[*PG395]ASIAN AMERICANS IN THE TELEVISION MEDIA: CREATING INCENTIVE FOR CHANGE

Audrey Kwak*

RACE AND PLACE: EQUITY ISSUES IN URBAN AMERICA. By John W. Frazier, Florence M. Margai, and Eugene Tettey-Fio. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press 2003. Pp. 274.

Abstract:  The authors of Race and Place: Equity Issues in Urban America argue the existence of a significant link between race and urban geography. They contend that white racism and domination, rather than a lack of individual motivation or ability, created the concentrated populations of socioeconomically disadvantaged minorities that characterize today’s American urban landscape. This Book Review explores in detail one cause and enabler of inequity that the authors cursorily implicate: the entertainment media’s capacity to manipulate societal norms. After discussing the powerful role of television media to shape and influence perceptions and behavior, this Review examines the current paucity of Asian-American portrayals in news and entertainment television, and the stereotyped, harmful, and inaccurate nature of those portrayals that do exist. This Book Review concludes that television’s widespread influence can reduce social inequity and should be exploited, and proposes a system of tax incentives designed to compel, rather than dictate, positive change.

Introduction

In American society, backlash against the standard of political correctness has made racism increasingly subtle and difficult to define.1 Allegations of racism often meet with claims of oversensitivity.2 In Feb[*PG396]ruary of 2003, “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno joked that the average American elevating his dog or cat from “pet” to “companion” status was analogous to North Korean dictator Kim Jong II elevating the same from “appetizer” to “entrée.”3 Upon requests by Asian-American groups for an apology, Leno and NBC refused, characterizing the statements as satirical rather than demeaning.4 Depending on one’s political leanings and personal perspective, both characterizations have merit.5 Leno’s “satirical” comments ridiculed a cultural practice of an ethnic minority living in the United States.6 Is this best branded cultural insensitivity, satire, or outright bigotry?

Leno’s remarks illustrate the most fundamental obstacle to eliminating racism—identifying it.7 Racist words and actions, when not explicitly offensive, are judged subjectively; in an age and society where prejudice is couched in “satirical” remarks mocking the cultural practices that deviate from white America’s norms, comments that subjugate and discriminate easily fall under the guise of satire.8

[*PG397] For ethnic minorities in America, racism is a familiar, if not routine, aspect of daily life.9 Although few would deny its existence, its prevalence and causes are disputed vigorously.10 While many race theorists blame white racism for ethnic minorities’ past and continuing failure to achieve the success of the white majority, an equal number vehemently opposes this view.11 Current public sentiment often favors America’s historical emphasis on individual responsibility, attributing poverty and welfare needs to a lack of initiative rather than assigning blame to existing social and economic structures.12

In Race and Place: Equity Issues in Urban America, John Frazier, Florence Margai, and Eugene Tettey-Fio conclude the opposite, arguing that white racism and domination created “Areas of Minority Concentrations” (AOMCs)13 found in America’s largest urban centers.14 Through meticulous research, the authors critically assess the origins of minority failure to achieve the white majority’s success in order to explain the current status of American minority populations.15 They ascribe racism’s origin and perpetuation to society’s political environment and its abuse of science and the media, concluding that legislative interference is crucial to rectify the situation.16 Although the authors suggest a remedy, it fails to posit substantive measures for change.17

Television media, one source of social inequity the authors address briefly, can temper greatly such racial and urban segregation by lessening fatalistic attitudes of minority youth and public misconceptions.18 [*PG398]By examining the effects of television on the often-overlooked Asian-American minority population, this Book Review illustrates television’s impact on social misperceptions and suggests a way to correct these misperceptions.19 To execute such reform, this Book Review proposes a system of tax incentives for networks in exchange for multi-dimensional coverage of ethnic minorities.

