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How the Mainstream Media Lags Behind on Asian American Stories

Today in our What Now newsletter.

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Last month, podcast company A-Major Media was forced to pull a star-studded narrative podcast about the infamous 1982 murder of Vincent Chin—one of the most visible instances of anti-Asian American violence in modern U.S. history—after Chin’s family and allies said that they had not been consulted about or involved with the production. The outcry was spurred by a story from Jenn Fang, the creator of the Asian American feminist blog Reappropriate. A podcast being dropped like this is a very 2021 story, but Fang has been doing this work for nearly two decades. 

For this week’s “What Now,” I spoke with Fang about her blog, which she’s run for nearly two decades, the political project and representation of “Asian America,” and how the mainstream media still lags behind, even on Asian American stories that are among the “lowest hanging fruit.”

Here’s a sneak peek of the interview with Jenn Fang. The full interview is in our premium email newsletter, What Now. Our Steward tier members are the only ones who get the full edition of What Now emailed to themalong with a host of other benefits, including full access to our site.

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What language do you typically use when you’re talking about Asian American issues, or Asian American Pacific Islander issues? It probably varies if you’re talking about like, Filipino labor organizers, but what language do you use when talking about Asian Americans?

That’s actually a really interesting question with regard to Asian American identity and it’s a very fraught political issue in and of itself. It’s shifted over time to reflect the changing political landscape. But currently where I’m at is an acknowledgment that “Asian American” as an identity, or as a political term, is a political project. It’s a choice that folks make to ally themselves with the coalition of Asian American activists, and often progressives, and all of them coming from different ethnic communities. And so it’s this idea of wanting to signal membership in the Asian American political project. For me, I use it deliberately in that context. So when I’m talking about being an Asian American feminist blog, I’m talking about the intersection of race and gender intertwined within this idea of wanting to advance Asian Americanism.

I have very consciously decided to let go of “Asian American Pacific Islander” unless I, again, am being very specific about the context of the partnership between Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. The term “Asian Americans” originally did include folks who would now consider themselves Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, but in the 1990s or so there was a movement that I think was long overdue to disaggregate out the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community, because a lot of those issues touch upon settler colonialism in a way that is very distinct from Asian American political issues, and really seems to overlap more with the Indigenous community.

In these past two decades, but specifically in the past year and a half as a result of the attacks on Asian Americans related to the pandemic and the murders in Atlanta, I’m wondering how you have seen mainstream coverage of Asian American issues improve.

I actually do think it has gotten better. Not necessarily since Atlanta, because that’s too recent. But I do think that in the two decades that I’ve been working, there has been better reporting. I think that there has been more efforts to reach out to folks within the community. And I myself have been contacted by journalists pretty regularly. And I think that that’s a good thing, talking to people who are actually grassroots working in the community and who have really interesting stories to tell. I think it’s nice to see that they’re being reached out to. 

When it came to Atlanta, I was inundated with interview requests during that week. And that was overwhelming. But I’d never experienced that before. I was contacted by every mainstream media outlet, independent outlets, people were trying to get me to go on TV. I turned down everything in part because I wasn’t able to do any of those interview requests, and in part because I thought that there were other voices that could do it better within our community. I told them, go find other folks, because they have really interesting stories to tell. 

One of the things I want to highlight is actually NBC Asian America. It’s still a vertical of NBC News, and I think it remains the only Asian American-focused vertical and mainstream media outlet. It was for several years run by a fantastic journalist named Tracy Lee. She took it from an idea into one of the best mainstream media treatments of Asian Americans, and during her tenure as the editor they did some incredible feature writing, feature journalism, stuff like on Japanese American incarceration. Tracy is a consummate professional, and she just took that fantastic journalistic expertise that she has, and applied it to the Asian American space. It had cachet both in the mainstream world, but also within the Asian American world. And it was accessible to us, too, if we wanted to insert stories into mainstream media. 

One of the things that I felt has been a little bit disappointing in the last year or so has been that now with all this focus on anti-Asian violence, and hate crimes, we’re also seeing new attention to the Asian American community. But I think there have been a lot of mainstream outlets that, because there hasn’t been a tradition of going to the Asian American community and asking people who are within the community what’s going on, they go to the “Asian American you know,” and it has been a lot of Hollywood celebrities. It’s actually great that celebrities are trying to be politically engaged. But if you want to know the story about how folks living in Chinatown are experiencing violence, you might want to talk to the people who are organizing in Chinatown. I think it’s been a lot of going to celebrity, in part because the mainstream outlets don’t know who else to talk to.

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