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Koreans' Pet Peeve/Ted Williams: Myth Mongers Descend/News Bites

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Koreans' Pet Peeve

A burden rests on the shoulders of the headline writer. Newspapers ask this yeoman to spin turns of phrase that tempt readers to investigate a story while assuring nonreaders that all they need to know is right there in the headline. (A newspaper's prosperity hinges on the continued patronage of skimmers willing to stay abreast of current events so long as the job can be done in under two minutes.)

The best headlines don't simply summarize the articles below but drive them to the conclusions the reporters would have reached themselves if they'd had the nerve. An excellent example appeared over Mark Brown's column in the Sun-Times on June 18: "Nation of dog-eaters turns us off to World Cup." Brown didn't call Korea a nation of dog eaters, but he almost did. He confessed that he couldn't "work up much of an appetite for the World Cup" and explained, "Here's the gist of it: A lot of people in Korea enjoy eating dog meat, which a lot of people in the rest of the world think is really sick." He informed us of Korea's farms "that raise a special breed of dogs for eating," and of a Korean professor known locally as "Dr. Dogmeat" who defends dog as "a centuries-old Korean culinary tradition." From this to "nation of dog-eaters" was not a mindless leap.

Kent Lee, executive director of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center in Chicago, spotted Brown's column and asked a staffer to prepare a letter of protest. "I am deeply disappointed and offended," this letter began. "It is disturbing that the author should be allowed to derogatorily refer to any nation, such as South Korea, as a 'dog-eating nation.'...Of course it is our first impulse to simply correct your false statements, and clarify that most Koreans do not eat dog meat. If the author had even called one Korean American, this point could have been easily clarified. But the statements bring to the forefront a much larger concept, which is the notion that one culture is better than another."

The letter noted that some cultures abstain from the cows and pigs that Americans gorge themselves with, and that people in many cultures, including Koreans, eat much less meat of any kind than we do. "Although we may not choose to practice customs or traditions of others, we also do not have a right to judge them."

Lee posted the letter on the Web site of the Asian Community Online Network and E-mailed it to members of the Korean American Human Service Coalition, with instructions to forward the letter to Brown and the editors above him. A lot of people did, and it soon became clear that the headline writer was going to take the fall. "I did not call Korea a 'nation of dog eaters,' nor would I do so," Brown wrote back to one critic. "However, I realize that my newspaper did so, and I am trying to figure out how to deal with that." Editor in chief Michael Cooke responded, "Mark Brown did not describe Korea as a dog-eating nation. That was in the headline, which Brown did not write." Cooke said he regretted the headline, but he didn't think the column itself insulted Korean-Americans. He asked the woman whose letter he was answering to identify the passages she believed were offensive.

By the pugnacious standards of Hollinger International editors, Cooke's reply was remarkably conciliatory. He soon had second thoughts about it and wrote the woman again. "Also," this appended response began, "I disagree with you when you say: 'Although we may not choose to practice customs or traditions of others, we also do not have a right to judge them.' Yes we do....I offer example from today's news: Iran is raising the age at which a girl can get married without her parents' consent--to 13....Nine-year-old girls will still be able to marry, but only with their parents' permission and 'approval of a "righteous court."'

"I would say we have the right to judge that custom, wouldn't you?" Cooke asked.

Thanks to the Internet, Cooke's riposte was soon read by many more Korean-Americans than the woman he'd sent it to. Hostile reactions flowed in to Lee. "I sense defensiveness and denial in Mr. Cooke's assertions," one began. "The comparison with Iranian cultural practices is incongruous, unfair, and out of context."

Last Wednesday Brown himself came back to the subject. Imagine how Mike Royko in his later years might have handled the predicament Brown described himself in--"wading through dozens of angry messages every day, which cumulatively have grown into the hundreds." When Royko found himself in hot water up to his chin he kept going until it was over his head; I can picture him recalling how he'd risked life and limb as a GI outside Seoul back in 1953 to defend the Koreans' right to eat dog, so he had no idea why they were mad at him now. Seeking conciliation, Brown merely explained that he'd read that 3 million of South Korea's 47 million people eat dog--far from most, but "a lot more people than eat dogs here"--and that he hadn't meant to be judgmental, but he did mean to be humorous.

And though he couldn't quite understand why everybody was so mad at him, he allowed that his earlier column "definitely has at least one problem. The problem is a headline....Without boring you with the details of how the newspaper business works, I don't write the headlines."

Brown told me he doesn't know who wrote the headline over his dog column. I didn't try to find out. It was someone doing his or her job, and almost certainly not landing in any trouble for doing it.

