Emil Guillermo on Labor Day, CNN, NPR, and a cross-country drive in the media
August 29, 2014 12:03 PM

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 revelations.  

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, and layoffs.

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.

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Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

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Ferguson, the First Amendment, and the Asian American Journalists Association
August 15, 2014 12:04 PM

The spectre of the U.S. Justice Department coming down on the First Amendment rights of reporter James Risen should have been bad enough. (See my blog post on Risen here.)

But as the Asian American Journalists Association convened in Washington, DC this week, the situation in Ferguson, Missouri was degrading further after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of police.
It was like a double shroud over a convention intended to herald journalism and diversity.
And then came the news that two journalists in Ferguson had been detained by police.
The aggressive policing against a young African American like Brown is one very serious matter. 

But when police start going after reporters, a prevailing "cowboy law and order" mentality is out of hand.

Reporters Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post tweeted they were told to stop reporting and were taken into custody.

Reilly was told that they were arrested for "not packing their bags quick enough":

Both reporters have now been released.

But I know what it's like to be detained.

It's happened to me three times in my career, twice on foreign soil. In the Philippines, I was carrying my video gear from the airport to cover the assassination of Benigno Aquino over 30 years ago. The police stopped and questioned me and also checked my gear. Then they let me go.
The other time was in Hong Kong, where I gave my pocket knife/key chain to a Chinese security guard at a metal detector at a function with Chou En-lai and Bill Clinton. It was pre-9/11, early in 2001. I thought I was being proactive by removing my keys before entering the screening process.
Not so fast.
It was serious enough to make the HK tab, The Standard, which dubbed me the "Knife Journalist."
I was held in a small room, questioned, and then released.
These incidents made me appreciate my role as a journalist here in the states. That kind of stuff never happens here, right?
Just ask Lowery and Reilly.
Suddenly, there are roadblocks to freedom.
Still, that's minor when compared to what happened to Michael Brown, who was gunned down. He paid with his life.

I've lived in St. Louis, Missouri, and have always known it as a place where segregation has evolved. But not by much.
And when it comes to race and law enforcement, it doesn't surprise me at all if the cops had a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude.

Your freedoms are robbed when the police officer has a gun and you don't.

Recently in Kentucky, I nearly was arrested. I was at a rental car facility in Hebron, and a routine visit turned into a major debate.
An incompetent manager wasn't aware of a special code to make a change in my reservation. But my battle over consumer rights became a civil rights one when he told me to wait.
He then came back with two sets of policemen and their squad cars, ready to do battle.
These were airport cops, but they had guns and badges and were duly deputized to shoot me at their discretion.
I asked them what I had done and if I were under arrest.
They said I wasn't. But they did want to see my ID.
They could have said "Let me see your papers." I was brown, but they could tell by my non-accent that I didn't sneak in over the Ohio border.
The situation was right up to the line. I could see any "false" move I made could be misinterpreted and seen as a threat. Or in their eyes, "disorderly."
At this point, I was only the uppity Filipino, possibly a Chinese man, or as they would say, an "Oriental."
It was four versus one. And besides, they had guns. Their interpretation wins.
Of course, I could have refused to give them my ID. But what would that have done? Raise suspicion of my knowledge of freedom and the constitution?
So I handed it over. But I did again ask for clarity: Was I under arrest?
The officer said no.
But I wasn't going anywhere. I was detained.
After a quick check of my driver's license, they didn't arrest me. But they escorted me by publicly-paid taxi---the squad car, where I sat in the back of the cage--to another rental car place.
I wasn't arrested; I was removed.

So I understand Ferguson. Any person of color especially should understand Ferguson.
Law and order too often likes to take it right up to the line.
Then, any little thing makes the wrong thing happen.
It shouldn't be that way, as President Obama responded on Thursday.
"There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting," Obama said.

"There's also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protesters or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights," he said in remarks broadcast from Edgartown, Massachusetts, near the location where the president is vacationing.

But he was adamant about the reporters.

"Here in the United States of America," said the president, "Police should not be bullying or arresting journalists who are just trying to do their jobs and report to the American people what they see on the ground."

The president went on to remind us that "We are all part of one American family, we are united in common values, and that includes belief in equality under the law."

Somehow after Ferguson, it just sounded hollow.

With Risen, the death of Michael Brown, the aftermath in Ferguson, and the militaristic police actions, including the arrests of journalists, is there any question the First Amendment is in more trouble than we imagined?

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Standup Guy: Robin Williams was an honorary Filipino American, gone too soon
August 12, 2014 9:47 AM

In a time when all the world could use a laugh, we got a shocker.

