Minn. CBS affiliate WCCO airs erroneous report about Chinese shop selling dog meat; Asians ask for apology and retraction

Last week an over-eager reporter for WCCO, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, aired a “gotcha” investigative piece about a local puppy mill that had apparently shipped dogs to a meat shop in New York City’s Chinatown, where the intrepid reporter, James Schugel, got a clerk to say on the record that they do indeed sell dog as food.

The only problem was, the clerk thought Schugel was saying “duck” (and anyone who’s been in any Chinatown knows there are lots and lots of ducks hanging in the windows of every butcher shop and restaurant), and duh, of course they sell duck. To be eaten.

No matter to Schugel, who heard what he wanted, and aired the report, which triggered a visit by health department officials who checked out the shop and decided there was not a hint of dog being sold.

It was a classic case of a journalist who had made up his mind about a story, and was simply looking for confirmation of what he already believed. Once the faux pax was discovered, WCCO yanked the story from its website, but has yet to post a correction or clarification (standard procedure for media companies when they screw up), and Mr. Investigative Reporter hasn’t responded to various calls for explanations.

I have to assume this happened only because Schugel was seduced by a stereotype he held dear, that Chinese people (or Asians in general) eat dog, ha ha and gross. Well, historically it’s true that various Asian cultures have eaten dog meat, but so have countries in the rest of the world including France, Mexico and Switzerland, if not now, than in the past. But when it’s mentioned in the West, it’s as an unholy aberration and something only primitive people would do.

Although I sympathize with Schugel’s nose for news, it was ignorance and a sense of privilege that allowed him to hear what he wanted from someone with a foreign accent, without checking any further to confirm what he’d heard. Maybe if he’d taken the little extra step of asking to see some “dog” the clerk would have pointed out a “duck” right there on the spot and the stupid mistake would have been avoided.

I just had a conversation with a journalist friend in Japan last week, about how to his ears, these English words all sound the same: hat, heart, hot, head, heard, hard, hit and heat. So I’m not surprised that a clerk in Chinatown would confuse dog and duck. It was the investigative journalist’s responsibility to make sure his question was understood, and to make sure the answer he heard was what the interviewee meant.

The WCCO story not surprisingly pissed off the Chinese community (for raising such a hoary old stereotype when it wasn’t true) and Asian Americans across the country. In fact the Asian American Journalists Association chapter in Minneapolis is asking for an apology and a retraction from WCCO. The station hasn’t responded. Schigel also hasn’t responded to various calls for an explanation. Meanwhile, the clever folks at Next Media Animation have thumbed their nose at WCCO for the report with an animated version of the brouhaha (shown above).

UPDATE: Here’s a followup report from Minneapolis’ alt-weekly, City Pages, about the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the WCCO newsroom, after all remnants of the story have been scrubbed from the station’s servers and it’s become apparent that management at the station approved the report.

UPDATE: WCCO’s News Director defends the report and minimizes the most sensational charge in the story, about the meat market, in a memo to staff, but won’t make a public statement.

UPDATE: Here’s the video, available on YouTube It’s a long report and in many ways it’s a fine bit of reporting. I bet the reporter — and the station — saw it as award bait. The Chinatown portion is the exclamation point in the whole thing, but the rest is a rundown of the Minneapolis puppy mill owner. We’ll see how long this video is available:

Another UPDATE for Nov. 23: WCCO publishes an “Editor’s Note” that attempts to explain why the station screwed up, basically restating the internal memo, but without any apology, acknowledgement of the furor the story caused or anything of the sort. It’s a big FAIL — the station’s fumbled this thing from the very start and won’t admit to over-reaching because they thought they had a sensational, award-winning story on its hands.

What irks me there is that the station (and I’m including not just the over-eager reporter but management as well) is blaming the person they called on the phone at the Chinatown meat market for saying he didn’t speak English and then daring to give an interview in English:

“When we called the market, the person we spoke to said he didn’t speak English but then gave an interview in English. We asked him if the market sold dogs, and we believed he answered in the affirmative. We now believe he said duck.”

So they’re saying the guy in Chinatown’s at fault for speaking English with a Chinese accent? WTF???

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