Brown reported in his original dog column that the "dog-eating controversy" had received much more attention in Britain than here at home. True enough. A friend of mine who was living in London when the World Cup began tells me the English team seized on dog as a way to justify "turning up their noses" at their Korean hosts. "I'm thinking--is this the country with mad cow disease? Give me a break. The whole judgmentalness of it is so interesting to me. It's a way of distancing--'They're not as good as we are. There's something savage about them, not quite right.'"

Every four years my friend and her husband go to the summer Olympics. The '88 Olympics in Seoul "were far and away the best we ever attended," she says. "And when I came back and read the way the country was being portrayed here, it was mind-boggling. Journalists were looking at anything odd to exploit, rather than writing about the incredible food and incredible organization."

I also spoke with a Chicago woman born and raised in South Korea. "We had a big landscaping business," she says, "and there'd be like 50 people working on a big project. At the end of it my father used to buy them a dog, and they cooked it. It's like a delicacy. Not everybody was into it--just a certain sector of blue-collar people."

She's never eaten dog herself, nor even seen it served, and the restaurants that offer dog "are like tucked into the end of the alley, and the sign doesn't say it, so you have to figure out which one. It's not like China."

China eats lots of dog and is unabashed about it, she says. A friend of hers spotted a restaurant in Beijing that announced its fare with "a big neon dog sign with the head moving around," a sign such as you'd never see in Korea. But nobody snickers at the dog-eating Chinese, she reflects. South Korea can be dismissed as a "lower-than-third-world country," but China can't.

Korean-Americans who reacted to Mark Brown's column--or to its headline--weren't angry because it isn't true that Koreans eat dog. They felt they'd been reduced to a caricature and ridiculed for it. Which is why Brown's dog column should be remembered as an instance when a columnist chose to kid around a little instead of seizing a golden opportunity to read several books on his subject, survey immigrant groups and anthropologists, and use his space to peel away the layers of cultural confusion that divide one civilization from another--the way newspaper columnists usually do.

Ted Williams: Myth Mongers Descend

With due respect to every sportswriter who wrote last week that the death of Ted Williams left a gaping void in baseball, it did nothing of the sort. We feel the void when age and disease reduce a giant to a fragile whisper of his old self. Death looses a torrent of myth and memory that makes the game richer than ever.

The eulogists gave us much to admire about Ted Williams, but they left it to readers to infer his clear thinking on the meaning of numbers. The tributes all recalled that in 1941 Williams went into the last day of the season hitting .3996. "Which rounded out to .400," as Jerome Holtzman put it in the Tribune. Or as Greg Couch recalled in the Sun-Times, "That, officially, would have been rounded up to .400. And Mr. Williams' manager, Joe Cronin, suggested he sit out the doubleheader that day." Dave Anderson remembered in the New York Times that Cronin "offered to let the slender slugger sit out both games to preserve the average." And Williams replied, "I don't want that. If I can't hit .400 all the way, I don't deserve it." Williams went six for eight and wound up at .406.

This tale was told repeatedly as evidence of Williams's reckless self-confidence. Or of more. A writer for the Cape Cod Times found it reason to proclaim that Williams lived "by a code of honor that few athletes of today would understand." What it actually tells us is that Williams understood that .3996 (or .39955, to be even more exact, as many of the eulogists were) was less than .400 and rounding up wouldn't change that any more than rounding up keeps a horse that makes a 39.96-foot leap across a 40-foot gully from breaking its neck.

Besides, Boston sports historian Glenn Stout tells me, "Ted Williams was such a lightning rod in this town, nobody would have rounded the average up. Everyone would have written for the rest of time that Ted Williams stopped at .39955. And he'd have been drilled for it. He had no choice, and I think he knew it."

Another story frequently retold in the eulogies recalled the 1947 competition for most valuable player in the American League. Williams, despite having won the Triple Crown, lost to Joe DiMaggio by one point, 202 to 201, in the voting of the league's baseball writers. "The culprit," wrote Chris De Luca in the Sun-Times--echoing lots of other writers in other papers--was "Boston writer Mel Webb, who detested Williams so much, he failed to list him in any of the 10 spots on his ballot."

In the past I've faulted Holtzman--who used to insist that Nellie Fox had for all practical purposes been elected to the Hall of Fame when Fox hadn't yet--for not having the hang of when it's proper to round up and when it isn't. But Holtzman, a baseball historian himself, has a sure grasp of the far more important principle that people deserve to be held responsible for the facts of their lives, not the myths. And so Holtzman wrote that although Williams suspected Webb of doing him in (he accused Webb of as much in his autobiography), "research indicates that Webb did not have an MVP vote that year and the three Boston writers who did all voted Williams No. 1."