Robin Williams, who had spent so much time entertaining the world, had forgotten to leave something for himself.

As someone who had covered Williams as part of the Bay Area's entertainment scene while the arts and entertainment reporter at San Francisco's NBC affiliate, I'm still dumbfounded.

Williams had influenced me in so many ways. Not just for being the ultimate minority, the space immigrant Mork. Not just for being an honorary Asian American of Filipino descent by virtue of his second marriage to Marsha Garces.

No, Williams convinced me I wasn't funny enough.

I remember seeing Williams pre-Mork, as a comic who loved to wear T-shirts and rainbow suspenders, at the open mikes in San Francisco.

Since the 70s, Robin Williams had always been my go-to funny man--and also the world's.

When we lost our sense of humor, or when the events of the day from the Middle East, the Ukraine, Asia, Washington, and down our block, made us cry "No Mas," we always knew Williams was there to remind us of the potential for one more laugh. A side-splitting, yet consoling laugh. A laugh that reminded us that things really were all right. That if the world was going to hell in a hand basket, at least the hand basket was Mrs. Doubtfire's.

Williams was pure comic fusion--a volatile mix of energy and heat that could explode into mirth at a moment's notice.

And would anyone dare refute that in the world's current state we need Williams' counteractive force more than ever?

But we need it live, on stage, with all the humor he could wring from the moment. Any moment. He had the gift to create laughs.

When Williams went on The Tonight Show, he would take over the stage, riff and improv like a jazz man. He'd leave everyone in stitches, as in his first appearance on "The Tonight Show."

My lasting memory of Williams will always be with a mic on stage at an old comic's dive that smelled of beer and urine. I had seen all the comic greats at the time. Woody Allen. Richard Pryor. Bob Hope. I had grown up as a kid in San Francisco a standup aficionado. And now in little rooms like the Holy City Zoo, the Other Cafe, and the Intersection, standup was undergoing a renaissance. Not in New York, or Los Angeles, or Vegas. But in San Francisco.  It would turn into the first modern comic boom in the 80s, the antecedent to all that we see today on cable and the clubs. But in the beginning, it was just a handful of comics like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Kevin Pollak, that were all spawned in the Bay Area standup scene.

At the open mikes in the mid-70s, it wasn't hard to discover Williams. He was so immensely great, so bright, as a nobody, it convinced a nascent standup like me to sit down and go into journalism instead.

Years later, as a reporter, I interviewed Williams a number of times when he was major star. In the Bay Area where the rock music makers were king, Williams was the all-around entertainment giant--TV, film, standup. But it was often hard to catch him calm enough to talk and be real. I always talked to him on the fly when he was way too revved up after a performance to give me more than a perfunctory answer, which led to a joke. He was always looking for a laugh. That was his truth.

In one of Williams' early interviews, noted Asian American journalist Ben Fong-Torres captured Williams in a 1980 Parade Magazine article.

On CBS News, Fong-Torres recalled Williams as "an unstoppable talent. You just couldn't control the guy. And he couldn't control himself."

And despite his first burst of fame after Mork at age 29, Williams talked about a future of being "drunk and derelict" trying to impress older women at a bar with the fact that he had been Mork. He had a "sad vision of his future, even then," Fong-Torres said.

Williams told Fong-Torres: "It scares me. That's s a genuine fear that the fire goes out. 'Mork and Mindy' could end the next year. I don't know how long it can go."

An artist's insecurity? A measure of humility?

More than 30 years later, Williams' fears came true.  Reports say he was back in rehab as a preventative measure. 

And by all reports, he was scaling back. He had sold the multi-million dollar ranch in Napa, and downsized to the hardly modest, yet exclusive, Tiburon, north of San Francisco. The impact of his two divorces was getting to him financially.

He still riffed the same line about divorce he used in 1991 after his first marriage. It's the line that goes, "divorce is from the latin word... meaning having your genitalia torn out through your wallet."

He changed the organ based on the audience. Sometimes it was more crude than genitalia.. Sometimes it was simply the heart.

But always the wallet.

The clip refers to his first divorce, but he was two years into his second marriage to his Filipino American wife Marsha Garces, with whom he had two children, Cody, 23, who was born in the year of that clip, and Zelda, 25, whose birthday greeting was the subject of Williams' last tweet in July.

I think of them and all the people and friends he left when he decided to take one last leap into the absurd.

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An attack during the attack: An Asian American in Israel and his view on the Gaza war
August 7, 2014 12:00 PM

In my California, home of the severe drought, I grew up listening to the Beach Boys and the dream of an "endless summer."

