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.
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.