December 13, 2016

On Sunday, The Los Angeles Times published two reader letters that employed racial stereotypes, misinformation, and logical fallacies to argue in favor of the World War II-era mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. The backlash from readers was swift and loud, so The Times published an acknowledgment that they’d exercised poor editorial judgement to their Readers Rep blog on Monday. But we think they needed to do more, so we decided to help them out with this corrected version of the post. (The original text by Times reporter Deidre Edgar is in plain text, our corrections appear in bold.) 

Many Times readers have expressed outrage over taken issue with two letters in this week’s Travel section, which criticized a Nov. 27 article about National Park sites that address issues of racism and ethnicity civil rights in America’s history. We get it and we want to come right out and say that as an editorial staff and as one of America’s most widely read newspapers, we failed our readers and, especially, the Japanese American community.

The letters employed cultural stereotypes, historical inaccuracies, and racial bigotry to suggest that the mass internment incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was justified, and sought to minimize the hardships they endured. They also suggested that marginalized Americans should be eagerly willing to forfeit their civil liberties for the greater good in times of fear. This line of reasoning is one we should all be wary of, especially as our political leaders are proposing similar tactics that would encroach upon the rights and freedoms of American Muslims.

Davan Maharaj, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Times, said the letters did not meet the newspaper’s standards for “civil, fact-based discourse” and should not have been published. He is working with the editorial staff of The Times to update the paper’s Ethics Guidelines in order to prevent future publication of reader letters that contain blatant expressions of racism and hatred.

In the wake of the presidential election, the media has been challenged to do a better job of reporting perspectives from “all sides,” but we have to draw the line at bigotry and misinformation. Like Native American genocide and slavery, the World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans is an ugly fact of our shared history. We may be ashamed of that history, but the moral wrongs and the trauma they caused are realities that we all need to face. We cannot whitewash our history in the service of national pride. The LA Times promises its readers that in its quest to report on diverse perspectives, we will not waiver on these points ever again.

The Nov. 27 article highlighted the Tule Lake and Manzanar relocation concentration camps in California, where thousands of innocent Japanese Americans were detained. Tule Lake was especially notorious, the only one of the 10 war relocation camps with a stockade and jail. Japanese Americans deemed disloyal were sent there.

The article quoted park ranger Angela Sutton, who has worked at Tule Lake since the park was established in 2008, on why it’s important to remember what happened:

“We take a dark spot in our own history, something other countries might want to cover up,” she said, “and we maintain it and preserve it so that future generations can learn.”

The facts surrounding World War II incarceration internment are well-established. In all, 120,000 Japanese American men, women, and children were detained during World War II. The majority were U.S. citizens. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, in which the U.S. government formally apologized to the internees and established a $1.25-billion trust fund to pay reparations.

The law said rightly acknowledged that World War II-era mass incarceration internment resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” rather than from legitimate security considerations.

The two letters published in the Dec. 11 Travel section accused the National Parks article of engaging in an “anti-U.S. remake of history” and of needing balance. Again, the facts and circumstances of Japanese American incarceration are simply not up for debate. The letters included racial stereotypes and were rife with misinformation:

“Japanese have an extremely strong attachment to family, and even more so back then. First- generation and, to a lesser extent, Japanese here would have been expected to follow the wishes of their elders in Japan.”

Upon deeper reflection, we are as shocked as our readers were to see these words in print in 2016. This statement exhumes the same racially deterministic logic that helped justify Japanese American incarceration in the first place. It assumes that individual thinking is driven by racial and ethnic identity and that immigrants — especially immigrants of color — and their offspring are somehow less American than the white folks with deeper settler roots here.

As illogical, counterfactual, and, frankly, racist as this clearly is, we have to own up to the fact that The Times was complicit in peddling the same logic back in 1942. A now-infamous editorial we published in February 1942 stated that, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.” Yikes! That is just blatantly racist — you would think we would have learned our lesson by now.

And they suggested that it wasn’t so bad in the camps:

“Virtually everyone in the U.S. was assigned jobs to help the war effort. The Japanese were assigned the job of staying out of the way and not causing complications. Millions of Americans were assigned far worse jobs.”

