Some of us at The Seattle Times can remember our disbelief four years ago when an Internet news site carried a headline implying that Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan isn't an American.
Disbelief turned to deep embarrassment when we did the same this year.
"Hughes as good as gold," proclaimed the headline atop our sports section the morning after Sarah Hughes, a 16-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., won the gold medal.
The secondary headline said, "American outshines Kwan, Slutskaya in skating surprise," referring to the favorites in the competition, Kwan, a 21-year-old from Torrance, Calif., and Irina Slutskaya of Russia.
Readers were quick to respond with comments like:
"Does the fact that Hughes happens to be Caucasian make her any more 'American' than Kwan?"
"Michelle Kwan is competing for the United States, so clearly what your headline is saying is that what is American is WHITE. Asian people have been in this country for 150 years ... they have helped to build this country (and continue to) ... and have long since 'earned' their right to be considered citizens of it."
"The sub-headline, of course, implied that Kwan is not American. That hit the nerves of many Chinese Americans such as I, who, on more than one occasion, are perceived and treated as foreigners as if people with yellow skins can't be American."
"The headline (that) implies that Kwan is not American is not just offensive, it's a complete breakdown in The Times' credibility as representing Seattle. This city's population is more than 13 percent Asian Pacific American."
Even before we got those comments we felt an apology was needed, and we published one on the next day's Sports section front. I would like to add my personal apology here.
Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno, another athlete of Asian heritage, was on the cover of our pre-Olympics special section, and Kwan was the first athlete featured inside the section. Of course we know that both are Americans.
That's not the point, and it doesn't matter. What matters is whether we understand and care why the headline angered and upset people. We do. It was an inadvertent error made on deadline, and we are sorry it made it into print.
Perhaps Betty Lau, education chair of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association here, expressed the issue best:
"After all the history (much of it agonizing) and contributions to the building of America by Chinese, particularly here in the Pacific Northwest, the only thing your headline writer perceives is that Michelle Kwan is some sort of foreigner or alien? A headline such as this serves only to reinforce the stereotype that people of color, no matter what we do, or how long our families have been American, or how much we contribute, will never really be 'American.' "
Rene Astudillo, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association, wrote a commentary on reaction to our headline and a similar reference in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"If there are enough people complaining about inappropriate headlines such as the one run by The Seattle Times — and prompting an apology from a respected newspaper — then we know readers get involved in what they read and writers and editors should be more sensitive to the things they print.
"The real issue here is not Michelle Kwan, but all Americans of different racial and ethnic heritage who have long been 'tokenized' and who have historically been relegated to a 'second-class' citizen status. Many Asian Americans have had this experience, including many of our own journalist-members."
Astudillo reminds us there are thousands of Asian-American readers "who constantly bear the insult and hurt caused by even the slightest suggestion or implication that they are less American than their fellow Americans."
It's a message we won't forget.
Ironically, one of the most memorable aspects of these Winter Olympics was the rich diversity of the U.S. athletes, who won more medals than ever. They have names like Derek Parra, Vonetta Flowers, Jill Bakken, Jim Shea Jr., Tristan Gale, Casey FitzRandolph, Jennifer Rodriguez, Apolo Anton Ohno, and, of course Sarah Hughes and Michelle Kwan.
Inside the Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.