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On Anniversary, Koreans Still Scarred by Coverage of Rodney King Riots

New America Media, Commentary, Kapson Yim Lee Posted: Apr 26, 2006

On the anniversary of the riots in Los Angeles that followed the Rodney King verdict, a Korean-American comments on the lessons learned by media on covering racially charged issues. Kapson Yim Lee reports on the Korean community for New America Media from Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES--As we mark the 14th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots on April 29, or Sa-yi Gu (4/29) as it is known among Koreans, my thoughts turn to the plight of Koreans and their difficult American journey. The riots were the most traumatic event in the 103-year history of people of Korean ancestry in the United States.

As an immigrant who grew up in Los Angeles' Koreatown, I have strong feelings about what happened. The L.A. riots were a glaring example of racial prejudice against Koreans.

Who victimized these first-generation immigrants?

The culprit was the mainstream American news media. Their biased and shallow reporting usually began with the Los Angeles Times, which set the tone in the city. Wire services, television networks and radio outlets all followed the Times.

I observed the local news media focus on inner-city merchant-customer disputes as a racially charged conflict between African-Americans and Korean-Americans. That reached a high point when Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American shopkeeper, shot an African-American teenage shoplifter in the back of the head, killing her, after the girl had hit Du three times and knocked her to the ground. Du's case eventually led to a flashpoint of blacks' venting their frustrations about the Rodney King beating case on Koreans.

Had the media observed the basic rules of journalism -- refraining from racial labeling unless it is relevant to the case -- Du's case would not have turned into a racial case that inflamed blacks' anger toward Koreans.

From the beginning, the news stories called Du "a Korean-born grocer" and prompted protests from African-Americans, which were led by a self-serving community group called the Brotherhood Crusade.

Although the case involved a Korean-American grocer and a black customer, it was not a racially motivated case, the Los Angeles Police Department was quick to note. Immediately after the incident, LAPD officials held a press conference and clarified their conclusion. The transcript of the trial of the Du case, which I read, did not mention race.

How then had it become a racial case? That responsibility squarely sits with mistakes by reporters, editors and producers. They violated the fairness doctrine by failing to report both sides.

They allowed inflammatory quotes from members of the African-American community to get into print or broadcast without giving members of the Korean-American community a chance to respond. The Korean immigrants' viewpoints were largely ignored. Koreans did not have a civil rights group such as the NAACP. Furthermore, not one of the mainstream news agencies in Los Angeles in 1992 had a reporter who was fully bilingual and bicultural in Korean.

The news media also exercised a double standard.

For example, in 1993 there were 43 shooting cases in Los Angeles in which Koreans were victims. Nineteen Koreans died. All of the assailants were blacks or Hispanics. Most of the cases were not reported in the mainstream news media. The only case that received wide publicity was that of bicycle shop owner Sam Woo in Monrovia, who was shot to death by a black teenager. But neither Woo nor the boy was identified by race. In fact, the news media mentioned race only when an accused assailant was a Korean.

Thankfully, that practice began to change four years after the riots.

In early 1996, there was another incident involving a Korean-owned hat shop in South Central Los Angeles. A black customer claimed that he experienced racial discrimination in the store. The story had the potential to become a racial dispute between Koreans and blacks. Indeed, some members of the African-American community tried to turn it into one by demonstrating against the store, alleging racial discrimination. But it didn't get far, thanks to sensitive coverage by the Los Angeles Times.

For the first time since 1973, when I began to subscribe to the paper, I saw the Times run two stories side-by-side: the account of the Korean shop owner and that of the black customer. Because the account of store owner Mrs. In Sook Lee was fully told, there was little room for the two initiators of the dispute to achieve what they wanted.

The two troublemakers were the Rev. Lee May, pastor of the First AME Church in Pasadena, who claimed he was discriminated at the store, and the Brotherhood Crusade (of which May was also a member), the same questionable group which led the boycott of Soon Ja Du's market at the time of riots.

What made the hat shop case different from Du's?

The Los Angeles Times dispatched its Korean-speaking reporter, K. Connie Kang to cover the story along with an African-American colleague Andrea Ford at the Times.

Ford, who is black, had written most of the stories about the Du case. The stories usually appeared under the joint bylines with a Korean-American reporter John H. Lee. But Lee spoke limited Korean. The result was shallow and slanted coverage of Du.

In the hat shop story, Kang, fluently bilingual and bicultural, took the lead on the stories. That made all the difference. Ford's byline did not appear after the second story of the total of five written about the issue.

The hat shop stories helped avert a racial incident, but it cost the owner dearly. She had to give up her business and left Los Angeles because she was exhausted emotionally and physically by Rev. May's stubborn insistence on racial discrimination. She was forced to appear at a press conference along with May. The terrified Lee covered her face with a sheet of paper throughout the session.

The last time I heard from Mrs. Lee, I learned that she had moved to a border town near Mexico where she was having a hard time adjusting.

It is fortunate that since the hat shop story, I have not seen another conflict between Korean merchants and black customers reported as a racial issue. But I cannot get rid of my own anxiety over future coverage of inter-ethnic relations.

Fourteen years after the riots, Korean-Americans still have no organization devoted solely to protecting their civil rights. I don't feel confident that the mainstream news media will not repeat its past mistakes.

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