Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Really? ESPN uses “chink” about Jeremy Lin in headline after loss against Hornets. Really.
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Really? ESPN uses “chink” about Jeremy Lin in headline after loss against Hornets. Really.

Racist headline used by ESPN after Jeremy Lin and Knicks' 2/17 loss to Hornets

Sigh. I knew it couldn’t last. Not only did the Knicks finally lose one, but ESPN managed to end its love affair with Lin with a helluva Dear Jeremy kissoff. ESPN last night posted a game story on some mobile editions with the headline “Chink In The Armor” (really) at 2:30 am ET, which was changed after 3 am to “All Good Things…”

ESPN posted an apology this morning, by Kevin Ota, Director of Communications, Digital Media ESPN Communications, who ironically is Asian American and having a crappy weekend:

Last night,’s mobile web site posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 am ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 am ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.

The network’s Rob King also tweeted a response that linked to the apology:

There’s no defense for the indefensible. All we can offer are our apologies, sincere though incalculably inadequate.

I don’t think this is over yet. There’s no way any producer — even the most inexperienced, underpaid, ignorant, young overnight employee — could not know about the racist meaning of the word “chink.” The headline, placed beneath an image of Lin, was a deliberate use of a racial — and racist — epithet. I hope some serious actions are taken by the network to both punish the person who used the word in this context, and to prevent it from happening again.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time the word “chink” was used on ESPN … to describe Jeremy Lin. Here’s an ESPN anchor (no, it’s not Walt Frazier; ignore the title beneath him) saying “chink in the armor” in a reference to how Lin can improve his game:

(ESPN posted this 11-second video apology today, three days after the incident and only after the use of the word in the headline provoked outrage across the Internet.)

What’s insidious about the use of “chink” is that because the word predates its racist use, in other contexts, it isn’t necessarily racist. “A chink in the armor” is a perfectly legitimate way to describe a strategic weakness, as in a opening in the chain mail of an opponent’s armor that can be exploited in battle. OK, so it’s a real word and a legitimate phrase. When you’re talking about the battle for Middle Earth with Sauron’s hordes. But not when it’s run with a photo of Jeremy Lin. Not when there’s even a hint of association with its anti-Chinese common usage.

And maybe not at all, ever, in the 21st century.

The phrase “chink in the armor” can be traced to the 1400s. It’s had a good long run, and maybe it’s time to retire it. The racial overtones since the late 1800s when anti-Chinese racism took hold in the US has sullied the word so it’s difficult to justify its use in almost any context.

Some people will pooh-pooh this idea and tell me “Oh, come on, don’t be so politically correct, it’s just a word, so what if someone uses it racially, if it’s used correctly it’s fine.”

Yeah, you might have a point. But for most Asian Americans, the word “chink” in any context, or even out of context, on a page by itself, elicits a very specific and predictable response: Our gut clenches. We react viscerally to the word’s racist meaning because we’ve been hit with its history of hate.

We’ve been called “chink” all our lives and told to “go back to where you came from” (even though we might have been born in the U.S.) and taunted by phony Chinese “ching-chong” speech and eyes pulled back into a squint (even in recent years, by Miley Cyrus and the Spanish Olympic basketball team).

These are part of a long list of symbols that are shortcut codes for racial denigration, that can be used in a range from mockery to out-right violence: In 2001, Kenny Chiu, a 17-year-old Taiwanese American boy in Laguna Beach, Calif was murdered and the word “chink” scratched into his car. The word may not have incited the violence but it’s clearly a reflection of the racial hatred that fed the violence. The crime led to the passage of “Kennys Law” which protects hate crime victims.

The word “chink” was the topic of recent discussion within the board of directors of the Mile-Hi JACL, the Denver chapter of the oldest Asian American civil rights organization in the country. The discussion was sparked by the use of the word by The Denver Post newspaper in a Dec. 4 2011 headline, “Chink in euro link for Colorado’s export businesses.”

The word is used correctly, to refer to a weakness. There isn’t even a reference to China, or Asia, in the article. It’s about the euro, and problems facing European economies and how they could affect Colorado. The word “chink” was probably used simply because it rhymes with “link.” No harm, no foul, right?

Here’s how I reacted when I saw the headline: My stomach clenched. I felt a flash of anger (and disappointment, since I worked for the Denver Post, and also its parent company, MediaNews Group). Then I read the article, and relaxed. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of consternation I’d felt when I first saw the word — just the word, out of context — in the headline. The context showed the word was not meant racially.