Part I reviews Race and Place’s compilation of empirical studies.20 It then explores analyses of media influence in Race and Place and in independent research.21 Part I also describes in brief the two genres of television media explored in this Book Review, news and reality TV.22 Part II examines past and current Asian-American representations in both genres.23 By appraising televised disseminations of Asian-American stereotypes, Part II discusses their impact on the public and on Asian Americans.24 Accepting Frazier’s conclusion that public internalization of media images perpetuates segregation, Part III argues that Congress must actively counter stereotyping and the absence of Asian Americans and other minorities in television.25 Finally, Part III [*PG399]suggests a system of tax incentives to offset the dearth of even-handed and multi-dimensional portrayals of minorities.26

I.  Television Media: Its Ability to Influence American
Popular Culture

A.  The Perspective of Race and Place

Empirical research leads Frazier and his coauthors to their primary deduction, that race significantly predicts both urban environment and available social resources.27 Racial minorities have been habitually concentrated in urban environments possessing significantly inferior resources compared to environments with white majority populations.28 Analyses of differences between black, Hispanic, and Asian neighborhood concentrations demonstrate persistent and drastic disparities in the living conditions of white-majority areas and areas of minority concentrations in a given urban center.29

As to cause, the authors assert that America’s socioeconomic-political environment and its abuse of science and the media first created and now perpetuate racism.30 According to a 1999 media study, white prejudice creates an “oppressive system of cultural messages and institutional policies and practices” that shapes the self-identities of children.31 The media, a tool of this oppressive system, shapes and [*PG400]reinforces flawed self-identification with either the oppressor (whites) or the oppressed (ethnic minorities).32

To remedy these inequities, the authors recommend policies that allocate benefits and services based on geographic region rather than race.33 To achieve truly significant change, however, the authors stress the need for education and improved understanding of others’ cultural experiences, attainable via “engagement.”34 Engagement—that is, discourse among diverse racial groups in neighborhoods, churches, schools, and social clubs—is an admirable proposition; the authors, however, posit no means of realizing it other than to recommend a committed and informed leadership.35

A possible remedy to America’s equity problem, mentioned cursorily by the authors, is the powerful role the television media can play in both creating and erasing racial and social inequity. The authors’ brief discussion of media’s influence mentions damage done by the news media to Hispanic Americans during the “Zoot-Suit Riots” of the early 1940s and false images of black-white racial harmony perpetuated in film, but they ignore the media’s take on Asian Americans.36 Furthermore, though the authors’ solutions of geographically apportioned benefits and active engagement establish a basis for change, a more concrete proposal is needed. This Book Review attempts to remedy these deficiencies by examining the television media’s ability to influence—and alter—racial stereotypes and inequitable practices.

B.  Media’s Influence on Popular Culture

As capitalist entities originally established for the public interest, the media are forums through which public concerns, interests, and ideals are voiced.37 Of all the forms of American mass media, televi[*PG401]sion is arguably the most prevalent.38 Its accessibility and popularity enable it to affect vastly feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.39 Just as it reflects society, television shapes cultural identities and mores.40

Television critics have attempted to catalog television’s impact, variously characterizing the media as misleading, destructive of debate, instructive of societal norms, and a promoter of consumerism.41 Most significantly, media industry observers claim that television teaches models of behavior by documenting, scrutinizing, and satirizing our manners of friendship, family relationships, romance, and animosity, ultimately “informing” the culture on how to act in given situations.42 However they articulate it, media scholars agree that television dramatically impacts the educational and attitudinal makeup of American society.43

[*PG402] Within the television medium is a multitude of genres—categories of programming that share certain conventions, features, and norms.44 Two of the most ubiquitous—news and reality television—are also two of the most influential. Audiences often perceive news programming as a “window on the world,” and assume that images and stories are unadulterated transmissions of daily events.45 News is “not merely seen as like reality but as unmediated reality itself.”46 Absolute objectivity is impossible, however, because news producers simultaneously construct the news as they transmit it, choosing what to show and how.47 Television news thus reflects the biases, however subtle or unintended, of those communicating it.48 Nevertheless, its purported objectivity imparts it with great power to influence attitudes and values.49

The dominant function of entertainment programming, in contrast, is to divert rather than inform. One recent phenomenon in entertainment television is reality-based television, a merger of entertainment and reality.50 Although relatively unscripted and featuring no actors, reality-based television still implicates selectivity issues of presentation and casting.51 Further, reality-based television’s influence, based in its authenticity and “reality,” surpasses that of news and conventional entertainment television because of its tremendous popularity.52 Re[*PG403]gardless of the constructive or destructive nature of television’s influence, given the extensive research attesting to television’s power to manipulate social constructions of reality, it is critical to examine television’s treatment of ethnic minorities.53

