“Experiencing social injustices and political corruption during my high school career sparked my interest in investigative reporting,” she said.
– Venus Lee in Người Việt Online –

Sometime in 2007 Venus Lee, a graduate of the University of Southern California (broadcast journalism and social sciences), became the first recipient of the YenDo Vietnam Fellowship, given by the Orange County newspaper Người Việt. She will have received a $5000 stipend because of this accomplishment. It’s also worth mentioning that Lee’s fellowship project is a “study of adoptions from Vietnam”.

Back in December 2007 Lee authored a four-part series on adoptions from Vietnam, which is still online for you to read:

  1. A New Family
  2. Preparing and Waiting
  3. Across the Miles
  4. Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture

Now, if Người Việt had been playing some elaborate joke on the public by publishing these articles under the guise of “professional journalism”, then it couldn’t have picked a better candidate than Venus Lee to act the fool and merry prankster. Because, in my discriminating opinion, the series was a travesty of journalistic objectivity and ethics. It is beyond me that the editors of Người Việt could have allowed such pedantic and cloying reporting represent their well-established news organization.

With respect to Venus Lee, I would have loved to have asked her what her definition of “investigative reporting” is, since her articles demonstrate none of the standards of that distinguished practice. It’s obvious that her writing lacks a variety of sources, a penchant for serious research, comprehension of the subject at hand and will to go deeper than surface appearances. If I had been the editor assigned to oversee her work, I would have had serious reservations about publishing any of it until she demonstrated some of those “investigative reporting” skills she supposedly so admires.

Considering that Lee received a fellowship and two Hearst Journalism Awards (!), one would assume that she would attempt to meet the expectations inherent in such distinctions and prove her worth among her peers. Being given responsibility to write a four-part series in the biggest Vietnamese-American newspaper in the country showed that they had put a lot of faith in her up-and-coming status. However, based on the weak, and very skewed, content of the series I would have to venture a guess that Lee underestimated the complexity of the subject matter and overestimated her talent to tackle it.

For years, China has been the Asian superpower when it comes to adoptions, but Vietnam is becoming a viable option for Americans seeking to adopt a child. Today, Người Việt 2 begins a four-part series looking at the history of Vietnamese adoptions, at the cost and the waiting time of the process, the experience of traveling to Vietnam to pick up a child, and then how the youngsters assimilate into American culture.

Above is the preamble to each of the four articles. In my mind, this implied that the series is going to take a comprehensive look at the history and present situation of adoption from Vietnam and the adoptees themselves. Plus, the fact that Người Việt decided to do a four-part series on adoption from Vietnam made me believe that a lot of information and point-of-views were going to be covered, and that the articles were going to contain a lot of things for their readers to consider.

I was sorely mistaken, as the following three quotes demonstrate:

“I looked into the face of my own daughter and realized how lucky she was that we were rescuing her from a life of poverty and enormous need, unlike most of her orphan mates who may never have their basic medical, nutritional, educational and individualized attention needs met.” [Robert Kalatschan]

Người Việt Online, A New Family, Thur., December 20, 2007, by Venus Lee

“You don’t understand. My daughter’s waiting for me,” she said. [Catherine Nelson]

Người Việt Online, Across the Miles, Wed., January 3, 2008, by Venus Lee

“…For us, it’s a bedtime story that children grow in your heart and not in your tummy.” [Karen Calvert]

Người Việt Online, Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture, Fri., January 11, 2008, by Venus Lee

These quotes represent a major hurdle in facilitating the equitable distribution of voices that should add color to the bigger adoption picture. As I see it, too much deference is shown to adoptive parents, including their interests, their needs and their troubles. As long as the media only focus on one group within the adoption community, the public will remain unaware of the myriad stories out there and start believing that only certain people have anything to say about adoption.

The series is replete with basic information on the process of adopting infants from overseas. The virtual checklists at the end of each article resemble brochures seen in adoption agencies. Thus, Venus Lee created a paradox: by spreading out this information catering to P/APs throughout three of the four articles, she narrowed the subject matter so much that she (perhaps unintentionally) overlooked so many topics that could have elevated the debate on international adoption within Người Việt’s pages. That’s not to say that the information on the adoption process isn’t useful; but, to provide this information to the exclusion of other equally valuable information that would have given the topic of adoption some weight and much needed context seems unnecessarily conspiratorial to me.

