Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, executive director of the Asian American Journalists Association, couldn’t help feeling pure “rage” as early television reports of Tuesday’s mass murders in Atlanta began to dominate the news cycle.
In addition to her anger directed at the 21-year-old white suspect—who allegedly shot and killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, at three local spas and massage parlors—Underwood’s ire was aimed at the largely white media narrative that his supposed motive was sexual addiction and a perverse effort to eradicate temptation, not racist hate amid a horrific increase over the past year to nearly 3,800 incidents of verbal attacks and physical assaults in the United States against people of Asian descent.
Underwood and other critics of this week’s news coverage ascribed the initial mainstream media skepticism that the massacre could have been a hate crime—not to mention an outright denial of that possibility by various Fox News personalities—to the relative absence of Asian journalists’ perspective among many of the outlets that reported on the killings.
“I think where my rage is personally is the fact that in the early hours of reporting, the shooter’s assertion that it was not racially motivated was given oxygen,” Underwood, who is of Filipino descent, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “The fact of the matter is that there are dead Asian Americans in the wake of an increasing number of hate-crime incidents that started 12 or 13 months ago” as the COVID-19 pandemic—mocked by then-president Donald Trump as “the China virus” and “Kung Flu”—began sweeping the country.
“I believe the U.S. media is handling this unevenly at best and irresponsibly at worst,” said Vincent N. Pham, co-author of Asian Americans and the Media and an associate professor of civic communication and media at Willamette University. “It seems somewhat torn between reporting what is happening and what they don’t quite know yet. But as a result, this ends up privileging what they have access to— i.e. the shooter and the police department.”
For instance, the MSM largely took at face-value the initial assertions of law enforcement authorities concerning the alleged shooter’s state of mind.
“During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds told reporters in Georgia on Wednesday. “We asked him that specifically and the answer was no”—as though the word of a homicidal maniac was, by definition, credible.
“Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did,” Jay Baker, a spokesman for Sheriff Reynolds, declared Wednesday in a jarring expression of empathy for the murder suspect during a joint news conference with the Atlanta Police Department. Shortly afterward, The Daily Beast reported that Baker himself had engaged in anti-Asian conduct online, promoting the sale of T-shirts bearing the racist slogan “COVID-19 imported virus from CHY-NA.”
“I understand that’s reporting something that he said,” Underwood added concerning the MSM’s credulous treatment of law enforcement authorities and the suspect. “But it was centering him and centering what he said, versus contextualizing it with this backdrop of increased anti-Asian racism nationwide. You can see how that reinforces the invisibility of the Asian community—a white man’s word, and then another white man reinforcing it, and then the discovery that there has been some [racist] behavior by the reinforcer.”
Fox News Media—which seemingly boasts a single prominent on-air journalist of Asian descent, Fox Business Network’s Susan Li—has aggressively focused on humanizing the alleged shooter and downplaying the likelihood of a hate crime. As of Thursday afternoon, the top story on Fox News’ digital site highlighted his apparent struggles with sex addiction and attempts at rehabilitation, complete with a subhead that read: “The ‘Remorseful’ Sex Addict?”
On Thursday’s episode of Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade bitterly complained about the use of the term “hate crime” for the Atlanta spa murders.
“It doesn’t seem to have any link, according to the police, to any type of hate crime, even though they haven’t made formal changes yet,” he mused. “I’m just astounded that people are jumping to that scenario, from the White House on down, when the investigation is not revealing that. Do we have to create it?”
Primetime star Tucker Carlson, who has a long history of peddling xenophobic and racially inflammatory rhetoric, blasted Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday night, calling her a “fraud” and “reckless liar” for saying she wants to “speak out in solidarity” with Asian Americans in the wake of the “increasing level of hate crimes” in that community.
“We don’t know anything about this shooting beyond what we’ve heard from police and there has been no sense whatsoever that race played a role in this, but of course Kamala Harris jumps immediately into it to inflame America’s deepest wounds,” Carlson told viewers. “I mean, this is such a sad story, a horrible story, but it’s part of a much bigger story we’ve been told for the past couple of weeks, that these very real attacks against Asian Americans are somehow a product of white supremacy. I don’t think there’s any evidence whatsoever to support that; in fact, I think it’s kind of the opposite of the truth. Why do they keep telling us that?”
The next hour, Sean Hannity also lashed out at “the left” for tying the killings to race, wondering aloud why we couldn’t have a “color-blind society” while saying “we need to stop dividing the country.”
Fox News didn’t respond to a request for comment about its coverage.
“It has been infuriating to see how this racist and sexist killing spree has been handled by U.S. media outlets,” communications professor Lori Kido Lopez, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Asian American Studies Program, told The Daily Beast. “It is also infuriating to see the news media taking seriously the idea that ‘sexual addiction’ is relevant here. There is a long history of sexual predators using this kind of faux medical diagnosis as a way of escaping responsibility.
“It was particularly insulting and offensive to see headlines repeating the suspect's description that he was having ‘a bad day.’ That is such a callous statement that minimizes the massive loss of life, but also the way that this kind of terrorism radiates fear and pain throughout the entire community.”
Kido Lopez added: “News media have also been very slow to pivot from a focus on the suspect and his flimsy excuses to the lives of his victims. It’s important to know their names and their stories, and so far we barely know anything about them. This continues the problem of Asian women being made invisible and their lives disposable, which is obviously what leads to this kind of horrific violence in the first place.”
Brown University Daniel Y. Kim, an associate professor of English and American Studies, told The Daily Beast: “Some outlets are giving too much credence to the notion that racism was not a factor in these acts. How could it not be, given that the perpetrator habitually sought Asian American women in these locations? Imagine if these establishments were all staffed by African American women and if all the victims were black? Would we really wonder if there was a racial motivation?”
Like other critics of the Atlanta coverage, Kim ascribed the media’s shortcomings to “definitely not enough Asian Americans in the media across the board. It’s not just about language but about familiarity with issues that Asian American communities face and their perspectives.”
Late Thursday, the Asian American Journalists Association issued a statement exhorting newsrooms, especially broadcast newsrooms, to make better use of journalists who not only boast Asian descent but also possess language skills that would enhance their reporting of the Atlanta murders. The organization urged newsroom managers to recognize “both the unique value they bring to the coverage of the Atlanta shootings and the invisible labor they regularly take on, especially in newsrooms where they are severely underrepresented.
“Since the shootings, we have heard some deeply concerning problems in newsrooms across the country, including in Atlanta.
“‘Are you sure your bias won’t show if you cover the Atlanta shootings?’
“‘You might be too emotionally invested to cover this story.’”
Such attitudes “risk overlooking and sidelining the perspectives that are central to the story and that need to be represented,” the statement continued. “This is poor journalism.”
—With additional reporting from Justin Baragona.