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NPR draws listener fire over ‘kimchee Kleenex’ comment

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Fresh Air broadcast Maureen Corrigan’s decidedly negative review of Kyung-sook Shin’s hot new novel Please Look After Mom. The commentary finished by recommending that readers check out Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids instead.

“Smith will get your book club on its feet and pumping its collective fists in the air, rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction,” Corrigan concluded.

I winced. Turns out that I wasn’t the only one to do so. That final remark brought a strong reaction from dozens of NPR fans. Here’s KCRW listener Joon Park‘s:

I’ve been listening to NPR for the past 20 years and I never felt compelled to take time to comment on a story (let alone a book review) until now. NPR and Maureen Corrigan need to issue an apologize period. No matter how you may rationalize this in your mind…your commentary exemplifies a cultural insensitivity which borders or possible crosses over to racism. Don’t for one second think b/c you are a public liberal news radio or that you have a PhD or that you are a self proclaimed “feminist” makes you somehow immune to being a cultural elite ethnocentric. And if you want to somehow justify your comments then be consistent and STAND BEHIND your commentary. Next time you issue a book review written Carlos Fuentes be sure to use the term “Burrito scented Kleenex”….Toni Morrison what else but “friend chicken scented Kleenex”…what about Maxine Hong Kingston “sweet and sour pork scented Kleenex”….you should be ashamed and you probably do even know it. Also, don’t drag “feminism” in the gutter by attempting to use it as some veil of protection or rationalization for your ignorant rants….Also, Patti Smith would be embarrassed by your review as well….

That’s a little more than a wince, of course. Fresh Air comes out of WHYY in Philadelphia. WHYY’s Senior Producer Danny Miller offered a defense of the commentary.

“I must admit I was surprised at the reaction,” Miller is quoted as saying on NPR’s Ombudsman page. “It didn’t occur to me that this phrase would be deeply offensive to some listeners, and I’m certain that was not the intention…. To repeat, no offense was intended.”

“The review was not an attack on Korean culture. It was a negative review of a novel that—despite its popularity—Maureen thought was a melodramatic.”

No doubt. My guess is that Corrigan used “kimchee” because it alliterates with “Kleenex.” Unfortunately, the phrase  bleeds at least a drop or two of her contempt for the novel in question onto Korean culture in general, even if that wasn’t her intent. Add Corrigan’s earnest-to-a-fault voice to the chemistry, and Fresh Air got what it got.

“I hope Maureen Corrigan and NPR will respond to the anger and concern her reporting generated,” writes another listener. “I think the audience deserves a respectful response, the silence adds insult to injury~ negligence.”

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One Response to NPR draws listener fire over ‘kimchee Kleenex’ comment

  1. Danny Miller April 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Hi Matthew and Radio Survivor.

    Below is the full text of my reply which was quoted in the NPR Ombudsman column.

    Thank you,

    Danny Miller/Fresh Air


    I must admit I was surprised at the reaction to Maureen’s review of “Please Look After Mom.” Many of the complaints focused on the phrase “kimchee scented Kleenex fiction” which Maureen used to describe the novel. It didn’t occur to me that this phrase would be deeply offensive to some listeners, and I’m certain that was not the intention. But I appreciate the feedback. Not anticipating that some listeners would be so offended is, by definition, a form of cultural insensitivity. If we made a miss-step in that regard, we are sorry. To repeat, no offense was intended.

    That said, the review was not an attack on Korean culture. It was a negative review of a novel that – despite its popularity – Maureen thought was a melodramatic “guilt laden morality tale… a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction.”

    “Racist” is an easy word to toss around when it comes to cultural misunderstandings, but it is just plain wrong to hurl this label at Maureen or her review. One angry letter posed the question: “Would NPR allow a reviewer to make references to “fried chicken and watermelon” when reviewing the work of an African American author?” Fried chicken and watermelon are images that have been used for over a century to stereotype African Americans. In fact those foods were often used as props in illustrations and movie scenes that were intended to show “Negroes” as lazy and dumb. If there is any similar negative connotation to kimchee, we were unaware of it. If Maureen had referred to gumbo-scented, curry-scented, or chicken soup-scented Kleenex fiction, I don’t think it would have been interpreted as defamation.

    We are very proud to have Maureen on our staff. She makes enormous contributions to Fresh Air, and her reviews are among the most popular segments on NPR.

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