II.  Media Representation of Asian Americans

The Asian-American presence in the United States is a rich yet oddly invisible one.54 As recently as thirty years ago, Asian Americans lived under second-rate conditions, serving as “worker bees” and vilified in times of economic duress.55 Although integral to a complete picture of the multiracial and multicultural American experience, the mainstream news and mass media have been slow to recognize Asian Americans’ role.56 While other commonly marginalized minority populations like Latinos are “beginning to gain some notice to alter the old black-and-white paradigm,” discussions of minority issues still commonly overlook Asian Americans.57

One reason for this inattention is the Asian-American “model minority” stereotype. Socioeconomically, the average Asian American validates America’s capitalist philosophy, which espouses the notion that the individual alone is responsible for his or her economic success or failure.58 Even setting aside the fact that few Asian Americans hold positions of political or social power, this generalization still fails to account for the socioeconomic disparities among Asian-American subgroups.59 [*PG404]Among the approximately forty-three different subgroups, income and educational levels vary drastically.60

Unfortunately, the illusory belief that all Asian Americans are socioeconomically successful feeds public complacency about the existence of anti-Asian discrimination.61 Thus, the American media tends to disseminate stereotypes through its limited Asian-American characters or discussions of Asian-American issues.62 The chief danger of these portrayals lies in their effects on youth of all ethnicities, where the lack of Asians visibly functioning as cognizable members of American society is potentially damaging to development and Asian-American self-identification.63 Since the 1980s, television producers and writers increasingly have targeted a demographically younger audience.64 More than adults, youth self-identify with televised images, and television can either damage self-identity by negative stereotypes or improve the same with positive, diverse imagery.65

[*PG405]A.  Asian Americans in the News

News directors, anchors, and other personnel are seldom Asian American, and Asian-American males are especially absent.66 Although media observers in no way claim that Asian-American females are commonplace in the news, they criticize the invisibility of Asian-American male counterparts.67 One critic characterizes this trend as another example of “the fantasy-ideal of the Asian woman . . . at the side of the Euro-American conqueror as war bride, as mail-order wife . . . as TV news anchor.”68

[*PG406] The mere absence of Asian Americans, however, is not the only problem with television news. Its content, driven by cost concerns and the desire to appease the public’s appetite for excitement, hampers social change by encouraging misperceptions that overlook social issues underlying crime and poverty.69 By simplifying or sensationalizing crime, television news often promotes societal rushes to judgment.70 Because it is market-driven and preoccupied with high ratings, television produces superficial programming that caters to collective fears, anxieties, and interests.71 Consequently, the viewing public acquires skewed notions of minorities.72

Television news coverage of Asian Americans predominantly presents two types of images: Asians as generic model minorities who excel academically or as disreputable, perpetually foreign characters.73 Despite complaints by Asian-American activists, the news media continues to characterize Asian Americans as eternal outsiders.74 In January 2003, for instance, Asian-American journalists protested the absence of media coverage when basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, referring to a Chinese-born professional basketball player, said to a reporter, “Tell Yao Ming, ‘ching-chong-yang-wah-ah-soh.’”75 The media’s silence on this [*PG407]issue effectively condoned his words and the treatment of Asian Americans as outsiders.76

More serious issues arise when news broadcasts oversimplify issues to enhance ratings and inadvertently exacerbate racial tensions.77 Recent examples include coverage of Muslim Americans following September 11, the African-American-Korean conflicts during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and, more infamously, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin.78 Television’s ability to provoke and check racist sentiments and hate crimes confers upon the media a duty to provide multi-dimensional minority coverage.

