CNBC Reporter's Use of “Chink in the Armor” Condemned By Asian American Journalists

A CNBC reporter is under fire for using the phrase “chink in the armor” during a Tuesday discussion of Wendi Deng's pending divorce from News Corp and 21st Century Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch.

The comments by CNBC's Robert Frank drew a critical response from the Asian American Journalists Association, which condemned the statements as “offensive” and “inappropriate.”

Discussing whether Deng's new lawyer might be able to gain her a share of the Murdoch family trusts during the divorce case, Frank stated on CNBC's Power Lunch: “I wonder, you know, Peter, what do you think the chink in the armor here might be? That's what [Deng's lawyer] is so good at, is finding a chink in the pre-nups and all these trusts. What do you think they may be looking for to get more out of this divorce?”

Deng is a Chinese-born American citizen. She and Rubert Murdoch married in 1999 and have two children together. In June, Rupert Murdoch filed for divorce.

Contacted by Media Matters, Bobby Caina Calvan, media watch chair for the Asian American Journalists Association, said after reviewing the video that Frank used “an unfortunate phrasing and people should know better in this day and age that a phrase like that, that I'm not going to repeat, is offensive to many of us.”

Acknowledging that the statement may have been “spoken innocently” and could have been part of an “off-the-cuff question,” Calvan nonetheless added that “we would like CNBC and Mr. Frank to realize that the words uttered on air today about an Asian-American in the news were inappropriate in any context.” He further stated that the “phrase shouldn't have been used, it is a no-brainer.”

Reached for comment, a CNBC spokesman said any offensive connotation was “totally unintentional,” declining to offer any additional explanation.

Calvan said AAJA has reached out to CNBC and was willing to help the network identify “words that many of us feel are offensive.”

In February 2012, ESPN fired an employee who used the phrase in a headline about Asian-American NBA player Jeremy Lin. That usage drew criticism from AAJA and others.

At that time, AAJA issued a statement that said, in part:

Many people, not just in Asian American communities, are shocked that a news company with a long tradition of excellence would use a racial epithet. It's particularly galling because of the weeks of discussion about Lin, his heritage and even the wave of outright racism surrounding his stardom.

We are particularly concerned that an organization as large as yours did not have the proper checks in place to prevent the mistake. It is hard to fathom how editors on so many of your platforms failed to uphold your normally high standards.

Shortly after the Lin incident, writer Huan Hsu authored a piece for Slate suggesting the phrase be retired for good:

Chink dates back half a millennium to Middle English, a delightfully onomatopoeic word for a narrow opening or fissure. It's also an agreed-upon slur, although those origins aren't as clear. One theory is that it refers to the phenotype of Asiatic eyes. Or it might stem from the sound created by Chinese workers as they hammered railroad ties during America's westward expansion. Or it's a derivation of China or the Qing dynasty that reigned when the country first opened itself to the West.

Chink's long history shouldn't protect it from obsolescence. There's a precedent for retiring offensive-sounding words from everyday usage. A quick search reveals that there has been but a single use of fagot in the New York Times since 1981 (compared  with hundreds before). Dyke has quietly morphed to dike when describing the hydrological feature common in lowland countries. There's also a rumor that the Dallas Morning News banned niggardly after negative reactions to its appearance in a food review in the 1990s, though Editor-in-chief Bob Mong tells me that it's not true. Nothing in the Morning News' style guide would prevent its use, but, because “it's not really in the vernacular” and has acquired “explosive qualities,” Mong says, most editors would shy away from it. “You'd have to have an awfully good reason to use it,” he explains.