Too Nice to Minorities?

The Orange County Register

Ha's successful look at a journalistically neglected community is a reporting success that should be unconditionally celebrated. But not everyone was impressed. Instead, the account of Ha's resourceful digging touched a raw nerve in the Register newsroom, where debate has erupted over the paper's coverage of Orange County's Vietnamese and Latino residents. Insiders say some Reg journalists believe the paper publishes far too many stories about people of minority communities. These critics—almost all middle-age or older white males—have even concocted a derogatory, racially loaded term to describe their frustration with the paper's in-depth coverage of the county's Asian and Latino communities: "Register ghettoization."

"There is nothing racist about this complaint," said one long-term staffer. "I just think that our paper is spending an inordinate amount of resources on stories that are not of interest to our general audience. . . . We are a daily newspaper for all of Orange County, not just Little Saigon or Santa Ana."

The term "general audience" is apparently code for Caucasians. According to this line of thinking, stories featuring whites are of interest to everyone. Stories about Vietnamese-Americans or Latino-Americans are of interest only to people in those communities.

Hieu Tran Phan, an award-winning Register features reporter who co-writes a weekly column called Vietscape, said he has been approached by fellow staffers who tell him he should write articles that are only of interest to "the community as a whole." Phan said he responded by saying, "A good story is a good story no matter whom it is about."

Some readers don't agree. Phan says he regularly receives irate telephone calls and messages. He has even received profanity-laced e-mails from people who stereotype Vietnamese-Americans as welfare cheats and thieves. One reader told him that she "didn't want to see any more Vietnamese stories or pictures of goddamn Mexicans on the front page. . . . The paper used to be so much better years ago."

In the past, the Register and the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times largely ignored local Latino and Asian communities. Those days are long over. Both dailies now heatedly compete for minority readers. One sign of the healthy rivalry is that both papers constantly try to recruit Latino and Asian beat reporters from each other. For example, when the Times OC lured columnist Agustin Gurza from the Register last year, the result was a noticeable, if temporary, void in the Reg's coverage of the county's dynamic Latino community. The Register now has an unofficial Latino-affairs team. The Times also hired Mai Tran, who had been the Register's Little Saigon reporter.

But the largest changes at the Register have occurred on the Asian beat. Until about a year ago, the Times OC clearly had the advantage covering Little Saigon and other Asian communities. Since that time, the Times has lost and not replaced at least four Asian reporters. Today, the Register has an "Asian Task Force" comprised of five reporters and two photographers. (Is that too many? Hardly. The Register has more than 185 other reporters and editors to cover the rest of Orange County.) They also sponsor a weekly public-affairs radio show on Little Saigon radio and, to the bitter chagrin of ethnic-news-coverage critics, opened a fully staffed bureau last month in Little Saigon.

Despite the "ghettoization" controversy, it appears the Register isn't going to back off its newfound commitment to minority communities any time soon. Several reporters credit editor Tonnie Katz.

"Asian-affairs reporters have pushed and pushed for more in-depth coverage, but without Tonnie's support, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere," said Phan. "Tonnie is the biggest supporter of the new ethnic coverage. She sees the potential market, and she's just gung-ho about it."

recently sponsored its seventh National Writers' Workshop, where accomplished journalists from around the country offered practical tips on how to improve newspapers. One of the speakers, San Jose Mercury News business reporter Oanh Ha, explained how she focused on the local Vietnamese community to discover solid, if controversial, human-interest stories.


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