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Playing the Name Game

Newscasters with Anglo-sounding last names are switching to ethnic handles. It gets them work--but some ask if it's ethical.

August 18, 1996|Scott Collins | Scott Collins is a regular contributor to Calendar

The anchorman formerly known as David Johnston was stuck in a dead-end job.

For six years, Johnston had served as evening anchor at two small TV affiliates in Midland/Odessa and El Paso, Texas. He wanted a shot at a bigger market or a network, but his audition tape never seemed to interest recruiters.

But when Johnston took a job three years ago at KOVR-TV in Sacramento, his career prospects changed dramatically. So did his name.

Re-christened on-air as David Ono, the 33-year-old broadcaster has fielded job offers from stations in Los Angeles and Seattle and finally has the networks' attention, thanks largely to his new, ethnic name.

"I changed it to my advantage," says Johnston, who still uses his original surname for legal purposes. "I've received a lot of interest. I think the name change could have set that off, in addition to seasoning and just getting better."

Johnston is just one of many broadcasters playing the ethnic name game. Taking advantage of federal affirmative-action rules designed to benefit minorities, a number of reporters and anchors with Anglo-sounding last names have switched to Latino and Asian handles. The trend has led to growing outrage among some news professionals and minority activists, who argue that it cheapens the concept of affirmative action and raises troubling issues of journalistic ethics.

Many reporters who have changed their names claim biracial status and explain that they are just borrowing a relative's last name to accentuate their minority roots--a reversal of the age-old immigrant practice of anglicizing a foreign last name to speed assimilation in the United States.

Johnston, for instance, says he is of Asian and white descent, and that Ono is his Japanese mother's maiden name. "It's simple, reflects ethnicity and is very easy to remember," he says.

Reporter Gordon Gary reached back two generations for his new name. On the air at KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Los Angeles, he uses the surname Tokumatsu, which he says was the maiden name of his grandmother, a descendant of Japanese samurai. He switched names shortly after starting his career at KESQ-TV in Palm Springs, he says.

When he considered the change, his family "began telling me about the samurai heritage, which I had so embraced," says Gary, whose friends still know him by that name.

Others are less forthcoming. Denise Valdez, the 6 o'clock anchor at ABC affiliate KSAT-TV in San Antonio, admits that she changed her last name for professional reasons, but says that she considers herself part Latina and declines to discuss the matter further. "I'm not comfortable talking about it," she says. "I'm sure I'm one of many people who have done so. It is advantageous in this business, but it's not something I want to broadcast to the public."

Indeed, the public often never realizes that a TV personality may not be quite who he or she appears to be. No one knows how many journalists nationwide have switched to an ethnic pseudonym, but there are at least a dozen confirmed examples in Los Angeles, Chicago and other markets.

Many say that the phenomenon has existed for years. Geraldo Rivera, who was born to a Puerto Rican father and white Jewish mother, has battled persistent claims that his real name is Gerry Rivers. (In a 1989 Times interview, Rivera vigorously denied the rumors, saying, "My detractors think it's wonderful because they can say: 'Aha! That's the reason he's gone so far. . . . He rode the minority thing!' ")

But reporters and other industry insiders say that more TV journalists these days are changing their names. The reason: an opportunity to boost their career by taking advantage of affirmative action rules or of the desire on the part of many station managers to diversify their work force and better cover the growing population of Asian and Latino immigrants.

While the practice elicits a shrug from some journalists, who liken it to an actor taking a stage name, name-changing is drawing fire from others in the industry. Critics claim that such a switch undermines the credibility of TV reporters and the concept of affirmative action. It also raises the question of whether minority status is simply a matter of one's last name or goes deeper to encompass one's awareness of ethnic issues and commitment to the community.

Henry Mendoza, a member of the Chicano News Media Assn. and a former news director at KBAK-TV in Bakersfield, has been a vocal critic of name-changing. He blames both reporters and broadcast executives "who play affirmative action as a numbers game. . . . There's what I consider unscrupulous intent on both sides."

The subject remains a sensitive one: A veteran Latino broadcaster in Los Angeles says he has known about name-changing for years but declines to speak about it on the record because the subject is "depressing."

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