If one wanted more proof that the series was stacked in favor of P/APs, then it should be noted that Venus Lee interviewed mainly just five families: the Hacks, the Calverts, the Kalatschans, the Franks and the Noltes. The writing had more to do with these families and their experiences adopting their children rather than adoption itself, with all its logistical and emotional complexities.

The lack of representation in this series presents a serious flaw in its original mission to inform the public about the state and progress of adoptions from Vietnam. Without input from different interested parties, the appearance of favoritism looms large and makes calls of unfairness all the more credible. In fact, so egregious is the pandering to P/APs’ self-interest that the serious ongoing concerns about alleged corruption in the facilitation of adoption of children from Vietnam are glossed over, even though the topic is addressed directly, like so:

Since there were growing concerns of purchased or stolen babies, officials at the USCIS took some time to investigate inconsistencies in the circumstances surrounding the Calvert child before issuing her a visa.

First, unlike most adopted children who are filtered through an orphanage, Ally was transferred directly from a hospital to her new parents’ open arms. Second, the entire adoption process for this child was unusually brisk – a mere six months from start to finish.

The Calverts are not sure how they finally received clearance, but they don’t ask.

Người Việt Online, Across the Miles, Wed., January 3, 2008, by Venus Lee

The failure of Lee to follow up on this extraordinary revelation of likely malfeasance in the adoption of this family’s daughter and the figurative sweeping under the rug of the USCIS’ suspicions speaks unflatteringly of the newspaper’s quality of reporting. Worse, such an omission of alternative (i.e., differing) viewpoints does a disservice to the reading public’s ability to come to its own conclusions about an admittedly confusing (and conflicting) situation.

For me, the most significant example of the series’ attempt to manipulate public opinion in favor of one side over another is the last installment that deals with the adopted children once they arrive in the United States. Lee focuses on the Hack family who, in 2005, took their three children, all adopted from Vietnam, back to their country of birth for, ostensibly, a visit, but which appears to have evolved into a compare-and-contrast missionary junket.

The author singles out Emily Hack because she had the opportunity to meet her biological parents while visiting Vietnam. Her adoptive mother, Theresa Hack, soon sets a gratitude trap for her daughter that will more than likely have her thrashing in agony for quite a long time:

“I think she saw the poverty her birth family lived in and realized her mother gave her up for adoption to give her a better chance at life,” Theresa Hack said.

Người Việt Online, Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture, Fri., January 11, 2008, by Venus Lee

Suffice it to say that the inclusion of the voices of adult Vietnamese adoptees would have provided a more realistic perspective about the turmoil and triumph inherent in return visits to their country of origin, especially if contact with the natural parents is made. If Lee had taken the initiative to do a simple search on the Internet for “adult Vietnamese adoptees”, she would have been able to find a plethora of information on the websites of organizations like Vietnamese Adoptee Network (VAN), Adopted Vietnamese International (AVI) and Operation Reunite. She could have contacted representatives of these organizations and conducted interviews with them, and these contacts could have provided her with even more contacts within the community.

If Lee had done her job properly and expanded her list of primary sources, she could have avoided the following unfortunate passage altogether:

The difference in lifestyle and opportunity was evident by comparing Emily to her twin sister who resided with her birth family. Emily enjoys hearty meals, a generously-sized wardrobe, a good education and the chance to join in extracurricular activities such as dance, choir and sports. In contrast, her sibling lived with parents toiling to buy enough clothes for everyone in the family and put food on the table.

Người Việt Online, Aftermath of adoption: adjusting to the culture, Fri., January 11, 2008, by Venus Lee

This callous comparison of real-life situations between Emily Hack and her biological sister begs an experienced editor’s red pen to cross out the offending text. Lee’s juxtaposition of the girls’ current lifestyles could constitute a form of child abuse because it is a sucker punch to each of the girls’ heads that unwittingly injures any sense of autonomy and dignity that they both possess. To elevate the hegemonic perception of material wealth over the rudimentary stereotypes of poverty serves to oversimplify and then negate any real loss that both girls will eventually have to come to terms with.

