Thick-skinned scribe spits out humble pie

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Wafer-thin apology from Pulitzer Prize winner irks critics; university, newspaper use free speech fig leaf to defend crappy journalism

An online petition launched to demand that journalism professor Joel Brinkley resign from Stanford University after a "xenophobic" piece on the Vietnamese people has gathered more than 2,000 signatures as of Thursday morning. 

Joel Brinkley, hauled over the coals for a "moronic" opinion piece, says he has no intention of bowing to growing pressure to step down.

"I have been a journalist all of my life, and I have a "˜thick skin,' meaning I am accustomed to criticism," Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize winning professor of journalism at Stanford University and former New York Times correspondent, told Vietweek.

An online petition demanding that Brinkley resign from his post at Stanford University has gathered over 2,000 signatures. The Asian American Journalists and the Stanford Vietnamese Students' Associations both published responses condemning Brinkley's piece, which appeared in The Chicago Tribune late last month.

Brinkley's op-ed, titled Despite increasing prosperity, Vietnam's appetites remain unique, was trashed by incredulous locals, expatriates and conservationists as intemperate, poorly-researched and almost racist.

They also called the piece "moronic", "unprofessional" and "pathetic."

In his piece, Brinkley used a recent WWF report about the country's dire wildlife situation to summarily diagnose Vietnamese citizens as being singularly aggressive. He concluded that the aggression had been brought on by centuries of eating weird meat, including dogs, rats, birds and wildlife.

After a ten-day visit to the country, Brinkley described Vietnam as a country where "you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all," because "most have been eaten."

Many observers say his op-ed is not a sufficient reason for Brinkley to lose his job, and he himself says Stanford Univeristy has been "supportive" of him so far.

"As Joel Brinkley has written and said, his personal views are his own and do not represent Stanford University," said Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokesperson.

"Stanford upholds the First Amendment, which is the right to freedom of expression. It is important in an academic setting, where educational and learning opportunities come in all forms, that students and faculty members be able to express their views and opinions," Lapin told Vietweek.

She made no comment on the ethical and journalistic merits of the piece.

The Chicago Tribune, which published the piece and later a mea culpa saying its usual editing standards had not been adhered to, also defended Brinkley's right to express his opinion.

Early this month, Margaret Holt, standards editor of the Tribune, posted a brief statement noting that Brinkley's column had "offended many people, including those of Asian American descent."

But she said the paper has no plan to take the piece down.

"If there are no legal issues or copyright publication rights (such as plagiarism or fabrication), the Tribune's general practice is not to remove articles on either its print or online editions," Holt told Vietweek.

"The Tribune does not remove articles because people disagree with the content or views of the author," she said.

Brinkley has sort of apologized for his piece. In a recent interview with the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, he said he was "sorry" for the argument that eating meat makes Vietnamese people more aggressive.

"That was badly phrased"¦Meat does not make you aggressive all by itself," he was quoted by Tuoi Tre as saying.

But several critics dismissed his apology, saying it was not honest. Worse, he appeared to be attempting to mock Vietnamese again in his response, they said.

Nguyen Van Tuan, a Vietnamese academic who has studied bone genetics and epidemiology at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia, brushed off Brinkley's attempt to water down his original assertion by saying "Vietnam's diet does make people more robust than their counterparts in neighboring states."

"I don't see any evidence to back this," Tuan said. "On the contrary, I have compiled data on the lean mass of Vietnamese people which show that they are in fact not more "˜robust' than anyone else [in the region]."

Brinkley also appeared to stand by what critics had slammed as "pop psychology" analysis.

When asked by Tuoi Tre what he would have done in hindsight, he said: "I would call the Vietnamese more robust than their neighbors, most of whom eat rice and not much else."

Tuan retorted: "What did he really mean by "˜not much else', if not rats, birds, or dogs as he'd written in the piece?"

"In a nutshell, I don't think Brinkley was honest with his so-called apology."

Vietweek asked Brinkley what he meant by "not much else."

"In Cambodia and Laos, most people eat rice primarily and have very little access to meat and other foods that will provide protein"¦ [such as] meat of all kinds and fish. That's what causes malnutrition and stunting," he said.

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He insisted he is qualified to comment that Vietnamese are different from their neighbors because he had spent "a great deal of time in the region writing a book about Cambodia published in 2011."

At least one academic agreed, sort of.

David Chandler, one of the foremost scholars on Cambodia and the region, said: "His book on Cambodia calls all the Cambodians hopeless.

At least he doesn't go that far with the Vietnamese."

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