This headline came to the attention of the Mile-Hi chapter of JACL. The national organization often fights against hate crime and inappropriate use of racial words and phrases, and someone thought the Denver chapter should do something about this headline.

The members of the board (I’m on the board) were split on whether this use rose to the level of pointing it out to the Post’s management. Some of the board members thought that even though the word used correctly, it was worth making a statement because it made us all stop and clench our guts. Others thought because the word was used correctly, there was no issue. I frankly was part of this group.

But Erin pointed out that even if the Post didn’t mean it the least bit racially, this was a teaching moment, a chance to educate the local mainstream media (the only daily newspaper) so that next time, maybe they’d use a different word that doesn’t carry any symbolic baggage.

Just this week, the Mile-Hi JACL board voted to send a letter to the Post that isn’t a criticism or complaint, or written in any confrontational way, but just as a suggestion to perhaps use a different word in the future instead of one that could be misconstrued. Why potentially risk alarming, offending or alienating any readers when a different word would avoid the issue altogether?

The JACL chapter is adding the ESPN debacle to the letter before sending it. If the letter gets even one reporter, copy editor or manager to think for just a moment when they consider using the word again. They might decide to use it, but at least they thought about it. That’s all we’re asking.

I don’t think anyone at ESPN — least of all the employee who posted the game story early this morning about Lin and the Knicks — took a moment to think about the word. Or if they did, they thought the wrong thought: How Lin is Chinese, so this is a perfect word to use. And no one was there to catch the stupendous error of using the word in this instance.

That, I’d say, was a really Linsane mistake to make.


The Asian American Journalists Association sent ESPN this letter today:

Feb. 18, 2012

Dear ESPN:

New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin had a bad night Friday. Regrettably, so did ESPN. Using “a chink in the armor” to describe Lin’s poor performance was inexcusable.

We at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) find it hard to fathom how such an offensive headline appeared on your publishing platforms. The phrase was even spoken on-air.

We are glad ESPN has recognized its mistake, and we appreciate the quick apology for the transgression.

Many people, not just in Asian American communities, are shocked that a news company with a long tradition of excellence would use a racial epithet. It’s particularly galling because of the weeks of discussion about Lin, his heritage and even the wave of outright racism surrounding his stardom.

We are particularly concerned that an organization as large as yours did not have the proper checks in place to prevent the mistake. It is hard to fathom how editors on so many of your platforms failed to uphold your normally high standards.

Of course, it disappoints us to see one of our most valued and committed partners in diversity stumble. As you well know, this incident does not live up to the Leadership in Diversity Award that AAJA bestowed on ESPN in 2010. But we trust that you will transform this incident into a teachable moment.

We understand and appreciate that the offensive headline has been removed. But that’s not enough. We would like to understand how it happened and what actions are being taken by ESPN to make sure such missteps do not recur. Your internal review could be instructive for others in our industry who want to improve the systems they have – or need to put in place – to ensure that fairness, accuracy and good taste are reflected in the news coverage of our communities.

As always, AAJA stands with you in our shared mission of diversity in America’s newsrooms, and we welcome an opportunity to discuss how we can help you and your employees treat our communities with the fairness and respect they deserve.

Doris Truong, AAJA National President
Bobby Caina Calvan and Jam Sardar, AAJA MediaWatch Co-Chairs

Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times comments as an Asian American who heard “chink” growing up.

Longtime Asian American columnist Emil Guillermo with his take on the ESPN gaffe, adding a bit of humor to soften the criticism.

Tim Kawakami in the San Jose Mercury News on how Lin is a role model — and how he missed his talent too.

Feb. 19: SNL opens last night’s show with a skit about Linsanity and race. I squirmed, I laughed…. and I worried that some people didn’t get the point and thought all the anti-Asian racism was funny and still OK:

Feb. 19: ESPN released a statement updating the network’s apology with actions taken:

Follow-up statement and action

At ESPN we are aware of three offensive and inappropriate comments made on ESPN outlets during our coverage of Jeremy Lin.

Saturday we apologized for two references here. We have since learned of a similar reference Friday on ESPN Radio New York. The incidents were separate and different. We have engaged in a thorough review of all three and have taken the following action:

The ESPN employee responsible for our Mobile headline has been dismissed.

