resist the temptation to refer to an “Asian who knows how to drive.”

As might be expected, comics are having a field day with this. Friday morning on SiriusXM satellite radio, Australian comedian Jim Jeffries wondered why a film called "White Men Can't Jump" is okay, but any reference connecting Asians to bad driving is an offensive stereotype that must be avoided.

Here's another:

EYE SHAPE: This is irrelevant. Do not make such references if discussing Lin’s vision.

I have to completely agree with this one:

FOOD: Is there a compelling reason to draw a connection between Lin and fortune cookies, takeout boxes or similar imagery? In the majority of news coverage, the answer will be no.

The deeper we get into the list of hot zones when reporting on Lin or any Asian athlete is now bordering on hog-tying the writers and reporters. And it is about to get worse. Read on:

MARTIAL ARTS: You’re writing about a basketball player. Don’t conflate his skills with judo, karate, tae kwon do, etc. Do not refer to Lin as “Grasshopper” or similar names associated with martial-arts stereotypes.

“ME LOVE YOU LIN TIME”: Avoid. This is a lazy pun on the athlete’s name and alludes to the broken English of a Hollywood caricature from the 1980s.

“YELLOW MAMBA”: This nickname that some have used for Lin plays off the “Black Mamba” nickname used by NBA star Kobe Bryant. It should be avoided. Asian immigrants in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries were subjected to discriminatory treatment resulting from a fear of a “Yellow Peril” that was touted in the media, which led to legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Like me, you might have been a little perplexed by the guidelines. So I reached out to the media watch group at AAJA and had an enlightening conversation with one of their co-chairs, Jam Sardar.

Sardar addressed my concerns and also was very clear on the topic of the termination of the ESPN headline writer, Anthony Federico. According to Sardar, "AAJA never asked for anyone to be fired." Mr. Sardar was also reminded that AAJA has not asked ESPN to reconsider its firing of Mr. Federico.

The letter sent from AAJA to ESPN opened like this:

Dear ESPN:

New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin had a bad night Friday. Regrettably, so did ESPN. Using "a chink in the armor" to describe Lin's poor performance was inexcusable.

We at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) find it hard to fathom how such and offensive headline appeared on your publishing platforms. The phrase was even spoken on-air.

We are glad ESPN has recognized its mistake, and we appreciate the quick apology for the transgression.

Note, the apology was appreciated, but not accepted.

During our telephone discussion, it was made clear by Mr. Sardar several times that AAJA is merely a group interested in making certain that reporting in all areas is free from racism and ethnic stereotyping. And that the published guidelines were just that, guidelines and not a mandate.

After reading the rules and speaking with Jam Sardar, I asked what the AAJA's stance is on people like television personality and comedian Suzanne Whang? Who is Whang? She is the media personality who hosts HGTV's highly-rated "House Hunters."

Look at the top graphic on her website. Ms. Whang has refers to herself as "Little. Yellow. Different. Better."

You may not recall it, but "Little. Yellow. Different. Better" is an homage to an ad campaign for the pain killer Nuprin.

This is a Nuprin commercial from 1987:

 Does the AAJA have a problem with Suzanne Whang's website? Mr. Sardar was not aware of Ms. Whang and therefore had no knowledge of her website. He did stress that his organization was primarily focused on journalists and journalism. Therefore, this situation was really not his concern. He did say that quoting Suzanne's depiction of herself was acceptable, but had we chosen to categorize her in that same manner, we would have crossed the line.

I asked if that might be considered a double standard along the lines of black people who think using the n-word is okay for black people and not for whites or others. Sardar reminded me that he was a media watcher for journalism and not entertainment. Again, he stated that it would be appropriate to quote Suzanne Whang's description of herself, but should I be using the same terms to describe her, I would be considered in violation of their guidelines.

Interesting, indeed.

Author's note -- Full disclosure: I worked with Ms. Whang during my tenure at Fox TV. She is a brilliant, relentless woman with a wicked sense of humor and is also a fearless defender of her Asian heritage. Whang once delayed an entire production crew to try and convince the owners of a Florida restaurant named "Chinee-Takee-Outee" that the name of their establishment was racist.

One last thing…
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