How race factors into the conversation about Ann Curry’s possible ouster from ‘Today’ Show

This week’s news of Ann Curry’s problems as co-host of NBC’s “Today” show makes my mind reel and my heart ache.

It makes my heart ache because, as the son of Asian immigrants, I’ve felt an instinctive pride as I’ve watched Curry’s slow and steady climb up to one of network news’ most high-profile jobs.

Finally, on morning TV, I could find someone who looked like me. I identified with her. I was inspired by her.

Now she is faltering and may even be forced out because of a decline in ratings.

No doubt, many factors lie behind the “Today” show’s drop in viewers. It now runs neck-and-neck with ABC’s “Good Morning America.” But some executives fault Curry, because the collapse has occurred in the year since she became co-host after replacing Meredith Vieira.

The news makes my mind reel, because Curry’s lack of rapport with Matt Lauer and the “Today” show family — real or perceived — and her possible ouster may have something to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing. (She is biracial with Japanese roots.)

Or these things may have absolutely nothing to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing.

She may just not be good at projecting the ease and warmth of Vieira or Katie Couric, the co-hosts who preceded her.

Simple as that.

And yet: In Curry’s saga, there’s enough of the whiff of race and culture to prompt Mike Hale, New York Times TV and film critic, to mention it in his in-depth feature story about her struggles.

I have long admired the intelligence and balance that Hale brings to his work. So I trust that Hale, who has Asian roots himself, raises the cultural issue only upon great reflection. (I contacted Hale but didn’t hear back. He and I are friendly acquaintances, as we are both members of the Asian American Journalists Association, whose governing board I serve on. My views here do not necessarily represent AAJA’s.)

Hale observed Curry for a month, and I’m drawn to his insights: “But as you watch the show,” he writes, “there’s an inescapable sense that Ms. Curry is outside the group in a subtle but unmistakable way, like the stepsister Cinderella without a prince…”

“I don’t know what personal factors might come into play in creating an on-screen distance,” Hale writes. “You could speculate about certain things. Ms. Curry is biracial (Japanese-American) and spent part of her early childhood living overseas, a situation that has been known to generate self-reliance and reserve. (Barack Obama probably wouldn’t make the warmest of morning hosts.)”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Hale or anyone else is arguing that Curry is being overtly discriminated against because of her race.

In fact, Curry’s Asian background, along with her strong reporting chops, hard work and credibility, has probably been a plus for her career, as “Today” and other shows recruited a diverse group of journalists to reflect the communities they cover and the audiences they seek.

What I am suggesting is that Curry’s Otherness, real or perceived, might have worked against her as she tried to fit in with — and take a more prominent role in — the chummy morning-show environment.

What do I mean by Otherness?

Think about the things in your background that set you apart from the others who surround you every day — not just your race or religion or age or sexual orientation or political convictions. Maybe you grew up with an easy-going Texas swagger and are having trouble fitting into an abrasive Boston workplace. (Hey, I can say that because I’m from the beloved Beantown.)

Maybe you were raised by an Asian father or Asian mother (or, God forbid, both) and were taught certain cultural norms — to be reserved, to not share private family matters, to not interrupt others, to not be showy about your feelings.

Or maybe you weren’t taught any of these things.

They are simply part of your personality and have nothing to do with your family and their traditions.

But there is this observation from Mike Hale: “There are moments in every show when you feel as if you’re registering Ms. Curry’s true feelings, and in the constructed world of the morning show that honesty can work for you or against you. It’s one thing when we know that you’re moved by the story of a sick child. It’s another when we know that you’re bored by and a little contemptuous of a visiting chef.”

Maybe, as in Ann Curry’s case, you’re just too honest for your own good.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    You clearly need some facts. The fact you refer to “stupid white people” is a sign that you are a prejudiced person who is simply not worth debating.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NJVJT2IKQSS4CIKV763IQIAEZQ Dick

    ann curry is a total dork.  My wife and I mock her every day.  She is being fired because she is atrocious at her job.

  • Anonymous

    No 
    recent television history doesn’t work against 
    the point we expressed , the exact thing has been going on with fewer African american journalists on camera as well.  You clearly need glasses or a greater view of minorities in journalism, since clearly you are looking through the prism for white folks..  Minority journalists probably were at a peak during the the late 80′s through part of Clinton years and have slowly been disappearing.  I will never forget Bernard Shaw reporting from China as CNN was shut down by the Chinese during Tianamen Square.  I remember thinking I’d have raised my hands and said “These stupid white people won’t turn off the camera”, as guns were pointed at him.  It was incredible.

