ABC’s Naughty Bashir

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Anchor tells Obama penis joke, fails to lead at AAJA

Martin Bashir, a Brit of Pakistani descent in America, is perhaps the most visible Asian male in U.S. television news. He’s one of three anchors to replace the esteemed Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline and is generally noted for being a guy who has risen up, not because of skin color or good looks (Bashir’s no Hari Sreenivasin, let me tell you) but because of journalistic talent.

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Did ABC’s Martin Bashir really say that about Barack Obama and the “great white fear of the dark phallus”?

Unity, the Olympics and China

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He’s so serious in his TV persona that he gives off the air of being uptight, repressed and anal.

So, what does he do as keynote speaker at the Asian American Journalists Association gala banquet at the Unity: Journalists of Color convention two weeks ago? He resets his image as a sexist and racist lout.

Bashir began with a leering remark about his colleague (former KGO-TV reporter, now ABC news correspondent) JuJu Chang. Instead of the standard, “Thank you for that fine introduction,” Bashir launched with “I’m surprised that JuJu didn’t mention my inside leg measurements because she seems to know everything about me.”

“Inside leg.” Did I just hear a penis joke?

Commentators like Neal Justin (a TV critic of South Asian descent) were fixated on the sexism in Bashir’s remarks (there were other comments about JuJu’s looks). Justin also noted the irony that few in the AAJA crowd joined him in booing Bashir.

I admit to being stunned silent by Mr. Nightline, but I wasn’t truly offended until Bashir launched into a riff on Barack Obama’s name.

Bashir on Obama
Said Bashir: “People have had problems with his name. So far we’ve had it described as Barack Osama. We’ve had ‘Baby father’ Obama. We’ve had Barack ‘Saddam Hussein’ Obama….”

Bashir went on. “We should go a bit further. I was wondering about a hip-hop reference and connect him to the Wu Tang Clan. And we can call him Old Dirty Bastard Barack.”

What is a mixture of polite laughter and shock? Whatever you call it, the room was filled with it.

Oblivious, Bashir continued: “Or why not the Great White Fear of the Dark Phallus … Big Black Barrack!”

Groan, shock, nervous titters. But wait … naughty Martin was just getting warmed up!

“Many people in Britain could never understand how America elected George Bush twice. This explains it. It’s his name. GEORGE BUSH. It’s easy for the anchors to say. George BUSH, that’s why.” (Two to three seconds of absolute dead silence.) “That fell somewhat flat, but I’ll go on.”

The room had its first moment of honest laughter as Bashir acknowledged his failure. Bush, I presume, was a failed sexual reference, like the others in his remarks.

For the most visible Asian male face in U.S. TV news, it was just strange. And sad. He’s Martin Bashir, “master of the get.” Not the guy who tells jokes nobody gets. Bashir reportedly sent an apology to AAJA for his remarks about Asian women. But there was no mention of his overall off-color performance. And nothing about the Obama and penis references.

Let’s hope ABC can arrange for the obviously repressed Bashir a few sessions with Dr. Phil. This is no time for schadenfreude. Brother Martin needs a little help.

In the meantime, when Bashir’s on Nightline, I’ll turn to Letterman or Leno for humor.

Don’t confuse this with Bashir bashing. People of color are still losing in the media game. White male domination was still the headline in nearly every major industry study released at the convention, from guests on cable shows to executives to Washington correspondents. That was no surprise at Unity. The only surprise for me was Bashir’s speech.

As the Nightline anchor, he’s supposed to be an exemplar for all those in the industry. But what does he do with his network credibility when the industry is watching? He chose to play the buffoon.

Olympic Unity?

We’re coming up on 08/08/08, the day of extreme fortune for all those who believe the number 8 is magical (which most everyone Asian does). And of course, it’s the start of the Olympics in Beijing.

But these games, more than any in the past, seem to be taking on the equivalent of Nero’s fiddling. It’s all a mega-diversion from the reality at hand. Darfur. Tibet. Iraq. Energy crisis. The economy. There are real problems out there. But let’s forget about it all and play for a few weeks!

China hopes that its repressive policies imposed on the athletes will keep things free of real issues. But I’ll watch with one corner of my eye. That way I’ll avoid the P.R. and see the games for no more than what they are: A few highlights of excellence amid massive 21st century global hype.

Check out the blog for updates on the Olympics, China’s athletes, and other amok commentaries: amok.asianweek.com. And see me at the Pistahan celebration in San Francisco at Yerba Buena Gardens on Saturday, Aug. 9. E-mail: emil@amok.com.

About the Author

For almost 15 years, Emil Guillermo wrote his "Amok" column for AsianWeek, which was the largest English language Asian American newsweekly in the nation. "Amok" was considered the most widely-read column on Asian American issues in the U.S. His thoughtful and provocative social commentaries have appeared in print in the San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com, San Francisco Examiner, USA Today, Honolulu Star Bulletin, Honolulu Advertiser, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and in syndication throughout the country. His early columns are compiled in a book "Amok: Essays from an Asian American Perspective," which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2000. Guillermo's journalistic career began in television and radio broadcasting. At National Public Radio, he was the first Asian American male to anchor a regularly scheduled national news broadcast when he hosted "All Things Considered" from 1989-1991. During his watch, major news broke, including the violence in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of dictatorships in Romania and Panama. From Washington, Guillermo hosted the shows that broke the news. As a television journalist, his award-winning reports and commentaries have appeared on NBC, CNN, and PBS. He was a reporter in San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. After NPR, Guillermo became a press secretary and speechwriter for then Congressman Norman Mineta, the former cabinet member in the Bush and Clinton Administrations. After his Hill experience, Guillermo returned to the media, hosting his own talk show in Washington, D.C. on WRC Radio. He returned to California where he hosted talk shows in San Francisco at KSFO/KGO, and in Sacramento at KSTE/KFBK. Guillermo's columns in the ethnic press inspired a roundtable discussion program that he created, hosted, executive produced, resulting in more than 100 original half-hour programs. "NCM-TV: New California Media" was seen on PBS stations in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, and throughout the state on cable. Guillermo also spent time as a newspaper reporter covering the poor and the minority communities of California's Central Valley. His writing and reporting on California's sterilization program on the poor and minorities won him statewide and national journalism awards. Guillermo, a native San Franciscan, went to Lowell High School, and graduated from Harvard College, where he was an Ivy Orator and class humorist, a distinction shared by fellow Lampoon members like James Downey (Saturday Night Live) and Conan O'Brien. Find out what he's up to at www.amok.com.