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The Face of Tragedy: Media Coverage is Devoid of Color

by Oliver Wang Saturday, Sep. 29, 2001 at 6:03 AM

Originally published on AsianAvenue.com. Despite being one of the most diverse cities in the world, the faces shown on the news have been uniformly white.

When I was writing the original draft of this month`s column, I, like many around the country, was still shell-shocked from the events of Sept. 11. The media can be an addictive drug in times of crisis and I literally spent hours upon hours watching television, surfing the web, and reading newspapers during the first week. It`s little wonder then that I was incredibly depressed for much of that time, overinundated with images of falling bodies and buildings, crashing airplanes and stock markets, angry politicians and people.

But in the midst of all these terrible pictures and stories, I managed to pull myself out of the hazy slump I had fallen in and started paying attention to the subtle assumptions and values underlying all the coverage. The events on Sept. 11 have been described by almost every major press outlet as the "Attack on America." This is brought home imagewise, too. Look at the covers of all three of the major newsmagazines following the incident. Time: "One Nation, Indivisible" with a photo of Bush standing on the rubble of the WTC. Newsweek: "God Bless America," a shot of three firemen hoisting a limpid American flag over the same heap of rubble--a latter-day Iwo Jima photo. The message is clear: the very future and essence of America is at stake.

But whose America? While this is largely being described as America`s tragedy, who are the victims? Look at the media and you become awash in a parade of whiteness, with a few token nods to African Americans. This includes both the literal victims--those killed on the planes, in the buildings, on the ground--as well as the figurative victims, Middle America. Every magazine you open, every news special you see and the vastly disproportionate coverage has been on white Americans.

Want to see how America is coping with grief? Flash to a church in the Midwest--all white. Want to see how children are dealing? Find a poignant picture of little white girl holding a candle. How will America fight back? Look at the stern face of a determined citizen holding up an American flag--he`s white too. In Newsweek`s section called "Love and Loves," of the dozen or so photos of victims and their families, there`s one black family included, everyone else is white. Even the wall of missing persons, taken from a downtown Manhattan storefront, is mostly white. On it though, I find one of the only Asian American faces that I`ve seen anywhere so far, a photo of Yang-Der Lee, missing from the WTC, a 718 phone number scrawled at the top in case anyone`s seen him.

What`s strange is that New York is one of the most diverse cities in America--if not the world--filled to the brim with white ethnics, Asians, Latinos and blacks. Moreover, the WTC itself had offices from companies around the world. Yet, looking through the images, New York looks more WASPy than a Shriners convention. On Sept. 17, the New York Times included a striking story on those who`ve gone ignored in the coverage such as Mexican food workers and Albanian window washers. These are victims too but don`t portray the same kind of symbolic weight that a group of praying students in Des Moines, Iowa can carry.

The same applies to our heroes and leaders. The vast majority of firefighters we`ve seen have been white, which probably has less to do with media bias and more to do with the hiring trends in the NYFD. And if there was any doubt about the nation`s leadership, it`s whiter than chalk too. While Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta have shared screen time for specific news conferences, the majority of politicians featured have been white, yet another reminder of how out of step Washington is with the demographics in this country.

The only place you`ll really see any people of color in all this coverage are--of course--the Arabs. From the stone-face of Osama bin Laden, to the grainy mug shots of the alleged hijackers, to random pictures of celebrating Palestinians, people of Middle Eastern descent stand in stark contrast to the lily whiteness of everyone else. They are the "other" once more, the face of the enemy, the antithesis to the American way of life. Even when the profiles are of Arab Americans, there`s many photos capturing them in traditional Islamic garb, a visual indicator of their difference in culture and religion.

The America that has emerged in these recent weeks has been almost monolithically white and black. Latino Americans don`t map. Asian Americans don`t map, unless you`re of Punjabi Sikh descent, in which case, you`re lumped in with the Arabs who almost certainly don`t map unless you`re wrapped in a red, white and blue flag. With one fell swoop of the media`s wand, virtually a third of America, and probably close to half of New York City, is made invisible. No question, these are difficult times and everyone, media and political leadership included, are struggling to make sense of what`s happened and where we`re supposed to go now. But it`s a shocking slap in the face of all the calls to unity that the so-called "united front" that America is supposed to present doesn`t resemble America at all.

In Renee Tajima-Pena`s 1997 documentary about Asian America, My America Or Honk If You Love Buddha, she includes video footage from another dark moment of terrorism on American soil: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But in her case, Tajima sought to show how this tragedy could be seen as a time where Americans embraced each other across racial lines, one poignant image being a bloodied Asian women, helping carry and comfort a white baby. At the end of her film, in a voiceover, Tajima intones, "America is made up of her people, we are her people," understanding that beyond laws and organizations, a country is essentially the sum total of its citizenry. Yet, in our current crisis, if America is supposed to be more united than ever, why are so many of her people left out of the picture?

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