  • Anonymous

    See vital — it’s not just race but the addition of a woman who is far too bright, insightful and intellectual to be a part of the group of intellectual bimbos on the Today Show.  They couldn’t include her because what is actually being said is she’s too bright  to connect to the American people, cause the American people are too stupid to take a strong intellectual woman of mixed race at  breakfast.  When you add the two together white America still just can’t handle that.  Watch Fox News and see all the white bimbos doing commentary; notice all the shots of them sitting on sofas for constant views of their legs as their skirts inch up.  That’s the ultimate television journalism at this point in time.

  • http://twitter.com/aprilcontessa April Contessa

    Interesting pov,something that many people of color could say they struggle with in the back of their minds even if it’s never iterated. A question of curiosity remains would the outcome be different if my back ground, culture, race etc was not different. Instead of retooling the show they chose to put the blame on one sole person and it doesn’t seems illogical. I found Ann Curry real, honest and authentic. I will no longer watch Today as religiously as I did for years mostly in protest. I was so happy for Ann when she was finally in that anchor seat and thought she should’ve had the opportunity to co-anchor before Meredith Vieria. But still Ann Curry was part of that morning show family and viewers still got the chance to hear her deliver the news. She will be missed.

  • http://twitter.com/soulcontroller1 Ste

    Great article!  I did not consider her Japanese influenced upbringing as a factor in a relatability index.

  • http://www.sherwinarnott.org/ Sherwin Arnott

    This article can help form the theoretical basis for real quantitative research. Take for example this study, Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes, which shows how behaviour results largely from unconscious attitudes: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/102/1/4/ If we take contemporary social sciences and psychological research seriously, than Huang’s questions about morning television are also serious and important.

  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    Too bad recent television history works against you and the previous poster. But that’s what happens when you back your argument (if you can even call it that) with personal beliefs rather than facts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Wardfolio Shaun Ward

    Well stated.  We all like to believe it’s for other reasons and say
    things like “race is never an issue” because it makes white America look
    bad. But the truth is, race is usually ALWAYS the issue and we like to cover it up with fancy wordplay
    and naive lobotomized thinking. Its a brainwashed way of thinking. We
    all grew up seeing white everyday, in the movies, commercials, the media
    and etc. It’s naturally in our subconscious to “want” it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749911534 Anonymous

    ”The news makes my mind reel, because Curry’s lack of rapport with Matt Lauer and the “Today” show family — real or perceived — and her possible ouster may have something to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing. (She is biiracial with Japanese roots.)
    *OR*  these things may have absolutely nothing to do with her race, cultural background and upbringing.”

    TOM, it has nothing to do with RACE, come on! So Lauer is Jewish? Race card there? Connie Chung? Jeremy Lin? You are going overboard. ANNE CURRY is too good for TV, Tv is for idiots, why are you getting so worked up about this crap? She is a fine intelligent empathetic person, too good for TV. WAKE UP TIOM. asians did not go to USA to become FAKE TV PRESENTERS. they are better than that! i say this from Taiwan

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/VUIGEFN33U6UIFF6J7IE4BRCFI vital

    i’m white but i suspect race has something to do with it at a subconscious level. i don’t think nbc is racist (i think they are just concerned with ratings) but maybe the ratings have dropped because America  is subconsciously racist? The majority of Americans when watching the Today Show don’t see someone that looks like them in Ann and so they drop the show. I think it’s possible and as simple and disgusting as that. They got to have that white face at the helm. They will try to rationalize it to themselves and say it’s Ann’s demeanor…That’s BS. Ann is awesome. Their loss. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/harisha Harisha Bastiampillai

    I must agree completely with this post.  I am Asian and a fan of the Today Show for years and I don’t see it as a race issue.  Ann’s interviewing style is ill-suited for a morning news/chat show.  Her questions are very interrogative and leading — with her sought after answer often appearing in the question itself.  Whether that is ok in a “hard news” context is debatable but it has no place when she is doing the everyday person or entertainment personality interviews.  In both cases, you want to hear the interviewee speak and not the questioner.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/wenalway Robert Knilands

    I agree with a lot of what you say. Although I think Thomas Huang wrote this piece somewhat effectively, I have to wonder how beneficial it is to keep finding things like this that might or might not be related to race/ethnicity and then to stretch out an analysis to make it fit an obviously pre-conceived perception.

