I felt I grew from a child to an adult during my six years at the International Examiner. And I like to think I grew into a better person. If a lifetime could be compressed into half a dozen years, I came close to experiencing it. Just for kicks, let’s stroll down memory lane and I’ll explain more.
Now, it’s my opinion that as media, if you’re not threatened with a lawsuit, you’re not doing your job. The occasional office visit colored with the threat of a lawsuit or an angry call demanding an apology was a rare occurrence—but it did happen. One incident stands out. A few years back, I came into the office on a Saturday to work on the layout for the upcoming issue. A local businessperson I knew called me. He along with some friends were eating dim sum when a conversation sparked around a recent Examiner article profiling a local defense attorney. The lawyer specialized in representing clients accused of participating in illegal marijuana growing operations. The angle of the article focused on the attorney’s sympathetic view of his clients, all of who immigrated recently from Vietnam, experienced social and economic barriers to securing employment, and perhaps most tragic of all, were easy prey to clever drug operators. The businessperson and his friends, all of who are Vietnamese, took offense to the story.
“It makes the Vietnamese community look bad,” one person explained. “You’re Vietnamese—why would you want to show your people like that?” The phone was passed around the dim sum table. “I expect you to print an apology in the paper apologizing to all Vietnamese people,” another exclaimed. After speaking with nearly every person around the dim sum table, (by the way, who would give up steaming hot sticky rice with pork to talk to a newspaper?), my take-away lesson was this: Dim sum isn’t good cold. Second lesson: Don’t change. You’re also not doing your job if you try to please everyone or hide the truth.
Truth was not on the mind of a couple who, a year before my departure from the Examiner, proposed a not-so-sophisticated money laundering scheme. Before this, the only other time I heard of money laundering was in reference to Al Capone. The proposal requested I accept a $100,000 donation. The catch was I’d have to return all of the funds the following month to the donor. For fulfilling this transaction, I’d receive their patronage as a sponsor in the future. My answer was swift. It may not be money laundering, but I do prefer to keep our money clean.
Another fun story occurred on an early fall day. A local candidate for office and his campaign manager paid us a visit. Both complimented us as the “gateway to the Asian community.” They sought out not only our endorsement and the names and contacts of local community leaders, but also a quick lesson on Asian Community 101. My question posed to them: If you are running for office, shouldn’t you already know the community you want to represent? Election Day was two months away. In a nutshell, I wasn’t going to provide a “101” to someone who had no prior interest or knowledge of a community, and reached out only to win an office. I realize this isn’t the first time it has ever happened. But the ID is our town and we don’t want the wrong person representing us. The smoking gun for me was the campaign manager’s use of two phrases in the conversation that did little to butter me up: “I’m colorblind,” he said, and, “Look, sweetheart …” How did I grow and develop into a better person here when I asked them to leave the office.
Taking a turn for the more positive, legal, less contentious, and heartwarming side of my time at the Examiner, are the people. When you run a community newsroom, you learn to become a coach or therapist, to the staff: there’s the hypochondriac who is tormented by, well, everything; the delivery driver who says he could’ve made millions in the corporate world but chose not to while another driver smokes copious amounts of weed to ward off pain from his gout; and the graphic designer who moves office furniture every three months. I loved all of the people that came through our doors. Their energy, colorful personalities, and quirks made our team both ahead of its game as well as rooted to its mission. After years of trying to control the mayhem and the personalities within it, I eventually learned how to navigate people’s strengths, communication differences, and motivations toward a common cause.
I learned a new trade while at the Examiner, too—one I hadn’t expected. When you work in a building a hundred years old, strange things happen: ice-cold drafts leave goose bumps and creaks from stairways perk up one’s ears. No, my new trade wasn’t as a ghostbuster—try something less superstitious (or awesome): maintenance person. The Examiner office has its fair share of bathroom inefficiencies, uneven carpet, windows better fit for a haunted attic, and chipped paint in a color that no longer exists. In one occasion, while working at my desk in the production room, a ceiling tile fell from 20 feet onto my keyboard, grazing my head close enough to blow wind through my hair. But best of all was the inexplicable broccoli smell emanating from under the stairs a few years ago. Sorting through the space looking for a dead rat or long-forgotten Tupperware case of food, we discovered an open-ended sewer pipe original to the building protruding from the wall. On the floor beneath it appeared to be scraps of a disintegrated rubber band and an ancient-looking plastic sandwich bag, yellowed and crumbling, molded to the shape of the pipe. Long ago, someone else must have detected that same broccoli smell, wrinkled their nose and devised a plastic contraption to seal it off—apparently not forever.
To sum up my Examiner life lessons, I appreciate this: After facing multiple angry confrontations, I learned there is hurt under anger. Address the hurt and you promote understanding. The money-laundering scheme to take advantage of our non-profit drove me to stand up for others. A candidate’s superficial desire to learn and gain from a community taught me that protecting the community was as critical to my role as it was in covering it. Running a newsroom and nonprofit with few resources and lots of personalities taught me humility. And maintenance work taught me, well, how masking tape can work with virtually every surface.
The Examiner is not your typical non-profit. It’s not known for saving lives or getting kids into college. It’s not providing remote villages access to clean water or vaccines. It’s not even your run-of-the-mill newspaper. I mean, on any given day, activists stop by just to chat, the work of renowned Asian American artists lay on a table in the middle of being framed for an upcoming fundraiser, and the accountant is teaching staff how to make mochi by hand in the front lobby.
As the Examiner enters middle age, it feels a lot older. At 40 years old, its pages witnessed massacres, grieved over murdered friends, celebrated the election of one of its own as governor, never backed down from opposing unjust treatment, and told the stories of countless people who—against all odds—achieved their own version of the American Dream.
What is the legacy of the Examiner and what’s in its future? All I know is somehow it has retained that grit, that street-smart savvy, and colorful character. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Diem served as the Editor in Chief of the International Examiner from 2008-2012. Prior to that, she worked as the IE Assistant Editor, a Morning News Writer for Northwest Cable News, and at the Assignment Desk at King 5 TV. After graduating from the University of Washington with a Bachelors of Science, focusing on Neuropsychology, she worked in the PTSD clinic for women veterans at the Veteran’s Administration of Puget Sound before realizing her writing hobby could turn into a career. Today she works in External Affairs and Community Investment at Comcast ([email protected]).