The ESPNEWS anchor has been suspended for 30 days.

The radio commentator is not an ESPN employee.

We again apologize, especially to Mr. Lin. His accomplishments are a source of great pride to the Asian-American community, including the Asian-American employees at ESPN. Through self-examination, improved editorial practices and controls, and response to constructive criticism, we will be better in the future.

(Statement also appears on ESPN’s MediaZone)

Feb. 19: MSNBC segment discussing the racist side of the Jeremy Lin Story:

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David Carr in the NYT writes a column about Lin’s irresistible allure for the media. What’s not to like? He asks. After listing some of the elements that make Lin’s story so fascinating, Carr writes: “Add in the fact that he is an actual team player wearing a Knicks uniform and it’s like spotting a unicorn playing point guard at Madison Square Garden.”

The Washington Post published a story about how Lin’s success is inspiring young Asian Americans to pursue sports. (Shh, don’t tell the Tiger mothers and Dragon dads, though….)

Terrific commentary by Arthur Ch’ien of WPIX11 in New York: “‘Teachable Moments’ Of Jeremy Lin Slurs Should Have Already Been Taught.”

Oh man, here’s yet another sportscaster who used the “chink in the armor” cliche Friday night. Were all these “journalists” so devoid of imagination that they sat on this cliche all week waiting for Lin’s first loss? This one’s by the official voice of the Knicks, Spero Dedes.

Excellent interview segment with MSNBC anchor Richard Lui speaking to Dr. Jame Peterson and CT state rep. William Tong about the work we still have to do to address racial issues in America:

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Brian Tong on his blog says he’s glad this happened: “Now we know better.”

Now that the Knicks have lost again, to the NJ Nets (though Lin had what would be a great night for most players with 21 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds), maybe the crazy intensity of the fanaticism over him will settle down. Here’s a very good commentary by MSNBC’s Richard Lui about how Lin’s rise tells three separate American stories.

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Funny, sharp and on-target interview with columnist Jeff Yang about ESPN’s racial messup: ”
Jeff Yang On ESPN’s Terrible Headline: Why Not ‘Hornets To JLin: Oh, Bee-hive!’

Wow, this was fast. And pretty damned brilliant. Kevin Yee, who’s starring on Broadway in “Mary Poppins” has created and stars in “Jeremy Lin the Musical” on YouTube:

Doris Truong, the national president of the Asian American Journalists Association, was interviewed via Skype by NBC Bay Area.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee in Salon writes about Lin-spiration and how Jeremy Lin doesn’t just transcend stereotypes, he owns them.

This seems an appropriate final update on this post: The editor who wrote the Lin headline and was fired by ESPN a couple of days later, Anthony Federico, has posted an online apology and explains it wasn’t meant racially and that he’s a good person. I believe him, and hope he finds another gig soon. Here’s a part of the apology:

I owe an apology to Jeremy Lin and all people offended. I am truly sorry.

Actions speak louder than words. My words may have hurt people in that moment but my actions have always helped people. If those who vilify me would take a deeper look at my life they would see that I am the exact opposite of how some are portraying me.

They would see that on the day of the incident I got a call from a friend – who happens to be homeless – and rushed to his aid. He was collapsed on the side of the road due to exposure and hunger. They would see how I picked him up and got him a hotel room and fed him. They would see I used my vacation time last year to volunteer in the orphanages of Haiti. They would see how I ‘adopted’ an elderly Alzheimer’s patient and visited him every week for a year. They would see that every winter I organize a coat drive for those less fortunate in New Haven. They would see how I raised $10,000 for a friend in need when his kids were born four months premature. They would see how I have worked in soup kitchens and convalescent homes since I was a kid. They would see my actions speak louder than my words. They would see that these acts were not done for my glory, but for God’s. They would see that each day I live and will continue to live a life of joy and service.

It never has been or will be my intention to hurt anyone.

UPDATE March 28, 2012: Here’s a nice epilogue to the narrative about the ESPN headline. Jeremy Lin’s family reached out to Anthony Federico, the ESPN editor who was fired for the headline using the “C-word,” and it took a month but Lin had lunch with the fired editor in a Manhattan restaurant. Classy move, Lin.

(Many thanks to a couple of private groups I belong to, AAJA Media Watch and APA Media Mavens — and to Google Alerts — for helping me keep up with the best of ongoing coverage of Jeremy Lin.)