B.  Asian Americans in Entertainment Television

Asian-American representations in entertainment television are equally inadequate. Television shows seldom depict Asian Americans as everyday Americans.79 Asian-American characters are typically passive, scholarly foreigners who cannot assimilate, or characters restricted to clichéd occupations and marginalized with comical accents and mannerisms.80 One Asian actor’s experience is particularly telling: in a 2003 [*PG408]survey of Asian Americans in primetime TV, he disclosed that he had played “a dry cleaner and a Chinese take out delivery man in 21 different prime-time shows” in the span of a few years.81

Reality-based television, however, has attempted to counter the current paucity of Asian-American representation.82 In its formative stages, reality-based television featured few Asians on shows like “The Real World” and “Survivor,” but recent efforts by producers and casting directors to cast more minorities have led to greater Asian-American representation.83 Nevertheless, these portrayals are often of dubious substance, encountering the incendiary or simplistic problems characteristic of news programming.84 Moreover, network and public indifference to racist images and epithets exacerbates the damage that stereotyped depictions cause.85 One recent incident, FOX’s proposed game show “Banzai,” illustrates the disquietingly obscure nature of such indifference.86

[*PG409] As examples from news and reality-based television reveal, television programming fails to illustrate existing racial conditions.87 Furthermore, the sheer lack of Asian Americans in television increases the emblematic, and therefore problematic, nature of these stereotypes.88 Few exceptions exist to counter stereotypes presented on television; thus, the consequences of limited Asian-American representation in television are serious.89 For children, the visual absence of Asian Americans on television establishes subconscious conclusions of what one can and cannot be—actors, anchormen, and women—and perceptions of what one is—studious, exotic, nerdy.90

III.  Policy and Change

Television’s impact on youth self-perception and development is tremendous.91 Experts have found that for children, inclusion in television is a “‘major signal of acceptance, respect and recognition.”92 Consequently, the absence of cognizable cultural images and characters disturbs children and affects their aspirations.93 Minorities in particular internalize negative imagery seen on television, “imped[ing] [*PG410]their ability to realize their personal and academic potential in American society.”94 Great incentive exists, therefore, to strengthen the presence and diversity of Asian-American media portrayals, which can diminish appreciably the negative thought constructs that perpetuate urban inequity.95 As one media critic has noted:

Increasing the number of Asian-Americans in positions of role-models frequently found in the entertainment industry has the potential to give Asian-American children a chance to identify with someone like themselves that’s famous. One important part of having a good self-image is having a goal in life, and for many children, their goal is to be like their role model on television.96

Because viewers rarely consider that networks’ desire for profit skews their programming decisions, television imagery imperceptibly interferes with the ability to understand others in our society.97 As a society that prioritizes racial harmony and equity, we must exploit television’s great potential to maximize both. Although the neglect of Asian Americans is especially noticeable, media representations of all underserved minorities must improve.98

A.  Engagement: A Promising but Incomplete Solution

In practice, the solution proffered by the authors of Race and Place, the active “engagement” of committed and informed leaders, such as the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), has little impact. The AAJA and MANAA frequently voice concerns of inequitable or stereotyped coverage to network executives.99 Unfortunately, large networks [*PG411]routinely disregard or dismiss these considerations and continue to feature stereotyped, familiar representations, or exclude Asian-American portrayals altogether.100 Similarly, networks meet NAACP protests with disingenuous comments asserting their commitment to diversity.101 The futility of “engagement” alone thus renders legislative action imperative to quash television media’s stereotyping of minorities.

B.  Financial Incentives: A Pragmatic Approach to Content Modification

Although the impetus for media reform is often rooted in idealistic and hazy notions of utopian equality, the most likely solution may be one rooted in practicality. Letters and protests from the Asian-American community have effected little tangible change.102 Predictably, as networks are profit-driven corporations, finances exert the greatest influence over casting and programming decisions.103 Short of bribing networks to present more diverse programming, the most viable alternative is regulation on the federal or state level.104 Two commonly employed methods of increasing media diversity are diversification of media ownership and direct regulation of broadcast content.105 Due to recent regulatory modifications, however, the former suggestion seems unlikely at best, and perhaps even abortive.106

[*PG412] Ostensibly, imposing direct constraints on broadcast content appears more controversial and equally unrealistic.107 Attempts by both Congress and the Federal Communications Commision (FCC) to regulate content often conflict appreciably with First Amendment values and confront vigorous corporate media resistance.108 Moreover, the dissolution of the fairness doctrine in 1987 has degraded further any public duty formerly imposed upon the media to afford reasonable discussion of contrasting views on controversial issues.109

