After the Banana: Reflections on the AsAm Blogosphere

November 24, 2009

Banana Bloggers Conference.jpg Let me start by saying that, whatever the shortcomings of the day, the idea to bring so many Asian American bloggers into one room was foolproof. It was a pleasure to put faces to names, to compare people's embodied selves to their online personas. And as I mentioned at the event, the fact that we responded to the summons from Lac and Steve (the organizers) in such force, attested to how timely this call to meet really was.

Write-ups of the event since, though, have been troubling to me. Aside from Jon Yang's very balanced account (thank you, Jon), I find that my fellow bloggers have opted for a kind of resolute cheerleading, such that our team can do no wrong, and to be critical is to speak treason. Freedom fries, anyone?

I won't dignify a certain panelist's behavior with further discussion here, because what concerns me far more than one man's ill conduct is what seems to be an unpremeditated agreement to protect it: In the face of what can at best be deemed unprofessional and disrespectful behavior, several of my colleagues opt not only to avoid calling a spade a spade, but seem to overcompensate by singling out the inebriated for kudos: 

"I especially loved meeting [him]... because I respect his blog so much" (Nikkeiview); "last, but of course not least..." (bigWOWO)

This closing of ranks extends to chastising those who do criticize the drinker's character based on his behavior. But it's not clear to me what we as adults and (self-designated) representatives of the Asian American community are to be held accountable for, if not for our behavior. While I wouldn't necessarily echo Oiyan's (APAs for Progress) response to Nikkeiview in its entirety, she makes some very good points, and bigWOWO's demand that she apologize gives me highly unpleasant flashbacks of Bush-era cries of unAmericanism.

I have to confess to feeling some great discomfort myself, with voicing public criticism of the first AsAm bloggers' gathering. I fear making Hyphen a lightening rod for hostility among our ranks-closing compatriots. I fear alienating the organizers in their footage-editing power -- for though they have my respect and gratitude for having their hearts in the right places, I do think they bit off more than they could chew. (Please forgive overuse of euphemistic idioms; see earlier statement of discomfort.)

But in the aftermath of the event, I wonder if we have what it takes to move away from eulogies and toward postmortems? Because it's the postmortems that will help us to figure out how to do better.

Or is this conversation going to continue to emblematize what I fear for Asian American media, as it becomes increasingly reliant on blogs, and loses its journalistic anchors? Will we as bloggers feel so little bound to objectivity and critical analysis? So beholden to the butterers of bread? So biased in our allegiances that we become a new yellow journalism?

I believe our readership has a right to know.


erin K Ninh

contributing editor & blogger

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.



