Covering a City With No Majority
By Gigi Anders
Gigi Anders is a freelance writer and the author of the upcoming memoir "JUBANA! Confessions of a Jewish Cubana Goddess."
ON A RECENT EVALUATION, it was noted that Peter Hong was doing a good job on his "sub-beat," covering Asian American affairs. The Los Angeles Times general assignment Metro reporter was surprised by that description of his job. "I wasn't insulted," says Hong, who's Korean American. "But I found it curious that that perception was there. I saw it as me doing stories about people in the area, stories that should have been done by reporters of any race."
Particularly because Hong's not a beat writer; his job is to cover all of L.A., which includes practically every ethnicity there is; and he in fact has no "sub-beat." In a city like Los Angeles, GA reporters like Hong must necessarily be journalistically fluent and multiculturally fluent to be effective.
Since his worldview is colored by the town he lives in, Hong doesn't consider Asians to be a subculture, any more than blacks or Latinos or whites are. And if he wrote only about Asian Americans, he wouldn't be representing his community or reflecting reality, either.
"This is a city with no majority," Hong says. "So the makeup of our core community is everyone. Stories that other staffers may see as `ethnic' aren't to me. They're not special interest, they're general interest, and something we should be doing in our jobs. Not because of political or market pressure, but because it's truthful."
One of Hong's former supervisors (not the one who wrote the evaluation) is a white person named Bob Baker. An assistant Metro editor, Baker has worked at the Times for more than 20 years, first as a reporter. Being Jewish, "with no overtly identifiable ethnic qualities," Baker always knew and never had any doubts as to why he got the assignments he did; he was being judged solely by what he could do as a reporter, period.
And yet, Baker admits that as a reporter, had a gentile editor ever asked him, " `Bob, to what degree are you interested in covering the Jewish community?' I'd have to confront very personal feelings about my Jewishness, about my Jewish culture and my identity as a Jew. These are areas that nobody's fully explored. Does that editor's inquiry stereotype me? Or limit me?"
Recently, the premier of China was coming to L.A. Baker saw Hong and asked him if he'd sign on for the assignment. "I know Peter's not Chinese," he says, "but he looks at the world in a broad way. So I asked him, and he said, playfully, `Why don't you get yourself a white guy?' I've heard him say that before. The next day when I was driving to work, I wondered whether Peter was kidding. I wondered if it went without saying, or did I need to make it clear to him that I sent him strictly on journalistic, not ethnic, grounds? If I'm Peter, in some ways I'll never really know why I get certain assignments."
One of the reasons things get sticky, Baker thinks, is that there aren't enough occasions in which editors will pointedly ask reporters how much they want to get involved in stories about their own race or ethnicity; and when they do ask, the response is often one of ambivalence. Regardless, he says, it's incumbent upon editors to initiate those awkward conversations. The alternative, he says, is to risk inviting "an unconscionable failure" in the relationship.