As we approach Labor Day, I ponder the map of my labor life, my resume, and
realize it is the history of the boom and bust of the American economy.
Hired in good times, reduced in recessions. And, because I’m an Asian American,
it all works in conjunction with that time honored employment lament, “Last
hired, first fired.”
I worked at NPR when it was on M Street in D.C. Now it’s in the new NoMa
district (North of Massachusetts), and it looks like a tech startup.
These days, while some tech folks may experience an economy on the rise, the
indicators for journalism and the media business in general are not so bright.
Last week, CNN’s Jeff Zucker announced that the cable network will have to do
“less with less,” which means for some, just a slice of Don Lemon may have to
do. The network announced the potential of layoffs among its 9,000 U.S.
employees. How many get zapped will likely come after the success of the
“voluntary buyout plan,” which encourages those over age 55 to leave.
It’s not exactly “forced retirement.” It’s more like, “you go first.”
Then the long knives appear.
Admittedly, I prefer getting my news on CNN. But all the corporate networks are
beholden to the almighty dollar. That’s especially true for CNN after staving
off Rupert Murdoch’s takeover bid for its parent company, Time Warner. Suddenly,
CNN’s on a new mission. Now it must show shareholders it can surpass Murdoch’s
rejected takeover bid of $85 a share.
Maybe it can happen without enlisting a Kardashian. Or a news show in the nude.
It’s not a good sign for the news business–especially for diversity in the news
business. People of color are always affected first. Of course, a few hood
ornaments will remain in full view at the different networks, with the notable
exception of the de-ornamented Ann Curry. (Has anyone seen Ann lately? At Brad
and Angelina’s wedding? At NBC? Anywhere?) With fewer veteran minorities
employed, there are fewer advocates for news stories on diverse communities.
“Doing less with less” isn’t just about shrinking news holes. It’s about the
shrinking diversity in coverage and employment.
I lamented this fact at the recent Asian American Journalists Association
convention, when I realized after some quick math that it had been 25 years
since I was named a senior host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
It’s a modest achievement: the first Asian American to host NPR’s flagship
program and the first Asian American male to host a regularly-scheduled national
news show. But when Asian American invisibility is still a modern media issue,
it may as well be like walking on the moon.
At the AAJA convention in Washington, I certainly wasn’t expecting a red carpet
at the reception I attended in NPR’s brand spanking new hi-tech broadcast
palace. But my hire had been a breakthrough for the broader Asian American
community and for diversity. And it was due to the leadership at NPR at the
time, Adam Clayton Powell III.
I stayed at NPR for two years (Powell was gone soon after I was hired). But
since that time, as I spoke at the conference, no one present (not even an NPR
reporter) could think of another Asian American who had been a permanent host of
“All Things Considered.” Or if such a person exists, they certainly were keeping
it a secret. Indeed, Arun Rath was named a host late last year, but that no one
at a convention of Asian American journalists knew it says something.
This is not to say diversity hasn’t advanced at NPR and in public radio in
general. There are actually more people of color than ever doing great work
these days. You can actually hear genuine stories of accented communities.
But you can also still hear the other variety: white reporters giving their
response/translation to diverse issues, as if such stories were true
Journalists of color live those stories. If they were employed in greater number
in all media, the audience might know how all these “different” stories only
show how much we all have in common.
But we’re still travelling in the slow lane.
Diversity is much harder to achieve with corporate induced shakeouts, buyouts,
Incidentally, that’s what happened to me. In the parlance of NPR, I was
“riffed.” That’s the verbified acronym for “reduction in force.”
As a Labor Day treat, I wanted to share with you, my reader friends, my first
and last stories at NPR.
The first was an essay on my cross-country
drive with my infant
daughter, the dog, the rat, and animal rights spouse.
My final words were on the
subject listeners really wanted to know more about—why I pronounce my last name
the way I do.
And just to show how long the fight for diversity has gone on, and how the fight
and the media have changed, here is a
link to the very
first town hall held at the now defunct Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia. It
was the house that Gannett and its late top exec Al Neuharth built. At the time,
the traditional media was flush with cash. Diversity actually looked achievable
in short order.
More than twenty years later, it’s been a long haul. And we’re still fighting,
as we approach another Labor Day and take time off to think about how the
barriers and limitations we still face can impact every aspect of our lives.