Storm Of Protest p.18

By: M.L. Stein THE OAKLAND (CALIF.) Tribune's firing of popular columnist Bill Wong has brought a storm of protest from an Asian-American media group and community organizations.
The move also set off a demonstration at the Tribune building and a staff objection. At one point, chants of "We want Bill" sounded through the newsroom.
Wong, a 17-year Tribune veteran who also wrote editorials, said he was summarily told on March 22 that his column was being eliminated "to save your salary" and he was escorted out of the building by editorial page editor Robert C. Cuddy and a member of the human resources staff.
"I wasn't even given time to clean out my desk," Wong said. "They said I could make an appointment later for that."
Wong, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and a current contributor to the Jim Lehrer Newshour, said that he had no idea why he was let go.
"No one else was forced out for salary reasons," he pointed out.
This was denied by Jim Janiga, vice president/human resources of the Alameda Newspaper Group (ANG), who said: "Mr. Wong knows perfectly well why, but he's welcome to call me and I will tell him again."
But both Janiga and Cuddy refused to discuss the dismissal in detail. Cuddy would only say that the paper does not consider Wong's departure a "firing."
"We are eliminating his column," he explained.
Wong is believed to be the first in the mainstream media to write a column from an Asian-American perspective, but his pieces often ranged beyond ethnicity to cover local and national politics and other issues.
Several protest letters were sent to David Burgin, editor in chief of the Alameda group, and other newspaper executives. ANG includes five other dailies in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dinah Eng, national president of the Asian American Journalists Association, wrote that Wong "is greatly valued" in the Asian-American community and the East Bay region at large, adding: "Mr. Wong's termination is most distressing because Oakland is a multi-racial 'majority-minority' city, one that is best served by having writers, photographers and editors who reflect the makeup of the city."
Moreover, Eng continued, the action "sends a poor message to young Asian Americans who look to role models like Mr. Wong."
Erna Smith, chair of the San Francisco State University journalism department, where Wong teaches part time, described his dismissal as a setback for diversity and "community investment" in newspapers.
"Concern has risen over the years as we have seen the Oakland Tribune go from being one of the most diverse newsrooms in the country to one of the least diverse metropolitan dailies," Smith went on.
She asserted that because Oakland is a predominantly non-white city, Wong's absence "surely will not help smooth over the growing community complaints that the Tribune is insensitive to their needs."
The letter also was signed by Ivan Roman, director of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State. Wong is a mentor and writing coach for minority students at the center.
Yvonne Y. Lee, a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, wrote to Burgin, asking for information "explaining the circumstances surrounding Mr. Wong's dismissal and how your newspaper intends to fill the void in coverage of the Asian American community left by Mr. Wong."
Lily Hu, businesswoman, activist in the East Bay's Asian-American community and the organizer of a "Bill Wong Committee," said protest letters have been mailed or faxed to the Tribune by more than a dozen Asian-American, African-American and Latino organizations.
"This is a real slap in the face to us," said Hu, vice president of the East Bay chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans. "The Tribune no longer reflects the diversity of this community."
Neither Burgin nor ANG publisher Peter Bernhard returned phone calls but Tribune editor Tim Graham wrote a "letter" in the paper on April 1, refuting critics who have "recklessly and unfairly cast Wong's departure in racial terms."
Graham said the "painful" decision was purely an economic one, pointing out that since Jan. 1, ANG has wiped out 10 positions, including that of the ad director and the associate publisher. He also denied a lack of commitment to newsroom diversity, asserting that about 30% of the Tribune's editorial staff are "people of color," half of whom are Asian Americans.
The Northern California Newspaper Guild, which is negotiating with ANG for a contract, wrote to Janiga, requesting an explanation of Wong's departure.
"We heard it was for economic reasons so we asked them to defend that position," said Guild field representative Erin Tyson-Poh. "We also said we found it an odd coincidence that Bill was fired two days after we began bargaining."
Wong said he was not a Guild activist, although he had been a member when the Tribune was owned by the late Bob Maynard and the paper had a Guild contract. The columnist said he was one of the Tribune's highest paid staff members.
According to Wong, his only clue to his severance was a recent request by Cuddy that he focus his columns to local affairs rather than national and international matters.
"I complied," said Wong. "This is really a blow to Oakland and surrounding towns because I feel I was one of the few writers who knew this community well and wrote honestly and caringly about it."
Janiga said Cuddy's request "had nothing to do with our decision."
David K. Li, a Chinese American who recently left the Tribune for the New York Post, said of Wong's firing: "I can't find any logic in it. He was such a focal point for the community ? a true link between the old Tribune and the new one. Even people he skewered had great respect for him. But the present management never liked the guy. They didn't appreciate the fact that he was from the old company."
An estimated 150 to 200 people turned out in a pouring rain to stage a protest in front of the Tribune building. Among them were Wong and former California governor and Oakland resident Jerry Brown, who, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, said: "We are telling the Oakland Tribune to wake up. Take back this dumb decision. If you want to sell any papers, you'd better respect the people that live in this city because you are a service, not some kind of colonial power . . . . A paper is more than about money."
?(Former Oakland Tribune columnist Bill Wong (left) and ex-Calefornia Governor Jerry Brown address a rally outside the Tribune building that was held to protest Wong's firing.) [Caption & Photo]


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