Sunday, July 14, 2013

KTVU Gaffe The Result Of Ignorance, Not Malice

By now, you've all heard about the tremendously racist gaffe KTVU made on Friday July 12th. The gaffe news hit the digital pages of the New York Daily News, Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times and overseas at the Daily Mail, to name a few. Cable TV news outlets in this country assigned reporters to cover it. And on YouTube, the video of the segment has registered 6.4 million views as of Sunday night. At least one internet site is calling this the worst gaffe in the history of TV. The mistake threatens even to over-shadow the horrible life and death mistake an emergency rescue squad made by running over one of the crash victims from flight 214 on the way to the crash site.
KTVU Full Screen
What Channel Two did, did not do, will now be required reading in every journalism school for years to come, and not just because the mistake is also comically funny as well as sad. This is a cautionary tale for journalists young, and older. The incident also shows how a TV station, which has established itself over several decades as a news leader, can undo much of that work with one stupid mistake. I am intimately familiar with KTVU. I helped to maintain KTVU's competitive advantage as a reporter and anchor there from 2005-2012. Haste and ignorance of Korean and Chinese culture lead to what happened on Friday.

The station identified the pilots of Asiana Airlines flight 214 during the noon newscast. The names were not only wrong, they were a joke. The gag is so hackneyed it would make the author of the Yellow Rivers in China, blush with embarassment. The names KTVU broadcast and set to a full screen for its audience to read were akin to the name of I.P. Freely, or Anita Bath. In other words, not only were the names a joke, they were obviously jokes.
Flight 214

Captain Sum Ting Wong
Wi Tu Lo
Ho Lee Fuk
Bang Ding Ow

These names shouldn't have even required an out loud read to under cover their real intent. They mock the Chinese people and the accents they develop trying to learn the English language. You might be surprised to learn who was responsible for this racist gaffe. It wasn't an KTVU intern, it wasn't a writer, but two senior producers. One is a manager, the other has decades of experience as a producer, newspaper reporter and college instructor. This was a rookie mistake made by two veterans. The senior producer who was given these names should have laughed, told the person to lose his number and hung up the phone. Instead, the names were passed up the chain of command.

A source at the station, someone I used to work alongside, told me one of the producers got a call from a source. That source gave four names and identified those people as the pilots of flight 214.
The senior producer then gave those names to the second senior producer, the manager who was involved, and she called the NTSB. When she reached the NTSB, she didn't ask for the names of the pilots of flight 214, she read the names she had to the person, who later was identified by the NTSB as an intern, who essentially nodded his head in agreement. Both KTVU and the NTSB have apologized. The NTSB said that an intern confirmed the names, but that the agency has a policy of not giving out pilot's names. The station admitted that the person from KTVU who called the NTSB, the person you know now was a manager, never asked for the name of the person with whom she was speaking.

The first problem with these names is they are fake CHINESE names. They're not fake KOREAN names. Thirty-percent of the Bay Area's population claims Chinese hertigage, and the Korean population is the fourth largest in the country. Yet two out of two senior KTVU producers can't tell the difference! To them, theses were just Asian names. Despite living and working in the Bay Area for decades (I know both of these people. Both grew up in the area. In fact my older brother grew up, and went to high school with the senior producer who took the name from the source) neither one of these experienced, and trained professional smelled anything funny.

KTVU's problem didn't end there. The two senior producers weren't the only ones to see, and tacitly approve what was happening, and in doing so show incredible ignorance of the Chinese and Korean culture. That full screen graphic that you see, had to be made by someone in the graphics department. After it is completed, the same graphic is stored in master control in a holding pattern, but visable to everyone in the control room BEFORE it goes on the air. That means at the very least, the director and line producer had a chance to see those names.

There is one more gatekeeper, the anchor of the noon broadcast Tori Campbell. KTVU's statement claims that Campbell didn't read this copy before it went on the air. I worked with Tori, I anchored with Tori, I know Tori. Folks, Tori Campbell read that copy. Tori is a true professional. She would never have risked embarassing herself, or the station, by not looking at, and reading the copy of such an important story, with the names of people written in a language with which she is not familiar BEFORE she read the story on the air.

What we have here is a failure to recognize a racist joke, at the region's number one station, among senior producers, a senior manager, a producer, a director and an anchor who has been at the station 21 years. This is only a list of people I know saw these names. There were probably others looking over their shoulders with giddiness and anticipation as the station seemed on the brink of breaking a big story.

What none of those people considered was the impact of the information. How big was this story, really? In news you want to provide "new" information. That's why its called "news." But the names of these Korean pilots weren't essential information to the story. The story was so rushed that KTVU squeezed it in following a story about one of the two teenage girls who died in the July 6th crash at San Francisco International Airport. What made the producers think, these names HAD go on the air, right then, right now? The pilots weren't local people. No one would have remember their names at the end of the newscast. This wasn't even the George Zimmerman verdict, and yet KTVU rushed the names onto the air, like they were giving is the names of Lee Harvey Oswald, or John Hinkley.
Flight 214

Furthermore, the station already had some of the crew members names. On July 10th, twelve members of the flight crew appeared at a press conference in Korea. Here are some of their names: Yoo Tae Sik, Kim Ji Youn, Lee Han Woo, Lee Jin Hee, Kim Yun Ju, and Lee Yoon Hye. Those are Korean names. Nothing like Sum Ting Wong, or Wi Tu Lo, two of the four fake names broadcast by KTVU. People who are really interested in and/or paying attention to other cultures can easily see a difference between those Korean names and the fake pilot's names. Just like the rest of American culture, KTVU lumped the Korean pilots into a larger, catch all word; Asian. Jackie Chan can't be Mr. Miagi. He's Chinese, and Mr. Miagi is Japanese.

Had their been the slightest bit of knowledge of either the Chinese or Korean cultures, the senior producers at KTVU would have had to ask themselves another question. Is it reasonable, or likely
that a Korean Airline would hire four Chinese nationals as pilots. South and North Korean are still officiallly at war and have been since 1950. Their troops are at this very moment standing off against one another at the demiliterized zone on the border between the two countries. The Korean people live under constant threat of the beginning of World War III. China provides nearly all of the North's weapon and finances and North Korea's ability to make war. Armed with this knowledge, the producers should have been suspicious of the likelyhood that a South Korean company would entrust four Chinese crew members to fly more than 300 people across the Pacific. Would an American company trust four members of the Taliban to fly one of our triple sevens?

This isn't the first time something like this has happened at Channel Two. Back in 2009, in a desperate search for a picture of soon to be arrested (at that time) Melissa Huckaby, the station
Melissa Huckaby, the murderer
searched and found one. The picture they found was a picture on MySpace of a 28 year-old woman who lived in Manteca and taught pre-school at her local church in Tracy, where she graduated from high school. Her name was Melissa Huckaby. This Melissa Huckaby was not the one kidnapped an 8 year-old girl, molester and killed her, then stuffed the girls body in a suitcase and threw it in the Delta. But now, because of KTVU, a lot of people thought she was the same one. Consequently, the innocent Melissa Huckaby had to withstand angry emails and death threats.

If the station is really concerned about preventing a repeat performance someone is going to have to be severely and publicly (within the station) disciplined. Local TV managers like to blame competition from the Internet as the reason for declining marketshare. This latest gaffe, the broadcasting of false and in this case racist information, is at least one of the other reasons.

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