Beyond allowing restrictions on indecent and violent programming and obscene speech,110 courts rarely reject First Amendment attacks on regulatory constraints on media content.111 The Supreme Court, however, has held select categories of speech to be unprotected [*PG413]by the First Amendment, among them, hate speech.112 Televised stereotyping can directly incite hate speech and crimes by creating misperceptions, exemplified by the recent violence on Arab Americans.113 The potential to prevent hate speech should outweigh constitutional objections to media regulation. This association may be attenuated, but television’s capacity to educate and mold children’s values and attitudes renders it significant.114 The courts and Congress have found both diversity and the interests of children to be compelling state interests subject to the “exercise of legislative powers.”115 Diversity in television media, not unlike diversity in education, is a social priority that can and should be encouraged by legislation on both state and federal levels.116

One recent legislative proposal, suggested by Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, reflects increasing unease with the current state of media diversity.117 In his proposal, Representative Engle recommended the formation of a committee to supervise media content ultimately to [*PG414]minimize media distortions and minority stereotyping.118 Although laudable in sentiment, in practice, the proposal is more symbolic than it is pragmatic.119 One practical aspect of the proposal, however, is its tactic of encouragement of programming diversification, which avoids many of the First Amendment conflicts inherent in media content regulation.120 Rather than policing media diversity, compelling it via direct monetary incentives will more likely be tolerated by mainstream media, as financial incentives impose no additional duties upon networks.121 Instead, offering material gain in exchange for equitable representation targets networks’ most fundamental purpose—turning a profit.122 While requiring racial fairness and evenhanded representation is infeasible and constitutionally unsound, promoting the same is not only permissible, but also a fundamental element of the media and FCC’s public interest standard.123

C.  A Case Study: “Hollywood North”

In the mid-1980s, Canada established a system of labor-based tax incentives to streamline domestic productions and encourage foreign media production within its borders, endeavors designed to increase and improve domestic jobs and profits.124 Today, two Canadian tax credits apply to foreign film production: the British Columbia (BC) [*PG415]Film Production Services Tax Credit (PSTC) and the Canadian Production Services Tax Credit (Canadian PSTC).125 Both provide refundable, capless tax credits to Canadian or international film and television production companies incurring costs in BC or Canada.126

Increasingly, Hollywood production companies have filmed in Canada to lower production costs.127 In conjunction with sponsored training programs for workers and support in constructing state-of-the-art production facilities, the generous tax incentives provide much of the impetus to relocate.128 As of 1999, the popularity of these financial incentives had cost the U.S. economy approximately $10 billion annually, five times its loss in 1990.129 The success of the Canadian tax incentives illustrates the draw of financial incentives for the media industry, whose producers have modified without hesitation their hiring practices to comply with Canadian standards.130 Formerly favored film locations such as California, Texas, and Illinois have suffered tremendous losses in revenue, while the Canadian economy has benefited considerably.131 While no policy can guarantee results, the demonstrated abil[*PG416]ity of tax incentives to induce desired behavior makes such incentives a plausible remedy that falls within First Amendment boundaries.132

D.  Diversifying Content: Administering and Structuring
a Tax Incentive Program

Tax incentives utilize the tax system to encourage favored forms of business enterprise.133 The success of Canadian and British Columbian tax credit systems illustrates tax incentives’ viability to stimulate desired change.134 Just as Hollywood movie moguls have relocated to Vancouver, exploiting Canada’s proffered tax credits, reducing production costs, and maximizing profits, tax incentives can induce television network executives to increase and improve diverse minority coverage to enhance profits.135 While some argue that tax incentives designed to improve social welfare are ineffective and that their claimed advantages are illusory, these criticisms are inapposite here.136

To construct a sound, consistently enforced policy, the legislature must consider three principal issues: the methods for calculating the amount of the credits, the standards for qualification for credits by number of minorities portrayed, and the standards for qualification by [*PG417]quality of minority representation. The most straightforward of these—though not necessarily the least contentious—is the calculation itself. One possibility is to parallel the Canadian PSTC in its focus on labor costs.137 A small fixed percentage of labor costs directly related to the production or casting of diverse programming could be credited to the network.138 To maximize multi-dimensional coverage and employment and realize fully the benefits of legislation, the tax incentives should be capless.139

To qualify for any credits, networks would need to meet a predetermined minimum of substantial minority representation, or “critical mass,”140 defined by the legislature or a similarly approved administrative body.141 Beyond this floor, networks could earn additional credits consistent with the number and quality of non-stereotypical representations of ethnic minorities they feature.

