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Des Moines sportscaster’s ‘eggroll’ remark sparks concern
Liat Paul couldnâ€™t believe her ears.
On Aug. 10 as she watched a WHO-TV Sunday evening broadcast on Channel 13, sports reporter Chris Hassel recapped the 2008 Summer Olympics being held in Beijing by referring to the Chinese menâ€™s basketball team as the U.S.â€™s first â€œeggroll on their plate.â€
â€œI just got angry,â€ Paul told about 50 people who gathered inside Drake Universityâ€™s Harmon Arts Center for a â€œPublic Forum on Race and Ethnicity in Public Discourse.â€
Since the newscast, Paul, who is Vietnamese, said she has traded nearly 10 emails with WHOâ€™s News Director Rod Peterson, sports reporters Chris Hassel and Andy Fales and Dale Woods, general manager.
Most disturbing, Paul told the audience and panel, was an email she received from Fales on Aug. 11. Paul said Fales wrote that she was â€œbeing too sensitive.â€ He also wrote that â€œReferencing eggrolls when speaking of China is akin to referencing hamburgers when discussing Americans.â€
Cyndi Chen, division administrator of the Status of Iowans of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage, said the goal of the forum held on Tuesday was to create an open dialogue and a â€œbetter place to liveâ€ by addressing inappropriate comments in the media.
â€œReporting is not comedy,â€ Chen said. â€œWhy are reporters using those words to refer to people? I donâ€™t like it. Iâ€™m more than just food.â€
No one from WHO-TV participated in the forum. In an interview on Wednesday with Iowa Independent, Peterson, the station’s News Director, said he was invited to sponsor and be a part of the forum, but was never provided details of the event, which Chen denied.
Peterson, who is Hassel and Falesâ€™ boss, deflected Iowa Independentâ€™s questions about whether the comments made on the newscast and in Falesâ€™ email were offensive, professional and represented the station.
â€œIt would be in Ms. Paulâ€™s opinion,â€ that the comments were offensive, Peterson said.
The meeting and panel included Drake University professors Judy Allen, associate professor of psychology; Lenore Metrick-Chen, assistant professor of art and design; and Sandra Patton-Imani, associate professor of American Studies; and Leland Searles, professor of sociocultural anthropology at Des Moines Area Community College and Rudy Simms, executive director of the Des Moines Human Rights Commission.
Paul wrote Peterson on Aug. 11 that the sportscasterâ€™s attempt at humor was â€œsomething a news reporter should be unbiased to and aboveâ€ and played into racial stereotypes.
â€œThis statement was small-minded and highly inappropriate for a news station,â€ Paul wrote.
Paul also wrote a letter to the editor in The Des Moines Register voicing her concerns.
Patton-Imani, associate professor of American Studies at Drake, said when people of color object to such comments, they are often told theyâ€™re being too sensitive, but there is no such thing as â€œinnocent language.â€
â€œSo when racial comments are made, we need to think critically about how they support white supremacy. About how they foster discrimination,â€ she said. â€œAbout how they even unwittingly perpetuate a society where people are silently ranked by race, ethnicity, history and power.â€
Paul provided a copy of Falesâ€™ email to forum participants. Fales stated, â€œCensoring language is a very half-assed method of changing thought. It places blame on the wrong entity and does nothing to change the actual condition. Whatâ€™s more, it reveals (an) inner lining of insecurity, fear and hostility that does far more to exacerbate the situation than language itself.â€
Fales stated in the email that he understood the connotations of racial slurs like â€œchinaman and gookâ€ and that it was a â€œgood thing that weâ€™ve taught ourselves to move away from them. But to go up in arms about the affable association of an appetizer, which is in no way linked to poverty, oppression or violence is pushing the envelope of political correctness too far.â€
Searles, the DMACC professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, said equating a group of people with food isnâ€™t an innocent act, which he found offensive.
â€œThereâ€™s almost an implied aggression. If you are an eggroll and Iâ€™m going to eat you metaphorically speaking, Iâ€™m going to do violence against you,â€ Searles said. â€œThereâ€™s a metaphorical death in calling a team a group of eggrolls or referring to them as eggrolls.â€
Many people who spoke at the forum denounced the comments and shared similar stories of media insensitivity. Examples included Don Imus, a commentator who referred to the Rutgers University Womenâ€™s Basketball team as â€œnappy headed hosâ€; the term â€œWelfare Queenâ€ and how the media used it in reference to black women; and the use of the terms â€œillegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant.â€, among others. The panelist discussed the effects of such language on society.
One Drake professor in the audience who did not give his name said the media has failed to address fears about the U.S. â€œslippingâ€ and China moving ahead.
Audience member Don Brown, who lives in West Des Moines and formerly worked at WHO-TV and the Des Moines Register, told the panel that he has experienced anger over comments made by WHO-TV sportscasters regarding Tiger Woods. Brown said he also contacted the reporters who â€œtried to minimize it.â€
Allen, the Drake associate professor of psychology, said the comments objectified, devalued and dehumanized people. She said the use of humor is a way to rationalize the comments, but such comments harm the bystanders who hear it as well as those who make the utterances by destroying empathy.
Chen said Fales offered to meet one-on-one with Paul, but Paul felt uncomfortable with the idea. Paul said she is still awaiting answers and an apology.
â€œWas the response from Fales WHOâ€™s official response?â€ Paul said. â€œAnd if not, what are they going to do?â€
Peterson, who has been news director for two years, said he met with Chen on Aug. 19 and that the meeting was â€œvery good.â€
Chen said that Peterson was unaware at that point about Falesâ€™ email to Paul. She said she questioned him on whether Falesâ€™ email followed station protocol. They also discussed reporting in general, and she invited him to sponsor and participate in the forum.
Peterson said reporters at WHO-TV are instructed to copy him with any email correspondence they have with viewers, as that correspondence becomes a part of the stationâ€™s public file with the Federal Communications Commission. Peterson said Fales did not copy him on the email response he sent to Paul and was told that he should have.
Peterson said WHO-TV staff are concerned about the needs of â€œall of our viewers.â€