After a 5-minute segment of Watters’ World on the O’Reilly Factor, in which Fox news interviewer Jesse Watters took a walk in New York City’s Chinatown to ask people there about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, host Bill O’Reilly called it “gentle fun.”
“I know we’re going to get letters, it’s inevitable. But it was gentle fun.”
What O’Reilly and Watters called “gentle fun,” however, was nothing short of racism. I suppose this can be considered a letter.
The premise itself had racist undertones: that the people working, living, or merely passing through Chinatown would have particular views of the negative discussions of China in the recent presidential debate based on their (apparent) Chinese ancestry. This kind of segment is always a bit silly: going to college campuses to mock how little millennials know about (insert any subject) or trawling a main street to get the opinions of “average Americans.”
It was the execution and production that brought the underlying racism to the front: in between clips of people sucked into the camera spotlight Fox cut in video and audio clips from well-known movies that catapulted the segment from a tired television news segment into a farce. The cut-ins crafted a perception, that the speakers were being coy or stupid, that echoes painfully for anyone with even the barest knowledge of American history.
In a country with a rich racist past, one which not so long ago targeted people of Asian descent with accusations of split loyalties, the segment should make viewers uneasy. Donald Trump has drawn sharp criticism from many who say that his divisive rhetoric, particularly regarding minorities, risks engendering the kind of social acceptance of racist policies that contributed to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
In one bit Watters asks a very old woman how Donald Trump’s “beating up on China” made her feel. (Since she was of Asian descent she must, of course, have feelings when China is “beat up on”). She responds as anyone who doesn’t speak a language well responds to a question: smile, nod, silence. The clip then cuts to a segment of “Young Frankenstein” in which the character Elizabeth shouts “Speak! Speak! Why don’t you speak?!” A man asked the same question makes a nervous laugh in response. Then, for no apparent reason, he’s asked if it’s the year of the dragon or the year of the rabbit. He responds by taking a pull of his cigarette.
A few moments later a young woman is asked who she’ll vote for. “I really don’t want to vote for Donald Trump, so Hillary.” Watters then asks, “So China can keep ripping us off?”
“I guess…” she replied, rolling her eyes. The video then cuts to a scene from “Karate Kid 1,” in which a man looks back over his shoulder and raises his eyebrows as if there’s some subtle conclusion we should be drawing. The most obvious conclusion: the woman was rightly annoyed at the racial overtones of his overly simplistic, purposefully confrontational question — but that’s not what the producers meant, I’d wager.
Watters asks all the stereotypical questions: a young man at a grocery if he has an traditional herbs for “performance”; the young woman if “Chinese food” in China is called just “food”; several people if everything is “made in China.” He then appears miming karate (a Japanese martial art) moves and practicing taekwondo (a Korean martial art, as should have been made apparent by the Korean flag on the wall in the gym). Again, there is no apparent reason for Watters to do this other than a sense that practicing martial arts is somehow intrinsically “Asian.”
In the end the viewer comes away knowing nothing more about how Chinese-Americans view the election — which, if you’re generous, was ostensibly the purpose of the segment. If you’re not generous, the purpose of the segment was to mock the people who were unfortunate enough to step into the Fox spotlight and reaffirm all the Asian stereotypes Watters and O’Reilly could muster.
This was made clear in the final minute where Watters asks an old man how to say “This is my world” in Chinese. His cavalier flubbing in his attempt to say the phrase makes the man say, “You gotta do it properly!” Then another movie clip, from 1974’s “Chinatown” — “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” The segment ends with Watters and O’Reilly laughing about how the final interviewee “hated” Watters. If so, he was “one of many” who felt that way about the interviewer, according to Watters.
Watters and O’Reilly seem mutually surprised that people in Chinatown would be aware of the election or that some would even espouse support for Trump.
“But when you go down to Chinatown,” O’Reilly says, “it seemed like everybody was aware what’s going on.” Imagine that — residents in New York City having an opinion on the U.S. presidential election.
Watters laughs at that, then goes on to say, “They’re such a polite people, they don’t walk away or tell me to get outta here. They just sit there and say nothing.”
Watters would have been better served to follow that approach.