- Jessica Lao
Panel on Asian-American Journalism with Michael Luo and Sewell Chan
A reflection on a panel with Newyorker.com Editor Michael Luo and Los Angeles Times Opinions Editor Sewell Chan, co-hosted by the Harvard Advocate, the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association, and the Wave Asian literary journal
Q: Michael, the New Yorker online has established itself as one of the main sources of COVID-19 reporting. What is the role of the cultural criticism and long-form reporting that your magazine specializes in when covering something like a pandemic?
ML: Well, one of the great things we had is that there are a lot of doctors who are really nice writers, and we’ve seen a flourishing of that on the site under the coronavirus. An ICU doctor named Dhruv Khullar has become a total star, doing these sort of diaristic literary dispatches while working shifts. The story has also been up our alley because a lot of it is centered in New York City, where we have a ton of writers; it’s also a story that encompasses both science and the future of what society will look like. In mid-April, when people expected this to be the peak of the pandemic in New York, I was having conversations with my editors in our apartments about how to cover this—this was the biggest news story of my career. We ended up landing on "24 hours in the life of New York City" in the middle of this.
Now, a bunch of other newspapers tried to do this, but what we did differently was we sent some of the best writers in the world out on assignments including hospitals, regular life, we even had a sex worker and drug dealer in there… the idea was to write these things as vignettes. It would have a sort of literary flavor to it.
We sent out nearly 50 writers and photographers, and it became the biggest collaborative effort in the New Yorker’s history. There was actually a moment at midnight when I thought, “uh oh, I think we just sent the New Yorker out on a project that’s not going to work.” In the end, David Remnick ended up pulling an all-nighter to help us shave it down, and I’m so proud of this 11,000-12,000 word piece that looks gorgeous online and only the New Yorker could do.
That piece will stand up in 10-20 years when people want to look back on what it was like in NYC during COVID-19, which is what we try to do at here; some pieces in the New Yorker are just timeless and stand up more than a newspaper story, and it’s a daily thing to figure out what that looks like online.
Q: Sewell, how did you find your writing style? What would you describe Asian-American journalism as? Do you only give Asian-American issue assignments to certain writers?
SC: I’ve been a newspaper person most of my career, so most of what I’ve done is pretty short-form and factual. To answer your second question, is Asian-American journalism the whole range of journalistic practices performed by Asians, or is it journalism about Asian-American matters? I tend toward the latter definition. In LA, where as many as a quarter of communities are of Asian ancestry, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that all of our reporters—no matter their background—have a diversity of sources. Frank Shyong is the first Asian-American metro columnist at any large newspaper in America, and he writes frequently about diversity and public access issues… but in a community with such a large Asian population, bringing those perspectives into our work should come as second nature.
ML: One thing that has come up in the wake of George Floyd’s killing is “can only Black photographers cover the protest?” Another is that you shouldn’t show the faces of protestors or anyone who hasn’t given consent. Joanna Milter, our photo director, has worked incredibly hard to cultivate a diverse network of photographers, and this is the moment you need to rely on that. It's a little complicated in this situation, though, because we need photographers who have experience covering dangerous situations...
This isn’t exactly a parallel, but I thought about Asian-American bias and hate crimes in the middle of the coronavirus, and I definitely didn't want just Asian-American journalists to be writing about those issues. When I think about Vincent Chin or 9/11, I would want those topics to be covered by as many journalists as possible.
Q: What is Asian-Americans’ role in subjects like implicit bias? How can Asian Americans confront their own implicit bias when reporting on sensitive subjects like anti-Black racism?
SC: I’ve been wondering whether journalists should undergo implicit bias training like that of the police; now that I’m thinking about it, it behooves us all to go through it. Not to say that everyone is a racist—because that’s very loaded—but nearly all of us have grown up in societies in which the legacy of racism continues to affect our day-to-day interpersonal actions. I’m lucky that I’m in a newsroom in which more than 40% of staff is POC, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect at all.