Stout, who edits Houghton Mifflin's annual "Best American Sports Writing" series, covered this ground thoroughly in the 2000 history Red Sox Century. He and coauthor Richard Johnson established that Webb didn't vote, and that though it was true that one of the 24 writers (three per AL city) left Williams off his ballot, three writers did the same to DiMaggio. The story that ought to be told, says Stout, would require confronting the evidence that sportswriters of that era manipulated the MVP results, found out what they were before they were announced publicly, and laid bets on the outcomes. Stout notes, for example, that in 1947 Yogi Berra was a rookie who played in only 83 games but received two second-place votes as most valuable player.

"No one has ever pursued these questions," Stout wrote in the Sporting News in 1993. "It was against the baseball writers' own interest to investigate their own."

As a historian, Stout's familiar with the Red Sox myth that turned me into a crank--the myth that if a ground ball hadn't rolled between Bill Buckner's legs in '86 the Sox would have won the World Series. But the one he's most eager to debunk is the ur-myth--the Curse of the Bambino. It's true that the Red Sox haven't won a Series since Boston owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000 after the 1919 season. It isn't true that Frazee was a nincompoop who'd run through his money and wanted to invest in No, No, Nanette. "He was fabulously wealthy," says Stout. "He had successful shows before and after No, No, Nanette. No, No, Nanette had nothing to do with it." The actual reason for the trade, he tells me, had to do with the simple fact that Ruth had become a major disruption in the Red Sox clubhouse.

News Bites

I would like to admire the Tribune for the principled act of self-denial described last week by public editor Don Wycliff, but it's hard to. Wycliff told the tale of photographer John Smierciak, who with his paper's permission joined a group of Chicago firefighters driving to New York City on September 12 and photographed them searching for survivors at Ground Zero. But none of Smierciak's pictures ever appeared in the Tribune or were even looked at by photo editor William Parker. Though Smierciak had asked the fire chief leading the Chicago group to introduce him in New York as a news photographer, and though he'd refused to wear firefighter gear on the job even though he would have been safer in it, he'd put on a fresh T-shirt a fireman gave him that bore the initials of the Chicago Fire Department. Therefore, in the eyes of the Tribune, he'd left himself open to a charge of misrepresentation.

"Painful as it was to Smierciak and silly as it may appear to outsiders," wrote Wycliff, defending the paper's decision to reject the photos out of hand, "it was the right thing to do. Like a golfer who calls a foul on himself for an offense no one else may have seen, a newspaper may sometimes have to call a foul on itself for an ethical violation that may have been inadvertent and noticed by no one else."

But to whom did Smierciak inadvertently misrepresent himself? Not the Chicagoans he was photographing. Wycliff's column was posted on Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Web site, and a San Franciscan wrote in to say that "outsiders" weren't the only ones who'd consider the Tribune's reaction "silly." This writer recalled something Bill Veeck once said: "Journalism prefers a Simon-pure mediocrity to a touch of tarnished genius."

A case can be made that no one belonged at Ground Zero whose agenda was the least bit ambiguous. A case can also be made that a newspaper should believe a little harder than the Tribune seemed to in the value of what it's doing. The Tribune's obsession with ethics isn't silly, but it makes me think of the alcoholic terrified of a single drop, or the hysterical homemaker so preoccupied with keeping a spotless house she doesn't notice she's made it unlivable.

There's an interesting profile of George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, by John Cassidy in the July 8 New Yorker, and here's a piece of it: "Steinbrenner is an easy man to lampoon, but he has demonstrated that, in professional sports, at least, there is still a place for a fanatical, pigheaded rich guy who wants to show the world. 'What drives people into sports ownership is ego, ego, ego, including myself,' he told me during one of his more introspective moments. 'Nothing is as important as ego.' Egomania may be an unattractive trait, but attempting to reduce sports to just another business line rarely works, as the News Corporation, the Walt Disney Company, and Cablevision have discovered."

Chicago's discovered that too. The Tribune could do wonders for the public perception of its virtue with a single editorial that calls the Tribune Company's ownership of the Cubs a failure and advises the company to sell the team. Even a column by somebody willing to snicker at those silly outfield screens would help.

It's not the place of government to step in and save a corporation from humiliating itself, but that's what Chicago's City Hall did last week. The egregious banner that the Sun-Times draped across the top of its home at 401 N. Wabash touting Donald Trump's casino in Gary disappeared when the Planning Department notified the paper that the area wasn't zoned for billboards that advertise anything but the business on the site. One day--and that day is probably years off--Trump intends to build a magnificent tower on the site. For now it's still the home of a newspaper, which doesn't help itself by flaunting either its ignorance of the law or its ignorance of good taste.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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