Conan Screws Up

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorCollege, Undergraduate July 2001

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Conan wants to reassure everyone that he's no racist barbarian.

After taking heat from Asian-American activists for a racial slur that aired on his show two weeks ago, the self-deprecating late-night talker has apologized and vowed to be more vigilant in monitoring what his guests say so as not to offend viewers at home.

"The ultimate responsibility...on something like that is mine. It's my show," O'Brien said at the semiannual Television Critics Association meeting in Pasadena, California. "If I had to do it over again, I understand that word is offensive to people, it hurts people. I would say, 'Let's drop audio on it.' " Comic Sarah Silverman's use of the word "chink" in a July 11 bit on Late Night with Conan O'Brien sparked a demand for an apology by the civil-rights watchdog Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which called the term "offensive" and "inappropriate." Responding to the uproar, the Peacock network issued a mea culpa, calling the broadcast of the epithet a "mistake," and promised the incident would never be repeated.

But it wasn't until Friday, when he addressed the TCA during NBC's presentation, that O'Brien finally addressed the goof himself.

"We have a lot of different voices come on the show, we have a lot of really intelligent, bright people, and I'm very reluctant to edit people," the host said. "In this case, we clearly should have done that. To those people who got hurt hearing that word, I apologize." Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network, said he was satisfied with O'Brien's response.

"It was nice. I was glad that he did choose to take responsibility for this and I'm at least glad he [apologized] to the critics," said Aoki. "I do wish he addressed [the issue] on the show where he appeared to condone it. But I'm happy that he's done it." The slur--an ugly remnant of 19th and 20th century anti-Chinese bias--is considered one of the worst for all Asians. Aoki, who's family hails from Japan, says the "chinks" tag gets applied to all Asian races, and is as offensive to Koreans, Thais and Japanese as it is to Chinese.

Aoki noted that while his group hopes to educate the public about such offenses so they can take responsibility for their own actions, it's up to NBC's office of Standards and Practices and O'Brien to ultimately police themselves.

Phone calls to Silverman's manager were not returned.