I can't imagine this summer in Israel and Gaza, home of what appears to be the "endless war."

Actually, thanks to the media reports, I don't have to imagine the war. I see it played out on the news, where the real "negotiations" seem to be taking place. Hamas' rockets into Israel; Israel's massive counterattack in populated areas, including schools.
Was it all about the missing teens, Hamas' launchers and its tunnels of war?
Everyone seems to have a cover story to justify the violence meted out.
At this point, the score is not good. More than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority civilians, are dead. Israel claims 67 casualties. It's enough to keep the politicians addicted to war entrenched in their positions. But even one death has been too many.
As I write, we are in the tail end of a cease-fire and at the beginning of some preliminary discussions. I hope we go further down that peaceful path.
But at this juncture, there doesn't seem to be light at the end of that tunnel.
Not yet, at least.

When the current iteration of tumult over Israel and Gaza began, I contacted an old friend of mine, an Asian American and a former partner with a major law firm. He married his college sweetheart, an Israeli, and has relocated permanently to Israel to be with her family.
The harassment of Hamas, and Israel's massive counterattack, coincided with an attack of his own--on his heart, what my friend described as a "mild myocardial infarction."
He e-mailed me: 

It was an existential moment. And I'm in good shape, but apparently not so in the wiring. So I hope you guys in the States are seeing what drecks of humanity Hamas is. I know that Israel takes a beating from the lib/leftist/Jon Stewart crowd. But if they even half approached the facts with some measure of objectivity, they would see that Hamas has to be taken out. Otherwise, life beats on.
Even though I didn't expect to hear a few verses of Pete Seeger from my friend, his hard line was still a surprise.
Whatever Netanyahu was doing in Israel to whip up support for his actions seemed to be working on the country.
My friend's e-mail continued:
The public is solidly behind Bibi [Netanyahu]. Kerry is being mocked mercilessly. Ha'Aretz, the leading leftist newspaper, came out solidly against Kerry and Obama. Obama is seen as naive and ineffectual - ask yourself this: has he had any major foreign policy victories that you can remember? 

Little by little, Hamas's luster is wearing off. They are terrorists, out for themselves and not the people who they sacrifice all too easily. Bombs in UNRHWA schools, mosques, private homes, hospitals? 

What has been illuminating to me is the myopic, double standard of a large part of the "liberal" world: They complain of the disproportionality of Israel's actions in Gaza where a relatively few (1300) have been killed in 3 weeks and then forget completely about the carnage in Syria, Iraq, etc. It seems that the reaction to Jews/Israel define people's perspectives. I'm heartened by the 57% of the US that supports Israel's right to defend themselves against the rockets and the tunnels. The average American instinctively knows that Israel is fighting a frontline war for shared democratic principles with the US.
When the first cease-fire was announced and then broken almost as soon as it began, my friend was not optimistic and predicted what would happen.
I doubt whether the cease-fire will hold. Hamas will throw up some rockets. The most that Kerry can do with it is to use the lull for humanitarian purposes - resupplying schools with food, water.
He was right.
My friend's view of the future:
Hamas will hold out until at least the 34th day. Why? Because it will be one day longer than the 2006 Lebanon War. Hamas wants to declare that it outlasted the Israelis and fought longer than Hezbollah. There may well be an eventual two-state solution. But it won't depend on what happens to Gaza. Hamas can't be part of the equation. Kerry is like a bumble bee, buzzing here and there hoping to fertilize some developments. But until the parties decide they need a solution, he is irrelevant.
I hope he's wrong.
In the meantime, the war has become a kind of litmus test among friends. My pro-Israel friends have become even more hawkish. Some make sense. Other friends remind me that the Palestinians are also, by continent, an Asian people, being oppressed and bullied.
Where do you stand?
I've found it isn't really whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Nor is it about who is oppressing whom, though the fact is, despite Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, a blockaded Gaza with border restrictions essentially remains "occupied."
It's not even whether one is conservative or liberal.
It's really just about hawks vs. doves.
And so far the hawks are winning.
When President Obama said this week that he had "no sympathy for Hamas, but sympathy for the ordinary people of Gaza," it was a newsworthy statement. After weeks of unquestioned support for Israel, both rhetorically and financially, he began to show an important recognition of the humanity of the Palestinians.
This week, Obama also spoke of "formulas" that are available to reach that goal of a two-state solution.
"But they're going to require risks on the part of political leaders," the president said. "They're going to require a slow rebuilding of trust in the aftermath of the violence we have seen."
The leaders of both sides aren't used to taking risks for peace. Both sides preferred the violence to restock the hate that fuels the endless war.
In the Middle East, all the players seem inclined toward the "long game." It may mean the best we can hope for is to manage the hate and intolerance, and simply trust that "this too shall pass."
I'd rather they give peace a real chance.