Q: The New York Times recently ran an inflammatory op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton. Sewell, as someone who used to work on opinions at the Times, what do you think of their obligation to free speech? Do you think their editorial process is flawed and led to this piece’s publication, or was this mistake due to the quick pace of journalism?
SC: I publicly spoke out about this case two days ago. It was my first time ever criticizing the New York Times publicly, so I was a little nervous...
I did not think it was a good idea to publish this op-ed—I felt it fell short of sound journalistic standards. The purpose of the op-ed page is to seek out the widest possible range of thoughtful and responsible viewpoints, which should include deeply conservative ones. This op-ed essentially parroted some talking points that Cotton and the president have already made... it was neither timely nor original.
Do I agree with the claim that this op-ed endangered lives? That’s harder for me to judge, but what I do know is that hundreds of journalists have been injured covering the arrests in the past week. As a publication, you have a communitarian responsibility, and you aren’t just chasing page-views or clicks.
Finally, Tom Cotton has a lot of different platforms to air his views, and something I weigh as opinions editor is “whose voice isn’t being heard?" The more power you have at your job, the more accountable you need to be held for your views.
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring POC journalists?
ML: Actually, most of my career, I have not consciously thought of myself as an Asian journalist. But I think you should leverage every aspect of your background that can help. When I was a reporter at the LA Times, I did a story about Chinese language schools and how they were evolving because white parents were sending their kids to them. The fact that I went to Chinese school myself growing up helped me get access to that story when no one else thought of it.
Many things I’ve investigated didn’t have to do with being Asian-American, but before I left the New York Times, I wrote this piece that went viral—an open letter to this woman who yelled at me and my family to go back to China. This was in 2016, right before the election. I wrote about my feelings about being a Perpetual Foreigner, about my children. They ended up running that piece on the front page of the New York Times, and that led to a national conversation about Asian-Americans and race. For a week, I suddenly became the face of Asians and Asian-Americans—someone recognized me at Barnes at Nobles! The interesting thing is that it's not like I'm an expert in these issues, but I guess at the moment, I occasionally return to writing from an Asian-American perspective.
I also wonder if there are opportunities to do interesting work at a local level...
SC: ...Mike, that’s exactly the point I was going to make. I had the great privilege of being a juror this year in the Pulitzer Prizes, and I was assigned to the local news category. I learned about the hidden secrets of the Amish community, about how a whole class of Boston valedictorians were ill-equipped for life 10-15 years down the line... Jobs in journalism are concentrated in New York, LA, Boston, San Francisco. All great places, but the truth is, if you really want to be digging for stories and helping communities that would benefit from investigative work, there are still a lot of other places worth doing that. I would check out the Institute for Nonprofit News and Report for America, which sends out hundreds of journalists across the country to cover state governments that the AP can no longer afford to.
MICHAEL LUO is the editor of newyorker.com, joining the New Yorker in November 2016 as an investigations editor for the magazine. Previously, he spent thirteen years at the New York Times, where in the course of three years, his reporters were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize four times. Prior to becoming an editor, he wrote for the Times about the recession, 2008/2012 Presidential campaigns, and more for the Washington and Baghdad bureaus. He has also worked at the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Los Angeles Times. In 2003, he received the George Polk Award for criminal-justice reporting and a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Luo graduated from Harvard University, where he earned a degree in government, in 1998.
SEWELL CHAN is the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, joining The Times in September 2018. He previously served as a deputy managing editor, in addition to working for the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Philadelphia Inquirer.Chan is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Pacific Council on International Policy, and PEN America. He serves on the board of the News Leaders Association (formerly the American Society of News Editors) and the Board of Incorporators of Harvard Magazine. A native New Yorker, Chan was the first in his family to finish college. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in social studies and received a master’s in politics from Oxford, where he studied on a Marshall scholarship.