    A big part of journalism is going into an issue with an open mind and then drawing a conclusion with evidence behind it. To be blunt, I think Thomas Huang fails often and badly in this area, and Poynter lets him just keep doing it.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2HTXOK4EFBH7ZEYMTBRQC5TIFQ T

    I’m half Asian too and loved Ann, not because she’s biracial, but because she was never a ditz.  Whether she showed her boredom or needed to work on her interviewing skills, she’s better and really above the vacuousness of a morning show host.  Look how Catie “saccharin” Kouric, shiny wonder child of morning TV for years, BOMBED as the first sole-female anchor on the evening news, even with all the interviews and awards she has won.  That role needs someone with some real gravitas, especially after Rather’s scandalous departure.  Basically, the wrong person with the wrong skills for each.

    The REAL question is, how in the h*ll can anyone stomach that pap so early in the morning??!!!?!?!!  Ann’s so called inability to appeal to this audience says more, or in this case less, about the audience than her skills.

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    I am so damn sick and tired of people blaming problems on race or ethinicity. The progressives who always talk about tolerance and multiculturalism are the worst offenders. Focusing on race or ethnicity is, in itself, racist. Why? Because racism insists that the *ultimate* criteria in evaluating people are ethnicity and skin color — not talent, values, industriousness or morals, the things that *truly* differentiate individuals from one another. Of course, forcing people to think along racial lines is just another way to disregard their individuality — and individuality is the ultimate threat to the herd mentality that has pervaded humanity since Adam and Eve, as it were.

    If Ann Curry is better suited to be on NBC Nightly News than on Today, fine. That has nothing to do with her ethnic background, and *everything* to do with the different demands within one workplace.

    BTW, since Matt Lauer is the “big dog” on Today, is anybody asking whether Lauer has any role in this?

  • http://www.sherwinarnott.org/ Sherwin Arnott

    Full disclosure: I don’t watch morning news television, and I don’t know who Ann Curry is. But I very much appreciated this article and when I saw the headline in my feed, I knew I wanted to read the rest. 

    The question of whether race is at play in this kind of context is a deep question and one that many commentators will write off or ignore. It’s the kind of question that we would really need to have some excellent and subtle data by talented social researchers to answer. I think that’s possible! My hypothesis? I think even if you try to account for other variables, like behaviour and culture and linguistic practices, race matters: the way the audience racializes people, on TV, matters. Of course, the way the audience racializes someone will depend on things like behaviour, culture, linguistic practices, etc, so it’s a difficult question.

    What we know about racialization, in general, is that it powerfully (and often unconsciously) affects our perceptions, our thoughts and our choices. But in a particular instance, we need to be cautious about applying this general claim. So I approve of the cautious tone in this article. Very interesting! And a very difficult social issue to traverse.

  • Anonymous

     You have nailed it! I have never thought about race in my dislike of Ann it’s her sappy interview style and personality that I do not like. She can not be replaced quick enough, or at least move her back to the news desk. Certain “it” factors just don’t come naturally to everyone.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, that kind of barrier is why Al Roker has always had such trouble too. Shee.

  • http://www.facebook.com/PamSR Pam Smith-Rodden

    Haven’t seen this as a race issue. Ann is great in a straight news role…reporting in the field or as an anchor for Today. However, her interviews border on gushy. She stumbles. Talks over the people we’re supposed to be listening to. And she just doesn’t seem comfortable with the witty banter we’ve become accustomed to with the Today anchor brand. For me, it’s about personality and fit. And this job doesn’t seem like the right fit for her. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=749479458 Jill Bazeley

    Ann Curry was a supremely unsuitable choice to follow Meredith Vieira. Right now it looks like a typical case of “blame the woman” (and I do have some quibbles with Ann on a few journalistic points) but the larger fault lies with management and its poor decision to replace a popular, warm, cheerful personality with a cooler, more reserved one in the always-upbeat (and as such: annoying and fatiguing) morning news venue.