The ironic omission of any adult adoptee or first parent voice within the realm of adoption typifies many media outlets’ simplistic dealings with the topic and how little regard they show to people who could possibly have a point of view that upsets the status quo. The Vietnamese diaspora following the Vietnam War not only included the regular cast of characters, but also the thousands of infants and children who were rushed out of the decaying nation-state of the Republic of South Vietnam. To have not included any of our opinions or stories constitutes gross negligence from where I sit. Did not someone on Người Việt’s editorial staff inform Venus Lee that P/APs are not the be-all and end-all in the totality of adoption?

As far as journalistic integrity goes, it’s a foregone conclusion in my mind that Người Việt had the obligation to be all inclusive in its treatment of Vietnamese adoption because it affects so many people and deserves more than just a preoccupation with how to get a child, how to travel to get the child and which culture camp to put the child in when he/she is feeling lonely and needs friends.

Due to Người Việt’s lackluster four-part series, four of us adult Vietnamese adoptees decided to draft a letter to the editor in order to lodge a complaint against the series’ content in order to hold the paper’s feet to the fire and make our presence felt among our peers within the adoption community. The complete letter appears below:

To the Editor of Người Việt2 Online:

When we saw that Người Việt2 was featuring a 4-part series on adoption from Vietnam, we were more than a little intrigued because of our background as adult Vietnamese adoptees. We are just a few of many members of the first generation of Vietnamese adoptees who were flown out of the country to join families around the world during and at the end of the Vietnam War. So, it was with much anticipation that we wanted to read what a Vietnamese-American publication had to say about adoption from Vietnam. Unfortunately, the articles fell far short of any wide-ranging examination of both the history and continued practice of adoption from Vietnam.

Người Việt2 had an extraordinary opportunity to inform the public about issues surrounding international adoption, specifically from the point of view of birth parents, adoptive parents and the adoptees themselves. The series on adoption could have sparked lively and constructive debate about the social, economic and political factors that drive international adoption between Vietnam and the United States, as well as the far-reaching consequences felt by birth families, adoptive families and society at large.

Apparently, Người Việt2 has simply allowed an easy-to-use guide for prospective adoptive parents to be published. As superficial as the content is, it is even more disturbing that the overall message of the series is that Vietnamese children are commodities on the store shelves waiting for American consumers to pick out and purchase. It is regrettable that the author sought no comment or opinion from Vietnamese government officials in charge of adoptions, birth parents or their relatives, social workers or officials from child welfare agencies, or even any adult Vietnamese adoptees. For if she had, a more complex and comprehensive picture of the process and its effects on everyone involved could have painted. The series could have gone beyond the traditionally narrow focus of “orphan” and “savior”.

Although the series mentioned allegations of official corruption and the selling of infants on the black market, which forced the Vietnamese and American governments to briefly halt adoptions from Vietnam a few years ago, the articles appear to treat these crimes as nuisances by highlighting the prospective adoptive parents’ anxiety and anguish as they were forced to put their adoption plans on hold. To seemingly sweep these charges under the rug and forget about them is an offense to journalism.

Perhaps when Người Việt2 chooses to report on adoption again, the editor will keep in mind that its audience will be comprised of many diverse members from the adoption community, and they will expect to be informed rather than ignored.

Soon after we submitted the letter, the former editor of Người Việt, Anh Do, responded and in her own letter to the readers hinted at further constructive dialogue with adult Vietnamese adoptees in order to address just one of many gaps in the series.

Fortuitously, Anh Do personally contacted me by phone and expressed great interest in interviewing me and the three other signatories of the letter for a follow-up piece. To say the least, I was impressed with Anh Do’s act of reaching out to our aggrieved party and seeking to make amends by bringing balance to the discussion on adoption from Vietnam. Each of us were notified that Anh Do was going to contact us with prepared questions and conduct a brief interview with each of us. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, Anh Do stepped down as editor of Người Việt and handed the editorship to a long-time reporter at the paper named Jami Farkas.

And, this is when the goodwill gesture turns into farce. For a detailed recounting of events, both past and present, that have led to unexpected silence from Người Việt’s end, please stay tuned…