Hi Erin,Thanks for posting, and for furthering the conversation. I agree with you that there is a sense of closing ranks around the one panelist, but I guess my only defense is that although his behavior was reprehensible, it was a personal flaw, not one of the event itself. As for the event, I wish it were better run, and it will be next time.Erin Yoshimura and I've already suggested lots of ideas for improvement and may have lined up a couple of sponsors who can help the event next year, and into the future.As for your concerns about journalism vs bloggers, I submit that "journalism" is rarely as balanced and unbiased as "trained" journalists like to trumpet from atop their ivory towers. I'm sure Hyphen holds to those standards.But I've been a critic, reporter and editor in newspapers since 1980, and "journalism" as a craft in general is deeply flawed and myopic beyond belief, to the point of delusion.As a writer and blogger in the AAPI realm since 1997, I always find talk of bloggers ruining journalism to be specious and shallow.I caution you not to paint all of blogdom with such a broad, privileged brush. I talk to newsroom reporters and editors at dozens of newspapers owned by my day-job company about the role of blogging in media. I've watched "journalists" first deride and then grudgingly accept blogging, and still snicker about bloggers other than themselves.Maybe it's the term "blogger" that needs to be disassociated from Banana. I for one would rather think of the event in the future as a gathering of AAPI voices, not just bloggers. Get the authors, the reporters, reps from sites that aren't blogs, power Social Media users, artists, performers, magazines, filmmakers and videographers to attend.Anyway, I didn't mean to focus so much on the blogging v journo part, but there you go. As a veteran journalist who blogs, it's a passion point for me.Back to the original point: Thanks for writing about Banana. I actually wasn't chastising anyone who criticizes the one panelist's behavior -- I chose not to focus on it, but welcome others' more frank assessments. That's one reason I welcome the comments, and link to other write-ups, pro and con.And, Hyphen being an important platform for the AAPI voice in the media, I don't think your comments would turn it into a lightning rod for criticism at all.Like with all media (and this is something that has emerged as a result of blogs), what's more important is the dialogue with the audience, NOT the content that's produced by the journalist or blogger. Comments are often more interesting -- and almost always more important in the long run -- than any article or blog post. Media isn't a one-way communication anymore; it's about the two-way conversation.It was great meeting you, and everyone else -- see you next year!BTW, on a purely "journalism" note, are you or other Hyphen staff/freelancers members of AAJA? Next year's convention is in LA, and Erin and I will be there. I'm the president of the Denver AAJA group. I wondered if y'all will be making the trek down from the Bay Area. Maybe that would be a good time (August) to plan the next Banana? I'm already working to organize a panel about AAPI bloggers for the AAJA convention....
Since this year's Banana was on the West Coast, might it not be useful to have it on the East Coast or in the Midwest. Last time I checked, there are Asians there too. =P Okay, that was sarcastic.Seriously though, maybe you should consider rotating the location to places beyond California because the Asian American diaspora should not be so California-centric.
Erin,Thanks for continuing the dialogue. I really do appreciate it. And thank you for being fair about it.Like Gil, I didn't see TMM's public display as a main part of the presentation. Instead, I chose to concentrate on TMM's big heart, his awesome blogging, and his strong character. I have known TMM for a long time--longer than most of the other bloggers on the panel--and I know that he is a great guy. I chose to focus on TMM the person, rather than focusing on that one day. It was great for me to finally meet him, regardless of circumstances.I happen to agree with Gil and Jon (and maybe you) on the drunkenness. In no way do I condone public drunkenness, and I was sad that he was unable to share his wisdom. As Jon mentioned, the guys didn't get a lot of speaking time, and it would've been great to hear more from TMM. We needed his voice.But to question TMM's knowledge of "militant" based on one day of drinking is an unfair character attack, and the comment on Gil's blog seems to relish in the pleasure of TMM's faux pas. The commenter also commented on the same topic on Jon's blog--which would be fine, but the fact that it's being mentioned over and over at the exclusion of other topics is uncalled for, especially given what TMM has done for the blogosphere and the American military. If the commenter had spoken to TMM during the afterparty, she would have heard him apologize. He was apologizing to everyone. He too felt very bad.As for blogging and journalism, I agree with Gil--it's always biased. Journalists cover what they want to cover, which is why we see such a huge gap between Fox News and CNN.I also think we need to recognize that there are two kinds of journalism--news reporting and opinion. I've chosen to be an opinionist, not a news reporter. I've never felt that I was under any obligation whatsoever to present counterarguments to my opinions. As long as I'm truthful, that's all that matters. I ran into this same issue when I criticized a Rice Chaser movie way back when. The writer kept accusing me of "bad journalism." I responded by asking him if anything I said was factually untrue. I think he simply wanted me to represent the other side, i.e. "love is colorblind in movies even if it ALWAYS happens to be a White Male protagonist with an Asian female love interest." I was under no