The language of any standard—here, “critical mass”—however, could generate considerable argument as to how best to define and quantify it.142 One objective and straightforward option derives from an aspect of television media that minority media watch groups often criticize: featuring casts and personnel that reflect the ethnic realities of the network’s geographic reach.143 Television production and programs could attain a “critical mass” by employing and featuring ethnic minorities proportionate to their local audience’s demographic makeup.144 Thus, a reality-based television show based in Hartford, Connecticut, would encompass a different critical mass of a given minority population than one set in Fresno, California.145 Such proportionality incorporates Frazier’s and his coauthors’ recommendations for regional apportionment of services into a legislative policy targeted towards media reform.146 Basing qualifications for tax benefits in the ethnic demographics of a given region would provide the standard with a measure of objectivity.147

Given their inherent ambiguity, however, assigning a numeric value to the terms “critical mass” or “substantial minority representation” assuredly will be contentious. This proposal offers no definite answer, but advises a flexible policy allowing for future accommodations as needs change. Although the legislature would be the ultimate arbiter of these policies, federal and state legislatures could minimize dissension and maximize utility by employing the specialized knowledge of both the FCC and those media activist organizations that criticize the current television media condition.148

An additional challenge to a tax incentive policy is determining the substance of multi-dimensional representations. Again, the legislature should draw on the specialized knowledge of minority media organizations to define these measures; the organizations could compile their perceptions of the misleading stereotypes networks disseminate, accompanied by suggested tactics to counter them.149 Additionally, the policy should provide for the continuing feedback of minority [*PG419][*PG418]media organizations on new portrayals and characters, akin to an ongoing consultancy, rather than a one-time, ex ante report.150

Further benefits of a tax incentive program include immediate enactment and administrative ease that typical regulatory programs cannot boast.151 To enact this policy, the legislature could establish a structure in which networks file evidence of diverse programming to qualify for and cash in on the tax benefits, parallel to the Canadian tax credits.152 As a matter of administrative convenience, no regulatory body (other than the pre-existing Internal Revenue Service) need be formed to provide for this policy measure. Congress has traditionally created incentives in the form of tax expenditures to enact policy measures it considers to be in the national interest.153 For example, tax benefits and incentives encourage investment in low-income housing, higher education, manpower training, and business investment in central cities or rural areas.154 This proposal simply reflects another, equally worthy objective attainable via tax legislation.

Although structuring the incentive program recommended here will generate difficulties of definition and minimum requirements, these are minor impediments in comparison with the impositions on free speech that hamper other regulatory solutions.155 Moreover, in an incentive-based system that encourages rather than constrains content, these issues should be less contentious.156 By deriving standards from objective statistics, this proposal offers a standard to which networks can conform as desired. Instead of being penalized for an absence of accommodating representations, network can avail themselves of tax savings by increasing non-stereotyped minority presences in the media.

Conclusion

In addition to proposing tax incentives to accomplish media reform and mediate social inequity, Asian Americans, other ethnic minorities, and the general public must exert their influence as market consumers. Ultimately, public desires and necessities drive profits and ratings, and consequentially, network programming.157 If consumers demand multi-dimensional television representations of Asian Americans and other underrepresented minorities, the prospect of higher ratings will prompt corporate executives to create more diverse representations to further increase profits.158

As John Frazier and his coauthors note in Race and Place, the television media’s impact on American society has been a great source of social and urban inequity.159 Their solution for change, however, parallels legislative proposals that forgo specific measures in favor of generalized recommendations.160 In contrast, this proposal explicitly employs the tax structure to manipulate America’s free-market system. Based on the success of similar labor-based policies in attracting Hollywood media to foreign locales, these monetary incentives promise swift and direct revisions of programming content.

The significant damage to minority self-perceptions of television’s dissemination of minority stereotypes mandates action. By promising to increase the profit gains that motivate broadcast networks’ conduct, the [*PG420]legislature, FCC, and ethnic minority organizations can curtail these disseminations. Thus, this system can appreciably contribute to realizing the racial equity and harmony that Race and Place envisions.161

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