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Asian Americans Anchor Their Influence

Television: One of the few genres in which one can regularly see Asian faces, with the exception of foreign-language programming, is on broadcast news programs.

September 04, 1998|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For Fred Katayama, it was a moment of profound inspiration. As a Monterey Park fifth-grader in the early 1970s, he came home from school one afternoon and encountered a figure on television who would change his life.

"I ran into the kitchen and I said, 'Mom, there's a Japanese-looking man on TV!' " Katayama recalls. "It was Ken Kashiwahara, who at the time was a reporter for Channel 7 'Eyewitness News.' It was a strong reaction. In hindsight, it was because of the paucity of Asian Americans on television. The only Asian guy I saw on TV in those days was Bruce Lee playing Kato [on the action series "The Green Hornet"]."

Katayama began tuning in to "Eyewitness News" just to see Kashiwahara, considered the dean of Asian American broadcast journalists. By the time he was in high school, the galvanized teen was a full-fledged news junkie, bent on forging a career in journalism.

Today, Katayama is an anchor and correspondent for CNN Financial News. He is just one in a sizable group of Asian American reporters and anchors now working in television news.

Like Katayama, many of them were inspired to enter the field after witnessing such pioneers as Kashiwahara (who recently retired from ABC News), KCBS-TV Channel 2's Tritia Toyota and, especially, ABC's Connie Chung.

"I clearly remember when I moved to the United States [from Singapore] at the age of 7, turning on the New York City news and seeing Kaity Tong anchoring the newscast," says Sharon Tay, who co-anchors the early morning news at KTLA-TV Channel 5. "Seeing an Asian face on the television screen was a big deal, especially for my parents. They thought, 'Wow, what a role model.' "

Asian Americans are still largely absent from the expanding television landscape. Thirty-one years after Bruce Lee appeared as "The Green Hornet's" sidekick, it's still rare to find an Asian American featured prominently in episodic television. Indeed, the only television genre in which one can regularly spot Asian faces, with the exception of foreign-language programming, is broadcast news.

Every major TV station in Los Angeles has at least one or two Asian American news reporters or anchors. KCAL-TV Channel 9, KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KCOP-TV Channel 13 all feature Asian American female anchors on Saturday and Sunday nights. Thanks in part to the influx of cable news channels, this group is also a visible part of the national television news picture. ABC News currently employs five Asian American reporters and anchors.

In Los Angeles County, where the Asian Pacific population has tripled since 1980 to more than 1 million, many local Asian television journalists have become prominent symbols of success in their ethnic communities--at least in part because of the relative dearth of well-known Asian American celebrities in traditional glamour fields such as film, episodic television, pop music and sports.

"I go to about three or four Asian Pacific community events a week," says Tim Dang, the artistic director of Los Angeles' East West Players, the nation's oldest Asian American theater company. "It's always great to see people like [KABC-TV Channel 7 sportscaster] Rob Fukuzaki and Sharon Tay at these events. Most of the time they are emceeing the event, but a lot of times they are just there to support it. They are our stars and celebrities. It's amazing the number of people who are around them wanting to get their autograph or wanting to talk to them."

One of the few Vietnamese Americans working in the field, Leyna Nguyen says she's been surprised by the open support she's received from the local Vietnamese community since joining KCAL-TV last December.

"Most Asians, especially Vietnamese, are very quiet," she observes. "If they see something they like, they don't tell anyone about it. They just sit back and appreciate it. But I get a lot of letters and phone calls from people in the Vietnamese community. It's flattering."

That propensity to be taciturn is something many Asian American broadcast journalists have had to grapple with. Toyota admits that she struggled as a young and inexperienced reporter at KNBC-TV Channel 4 in the early 1970s, partly because she was too quiet and unassertive in the newsroom. She had to learn how to be outspoken and aggressive.

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"I hate to generalize about us, but I think we do tend to be quite demure and polite," echoes Chung, who is currently a correspondent for the ABC newsmagazine "20/20." "In the beginning I was in no way, shape or form aggressive naturally. But I pushed myself. There are times in competitive news situations where you have to push yourself to the front of the crowd and shout out questions."

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