The thing about this is that a “job” is typically something people do for compensation. Japanese Americans were not paid to go to concentration camps, in fact many of them suffered catastrophic losses of property, businesses, and financial holdings. Can you imagine the indignity of losing everything you’ve worked hard to build and being treated as a common criminal for the sole reason of your Japanese ancestry? Even 75 years later, the trauma of WWII incarceration remains vivid for the Japanese Americans who survived it and their offspring. We Americans are hard workers, but there is simply no logical way to frame that kind of loss and trauma as a “job.”

Or that the detainees could have had it worse elsewhere:

“War is evil, but I would have much rather been interned by the U.S. in California than by the Japanese in their captured lands.”

I actually laughed out loud when I read this one. I mean, come on. Anyone who has spent five minutes learning about life in American concentration camps knows they were no walk in the park. And trafficking in false equivalencies to justify the mistreatment of our own citizens? That sounds like a great way to lower our standards for the protections and privileges that all Americans rightfully enjoy.

Honestly, I’m just skimming the surface in addressing the dangerous misinformation and logical fallacies that those two letters contained. In order to properly right the record, we will be publishing a point-by-point correction, much like the one that the Huffington Post managed to get out the day after we made this egregious editorial error. We will publish that rebuttal, along with the full text of this post, digitally and in the front section of next Sunday’s print edition.

Justifiably outraged readers found the opinions offensive and insensitive quickly identified the obvious bigotry that our editorial staff failed to recognize.

“Framing the forced internment of Japanese Americans as their ‘contribution to the war effort’ is, frankly, disgusting,” wrote Matthieu Boblet of Bothell, Wash. “Many lost their homes, livelihoods, ways of life and childhoods as they spent years locked away, forced to live in rickety shacks out in the desert due to knee-jerk reactionary xenophobia. Framing it as anything different is a disgrace and outright falsehood.”

Joanne Oppenheim of New York wrote: “To say the ‘interned Japanese were housed, fed, protected and cared for’ is an all too familiar whitewash for what really happened as immigrant and citizens were forced to leave their homes, jobs, schools and communities. Families of six were housed in horse stables that still stank of their former tenants and a few months later shipped to God-forsaken camps where families lived in single-room barracks with inadequate heat, terrible food and poor health facilities. To say that they were there to be protected and cared for is an outright lie!”

Karin Wang of Los Angeles said she was disappointed in The Times for publishing the letters. “The internment is widely acknowledged and accepted as a major civil liberties violation and resulted in no prosecutions for espionage; to print a letter saying that Japanese Americans should be grateful that the government incarcerated 120,000 of them without due process is normalizing the ‘alt-right’ and white supremacy.”

The Times’ Travel editor, Catharine Hamm, said she approved publication of the letters thinking that the writers’ views, although provocative, would be balanced by subsequent letters of response. She realizes now that historical trauma and racism aren’t a game, and that asking readers to do the work of countering such dangerous viewpoints is unethical and, frankly, bad journalism.

Hamm said that, in retrospect, that was not the right decision, because the racist and retrograde views expressed in the letters did not lend themselves to reasoned discussion. She admits it was irresponsible to print such viewpoints without any context and without signalling to readers that the letters were full of racial stereotypes and misinformation.

She knows it’s not enough, but she wants to express her sincere apologies to the Japanese Americans whose historical trauma she disregarded, and to other vulnerable groups who suffer most when white supremacists and their opinions are normalized in this way. She and others at The Times are working with the Japanese American community to figure out what more we can do to remedy this situation.

Maharaj made the same point in discussions with staff members disturbed by the letters, and in remarks to editors during The Times’ daily news meeting this morning.

“Letters in The Times are the opinions of the writers, and editors strive to include a range of voices. But the goal is to present readers with civil, intelligent, fact-based opinions that enlarge their understanding of the world,” Maharaj said. “These letters did not meet that standard.”

The Travel section plans to print letters of response in the Dec. 18 edition. Since we failed to do so in this initial statement, we will be sure to include many Japanese American responders since that group was most directly impacted by this unconscionable mistake and they deserve to have their voices heard right now. We will also publish a full tally of the letters from concerned readers that have poured into our Readers’ Rep inbox this week in order to illustrate to those harmed by our letters just how many people stand with them.

Again, we acknowledge the gravity of our poor decision to publish those letters and offer a sincere commitment to doing better in the future.

[Header photo: Members of farm families await transport to temporary detention centers where they will stay until being assigned to concentration camps where they will be incarcerated for the duration of the war. May 9, 1942, Centerville, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of The National Archives and Records Administration.]