obligation to present that viewpoint. Mine is an activist blog, and so I prefer change over the same old "love is colorblind but just happens to be more blind towards Asian men" themes that we always get.Think about Maureen Dowd and David Brooks. Are they biased? Yes. Has Dowd ever said anything good about Bush? No. But it's okay, since they are Op-Ed writers. They too are opinionists.In the case of Banana, I simply chose to focus on what was positive. I too had criticisms, but since Lac and Steve have been transparent and willing to incorporate all criticisms into next years planning, I just chose to voice them privately. It's not yellow journalism at all--if someone else wants to be a news reporter, that's perfectly fine, and I won't stop people from reporting everything and anything they saw. As for me, I'd prefer to share my opinions on what I saw--positive efforts towards making things better.
Hello Gil and Byron,Thank you both for your very thoughtful comments. I’m glad of the dialogue as well, and especially glad that we’re doing it very civilly here.Let me readily grant that “even” journalists are biased; I did not mean to imply that the categories are black and white (good and objective journalism vs. bad and opinionated bloggers). Certainly, writers in both fields write on a spectrum--some of whom strive to prepare the ground with research, to couch their arguments such that they are fair (not misrepresenting, not omitting essentials), to word their pieces with a professional respect for language--even as the most compelling articles in either realm tend to have something to say.My point is not to idealize the journalist and denigrate the blogger, then, but to urge blogging toward something that those publications we esteem as good journalism have benefited from for some time: professional codes of standards and ethics. Certainly journalism can often be very, very bad. But what’s key is the *existence* within the profession of codes of conduct, *by which* its practitioners may be gauged as “bad” or “good.” Fact-checking over hearsay; taking the time to learn the contours of the subject as opposed to shooting from the hip…At this point in the AsAm blogosphere, we’ve not yet formulated standards of professional conduct, and I believe it to be an urgent and necessary step as bloggers become the mainstays of AsAm media. Right now we are “voices” and as such we may authorize ourselves to give voice to whatever we feel like--the roots of the blog in journal-writing and personal expression, after all, bolstering a sense that we are not accountable to anyone but ourselves in speaking our minds. Reader beware.But we can’t have it both ways: Expect to be taken seriously while declining to be held to a standard of representational integrity? We can say what we want, and need not know whereof we speak? That makes for neither good journalism nor, I submit, good blogging.Those of us who operate as progressive blogs, including Hyphen, by definition take positions; we have arguments, we do not pretend to neutrality. But presenting a progressive perspective means, if anything, a greater obligation to our chosen readership, doesn’t it? I believe ethical media requires that the writer exercise critical thinking and encourage it in his/her readers. The balanced presentation of information is vital to this.I don’t ask that we write for the Southern Republican as well as the Asian American community organizer; I do ask that, if we’re writing for the community organizer, we tell her to the best of our ability what we believe she would want or need to know in order to form her opinions. A whiteout on the embarrassing or politically problematic aspects of something that we ourselves took part in, is not conducive to that; were the event of more serious nature, similar coverage would be called a snowjob, no?
Erin,You gave me a lot to think about. I just posted my editorial policy here. I've linked some of my past reviews and have outlined exactly how I review the products and events that I do.For me, professional conduct is simply a matter of telling the truth. An opinionist like David Brooks presents only his opinion supported by facts, and I prefer to follow that code. It's not just about ideas--we need to be truthful. For example, a few months ago, several people asked me to perpetuate a lie about a hate crime in Portland so that they could hold a rally and get all kinds of influential White people involved. While I support fighting racism--and getting White people involved in the fight--I was unwilling to lie, and I added a correction to my blog, along with an explanation of what really happened. Some of my friendships suffered because of my refusal to lie. My own local organization Thymos suffered. But I don't believe in lying.As for Banana itself, I was on the panel. I was a promoter of the event too. There is no way that anyone could rationally expect me to be unbiased in discussing it, the same way we wouldn't expect Thomas Friedman to be unbiased when talking about a conference on global warming in which he served on the panel ("Man, the food at the hotel was HORRIBLE."). As a panelist and participant, I clearly have a vested interest in seeing it succeed.With that being said, everything I said regarding the conference was the complete truth as I saw it. Could it have been improved? Yes. I would've liked to have more time to answer that audience question about raising kids, especially since I was the only Rice Daddy blogger in the room. But I don't think I'm under any obligation to nitpick all the flaws and mistakes that people made.Even to that hypothetical community organizer whom you mention, I would still tell her what was good about the conference. In my mind, there was nothing so bad that I would tell her not to go. All the complaints--justified as they were--were just minor details that I honestly didn't think were significant.