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No Apology from Washington Post for Headline

Washington Post
By Ed Diokno
The racial slur used in a headline by the Washington Post for a story about Yao Ming’s impact on the NBA has generated a bit of discussion among journalists that may, or might not be, of interest to other people outside of that profession. It is something journalists talk about all the time, or, at least they should.

Media critic Richard Prince found the article on AsAm News, which has permission to reprint my posts. As a better known writer than me (and former longtime journalist with the Post), he has the access that our all-volunteer effort doesn’t have.


Prince was able to get in touch with the Slot at the Washington Post that approved the controversial headline. Prince writes in his blog, Journal-isms:

As it turns out, according to Fred Barbash, who edits the Post’s “Morning Mix,” where the story appeared, the story and headline were written by a Chinese American “who is quite sensitive to this issue.” She used the word “Chinaman” in her story as an example of the slurs to which Ming was subjected:

During a Rockets game in 2004, former basketball player and TNT broadcaster Steve Kerr also referred to Yao as a ‘Chinaman,‘ a derogatory term dating back to the mid-1800s, when Americans feared that the ‘Yellow Peril’ would dominate the labor force. (Kerr later apologized.). . . .

Barbash told Journal-isms by telephone, “I realize that some people find it offensive. I found it germane to the story and avoided sugar-coating it.”

Barbash messaged later, “Having now read this (my article), it’s way off base. The ‘author herself’— Yanan Wang (not Wong — which copy editor let that through?) is quite familiar with the Asian American community in North America (she’s from Canada, her family immigrated from China) and wrote the headline, which was approved by me. It was changed long after we went to bed (we work all night) by someone else.” Headlines are changed sometimes three or four times in the course of their web life, Barbash said.

There was no apology.

Barbash got a little snarky there, eh? That doesn’t bother me, but never mind.

AsAm News got to see the strongly worded statement to the WaPo  from the Asian American Journalists Association that explained the AAJA’s objection to the offensive term  that was used in the headline.

In a weakly worded explanation, a WaPo spokesperson responded:


“The story deals with the bigotry Yao Ming encountered and had to overcome. The headline was an effort to convey that, and the story also makes it clear that this is a derogatory term.

“During a Rockets game in 2004, former basketball player and TNT broadcaster Steve Kerr also referred to Yao as a “Chinaman,” a derogatory term dating back to the mid-1800s, when Americans feared that the “Yellow Peril” would dominate the labor force. (Kerr later apologized.)

“In this case, the headline was modified to ensure clarity. Since there was no factual error, no correction was made.”

In other words, in the eyes of the Washington Post, no harm, no foul.

If that was truly the case, why was the offensive term removed in subsequent headline? WaPo’s explanation and lack of an apology lit up the Twitterverse.


WaPo argues the headline was appropriate within the context of the story. But, I ask, once again, if the story was about an African American athlete who overcame the bigotry aimed at him or her, would it be OK to feature the N-word in the headline? I think not.

The Washington Post generally does a good job on stories about Asian Americans and I understand the pressure of deadlines and making quick decisions. However, it makes me wonder if less thought was put into the headline’s potential to be offensive because it referred to Asians instead of another ethnic group.

I have this sinking feeling that like this year’s Oscarcast in which apparently everyone in the production thought it was OK to poke fun at Asians, in some sectors, it is still OK to offend Asians because people think, well … we’re quiet and, you know, we won’t make a big fuss.

Is there even a chance for an admission of poor judgement – uh, even “a (racial slur)’s chance?”

(Ed Diokno writes a blog :Views From The Edge: news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.)

(AsAmNews is an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. You can show your support by liking our Facebook page at  www.facebook.com/asamnews, following us on Twitter and sharing our stories.)


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