By Vivian Wang
Before last week, Qanta Shimizu didn’t know who Jesse Watters was – even after the FOX correspondent with “The O’Reilly Factor” approached Shimizu with a microphone on the street in New York City’s Chinatown.
In their five-minute encounter, Watters asked a litany of questions about Donald Trump and Japanese-Chinese relations. At one point, Watters asked Shimizu to demonstrate a karate punch. All the while, Shimizu said, the FOX correspondent never identified himself nor explained his purpose – among the basic tenets of journalistic responsibility.
When the resulting video aired Oct. 3 on the cable network, Shimizu felt like a punchline in a bad joke.
Henry Leung, who was also featured in the FOX clip, reacted angrily as he watched himself on national television.
“I understand it’s a TV show, and I understand they want to entertain people,” said Leung, a retired Manhattan restaurateur. “It was a complete joke – and, of course, I wasn’t laughing because they were making fun of me and my own fellow Chinese people.”
Watters’ piece, which interspersed clips from kung fu movies and other Asian stereotypes, drew wide condemnation from Asian American groups. And journalists raised concern that Watters, a self-described “political humorist,” had crossed the lines of ethical and responsible journalism.
“This is wrong on multiple [levels] but as a journalist you don’t go to civilians and then mock them for their responses,” tweeted Nick Riccardi, a national political reporter with the Associated Press.
It remains an open question whether Watters, known for his man-on-the-street encounters, should be considered a journalist, but his affiliation with a high-profile news programs prompted some journalists to wonder if he should nevertheless be held accountable to the industry’s standards of transparency, respect and fairness.
“If we want to treat Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly like journalists and members of the (news) media – which I guess they consider themselves to be – it absolutely is unacceptable,” said Amanda Terkel, a senior political reporter for the Huffington Post who is Asian American.
“When I do man-on-the-street interviews, I go up to people, I introduce myself. I say where I’m from. And I ask if they’d be willing to talk to me. I’m trying to get something and have a larger point,” said Terkel, who said Watters “ambushed” her years ago after posting a blog about O’Reilly on ThinkProgress.com. “Jesse Watters’ segment had no point other than to make these people look ridiculous.”
The Watters video, which purported to investigate the views of Chinese Americans on Donald Trump, featured people of Asian descent with varying commands of English. Some clearly did not understand Watters’ questions.
Bernard McCoy, a former television broadcaster and now a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, called Watters’ interviewing approach “egregious.”
Watters’ subjects had no control over how they would be portrayed in his video, McCoy said. “They might gamely play along and be willing to be interviewed, but they never know how what they say is going to be put into context, or in this case, misrepresented.”
Fox did not respond to requests for comment, and it also ignored invitations from AAJA to attend a Sunday town hall in Chinatown focused on media coverage of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
Amid the chorus of criticism that followed the video’s release, Watters in a tweet expressed “regret if anyone found offense” and said his work should be taken as “tongue-in-cheek.”
“As a political humorist, the Chinatown segment was intended to be a light piece, as all Watters World segments are,” he wrote in another tweet.
On Fox News Sunday, O’Reilly defended Watters as “a gentle satirist,” but acknowledged the piece had some faults.
“I would have edited it a little differently,” O’Reilly said, “but, no, it wasn’t over the line.”
O’Reilly added: “We’re proud of him.”
Leung, however, said there was nothing to proud of. “It was an insult.”
Leung was on his way to meet friends for dinner when Watters accosted him at the corner of Canal and Mott streets.
“He asked me if I spoke English, and I said, ‘Yes.’ He then asked me how to say, ‘This is my world’ in Chinese.”
At one point during his interaction with Watters, Leung looked annoyed. Leung chided Watters over his pronunciation.
“I was annoyed, because it was clear he and his crew were trying to make fun,” Leung recalled. He said he regretted stopping to chat with Watters.
The FOX correspondent never introduced himself, Leung said. “I did not know he was with FOX News. I had never seen him before. I don’t watch his show. And I didn’t know it was going to air on national television.”
Neither did Shimizu.
Shimizu, the chief technology officer at a design firm in Chinatown, said he initially agreed to be interviewed out of curiosity. But he soon grew uncomfortable, he said.
“It was not explained what kind of news program they were trying to make. Actually, I had no idea,” said Shimizu, who moved to New York from Japan three years ago. “I just started to feel like this interview was a bit weird, and I tried to escape from that.”
After spending a few minutes with Watters, Shimizu tried to slip into a nearby bank. But Watters stopped him and asked him to demonstrate another karate punch.
“After that,” Shimizu said, “I was finally liberated.”
As Shimizu returned to his office, the encounter replayed in his mind. He complained about the experience to coworkers, and he texted his wife about the incident.
Days later, a friend alerted him to the piece on Fox News, in which Shimizu appears briefly demonstrating karate.
Shimizu said he felt humiliated. “Why the heck am I appearing in this program … that is treating Asian people like stupid animals?” he recalled thinking.
Had Watters explained the nature of his video, Shimizu said, he would have declined to participate.
“I know he is looking down Asian culture,” Shimizu said. “I could understand his intentions with that.”
Should he have another encounter with a journalist, Shimizu said he won’t play along. And he plans to tell his three young children not to talk with strangers, especially if the man they encounter on the street has a microphone and camera.
“I will definitely tell them, you don’t do that,” Shimizu said. “And of course, especially (if it’s) FOX News.”
Vivian Wang served on the VOICES staff during the AAJA convention in Las Vegas. She is a senior at Yale University, where she is majoring in English. She recently interned with the Boston Globe’s Metro Desk, and is a former editor at the Yale Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @vwang3.