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Glory and racism: Nixon's audio clip on the Vietnam War
July 28, 2014 3:51 PM

When Richard Nixon died in 1994, 20 years after he left office, I can recall how almost all the news stories about him in Washington were like a gigantic free pass. I suppose if you deserve a free pass, the time of your death would be the best time to get one. Out of respect, no one wanted to kick old Tricky Dick in 1994. All the positives seemed lined up at the ready. Didn't you know how he was the guy responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency? Nixon was green before he turned blue.

Oh, and that Watergate deal. Nice hotel.

But now another 20 years have passed, a full 40 since Nixon left office, and here comes a truthier truth straight from the horse's mouth.

As we all know, Nixon was an inveterate recorder/hoarder, and he audiotaped just about everything. In a modern context, this is worse than being hooked on "selfies." Perhaps out of an egomaniac's desire to feed his own legacy with truth, or to protect himself from lawsuits, or maybe to make sure he didn't leave things to faulty memory or lousy press accounts, Nixon made his official "secret" tape recordings. But his mistake was not to burn them.

Now, on the same week that The New York Times comes out for legalizing marijuana, Nixon, the poster boy of the "Silent Majority," comes back from the dead to blare out loudly like a blast from the past.

The transcripts of the recordings are being released this week in book form, and author/historian Douglas Brinkley is out making the rounds.

One of the most startling things to my ear is how racist Nixon, members of his cabinet, and American society really were at the time. It was less than ten years after the Civil Rights Act, and the tapes show how openly the white males in charge were so callous and pompous.

On CBS News, Brinkley said the bombshell revelation was that Nixon wanted to quit over Vietnam but decided he had to keep on bombing. In this clip, he sounds like he's regretful of the decision to stay the course, as if he'd rather have given in to the pot-smoking protestors who were denouncing the war.  

By Nixon's way of thinking, anything to be seen as a hero coming out of the quagmire was better.

On Feb. 1, 1972, Nixon says: "We should have flushed it [Vietnam] down the drain three years ago, blamed Johnson and Kennedy. . .Kennedy got us in, Johnson kept us in. I could have blamed them and been the national hero! As Eisenhower was for ending Korea."

"And it wouldn't have been too bad. Sure, the North Vietnamese would have probably slaughtered and castrated two million South Vietnamese Catholics, but nobody would have cared. These little brown people, so far away, we don't know them very well. . ."

Oh, those little brown people.

Hearkens back to American imperialism and how the Republicans referred to Filipinos as "little brown brother."

Now we have the Vietnamese. They existed only for the paternal, condescending, and racist vanity of Nixon.

At least, he didn't call them "gooks."

We may not have known them well, but after these tapes, we do know Nixon better, and that does not do his legacy very well at all.

We already know how Nixon tried to botch President Johnson's foreign policy by sending Asian American Anna Chennault to South Vietnam to convince the leaders there that they should resist making any deals until after the '68 elections because Nixon would offer them a better deal.

How do we know that? Because President Johnson bugged Chennault and Nixon. He liked to tape record selectively. Johnson wasn't above using the war to win elections for the Democrats. He called for a unilateral end to bombing days before the election--but he didn't expose Nixon's shenanigans. It didn't matter. South Vietnam trusted Chennault. And enough Americans trusted Nixon over Humphrey.

And then Nixon continued bombing.

As the audio clip showed, he didn't really care about the Vietnamese, North or South.

When Saigon ultimately fell in 1975, some 125,000 were airlifted by the U.S. from the south to refugee centers in Asia and then the U.S.

More came in 1978, after first spending time in Communist re-education camps and then finding their way as so-called "boat people" to America.

There was no surprise that the polls of the day showed that less than 40 percent of the public approved of the wave of Vietnamese immigration.

The "little brown people" never really had Nixon's support. It was all about how it would make Nixon look historically.

Maybe the China parts of the tapes make Nixon look a little better.

But I doubt it.

I guess we're better off knowing all this. Foreign policy has a tendency to be ugly, messy, racist, and venal.  

It makes one wonder what the truth really is today in Gaza or Ukraine.

But the truth won't really be known unless, like Nixon, the vain are so deluded that they tape themselves, proud even of their most grievous mistakes as their handiwork.

Nixon should be a lesson to all world leaders today. If I were Putin, Obama, Netanyahu, or leaders of Hamas, I wouldn't want my finger near any red buttons.

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