Ethnocentrism and KTVU SFO Pilots Prank

KTVU, who have done some excellent reporting of last week’s SFO plane crash, got pranked yesterday. They thought that the names of the pilots had been released to them:

For those of you who missed it, they are:

  • Captain Something Wrong
  • We Too Low
  • Holy Fuck
  • Bang, Ding, Ow

What’s most interesting is how the staff at KTVU fell for the prank. The truth is that for Americans, Asian names are a problem. They tend to sound unintentionally funny—often sexual. So I’m sure that the people at the TV station were trying to be respectful. In fact, just listen to how carefully the anchor is pronouncing the names. So the prank only works because the reporters are trying so hard to be respectful about something they know little about. And that’s a good thing; I wish they acted that way about all the other things they don’t understand very well.

I don’t want to go too easy on KTVU, however. San Francisco has a very big Asian population. If that community was better represented in the newsroom, this mightn’t have happened. Regardless, it looks as though KTVU had no one but the pranksters themselves to count on for the pronunciations. That is at least a bit sad.

On the other side—the pranksters—the intent is not so noble. It is very funny, of course. But I can’t help but notice just how ethnocentric if not outright racist the joke is. For example, the names are really more Chinese than Korean. I don’t think “Wong” is a Korean surname, but it is Chinese. The same is true of “Lo.” Much more than this, however, there is a clear aspect of cultural superiority indicted with the pigeon English and the plaintive cry, “We too low!”

Don’t get me wrong. All I’m saying is that most of the humor here is based upon our shocking lack of knowledge about other cultures. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t laugh at it, because I certainly have. In particular, I thought the most offensive “Wi Tu Lo” was very funny. And “Captain Sun Ting Wong” is a brilliant bit of comic detail that KTVU dutifully reported. But after all that, I think it is a good idea to step back and look at why we find all of this so funny. Why are we so focused on our own culture that at first we don’t even notice the fake names and then we find them funny as hell. That completely describes me. And I wish it didn’t.

H/T: William Brown

Update (13 July 2013 3:12 pm)

Will tells me that it actually came from an unpaid intern at NTSB. As you all probably know, I’m not too keen on the whole unpaid intern thing. It is just another way to give the rich an even bigger economic advantage over the poor. He also noted that the San Francisco NBC affiliate, KRON, has a much more diverse staff than KTVU.

Update (13 July 2013 5:56 pm)

Twitter user B. Justice alerted me to misinformation in the last update. The intern did not provide the original information; he only confirmed it. KTVU has not explained where they got the original information.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Ethnocentrism and KTVU SFO Pilots Prank

  1. Thing is, it’s all about context. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at how foreign names/words sound silly to us, just as our words sound silly to others. (A Danish friend lamented his child singing the insensible moment from the bad "Simpsons" movie where Homer crawls on the roof in a pig suit singing, "Spider Pig, Spider Pig." "Pig" sounds like the Danish swear word for "dick," so his kid was singing swear words about cocks.)

    It becomes offensive because we have a long history of turding on others and assuming we have the right to do so from some sort of pseudo-Christian awesomeness mandate. Minus that, and laughing at linguistic screwups is pretty hilarious stuff.

    Just as, under normal circumstances, plane crashes wouldn’t be funny. But, as George Carlin observed, you can make fun of how our media cover them. Mocking the media hard-on for a plane crash isn’t disparaging the suffering of victims’ loved ones; it’s ripping on the media’s faux-sad exploitation of anything that bleeds and leads.

    It’s doubtful that these pranksters had anything socially satiric in mind; they probably wanted a quick laugh and lots of webhits. Satire doesn’t lose its sting or relevance because we don’t agree with the motivations of the satirists, however. There’s still an egregiously wrong, commonly-accepted normal that they mock. The joke is realizing that someone else, bright, dumb, or exploitative, wittily skewers the normal. And we agree it deserved to be skewered.

    Was Welles’s "War Of The Worlds" broadcast a satire of "breaking-news" reporting? Was it a commentary on fear of the Other? Was it just having fun with conventional radio broadcast styles (I liked the long clip of the orchestra playing "Stardust," certainly a well-chosen title)? Who knows?

    Not that this stuff is anywhere near that league. But there’s nothing wrong with laughing at it. As long as you’re laughing at yourself at the same time.

  2. @JMF – I agree. I found it quite funny. Although it does seem to me that after all this time you would think that I wouldn’t get a childish giggle out of "Mi Lon Wang."

    I don’t think Welles knew what was happening until it was happening. No one in the group wanted to do War of the World and the writer was really working it to make it anything but dreadful. Despite what’s been written afterwards, I don’t think Welles intended it. Of course, by halfway through he knew exactly what was going on. And he knew a good opportunity when he saw it. BTW: Radio Lab has an excellent episode about other people doing the same thing. Some people did it quite successfully in Ecuador and it ended with a mob burning down the radio station. People died.

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