Widgets Magazine

Joel Brinkley defends controversial column

Joel Brinkley at Bookstore

Stanford Daily File Photo

Two weeks after a column on Vietnamese dietary habits written by professor of communication Joel Brinkley prompted controversy and criticism nationally and in Vietnam, Brinkley has continued to defend the column’s substance amid a proliferation of petitions calling for an apology or even his resignation.

In the column, published on Jan. 29 in the Chicago Tribune, Brinkley attributed the lack of domesticated animals in Vietnam, as well as the Vietnamese people’s “aggressive tendencies,” to the country’s meat-eating tendencies.

“Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats?” Brinkley wrote. “Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there.”

Within days, two petitions—one calling on Brinkley to immediately resign and the other requesting that he “publicly apologize, and in a highly-visible way”—sprang up on the website Change.org, and the column began attracting media coverage in the United States and Vietnam. The first petition has over 4,000 signees, and the second has over 1,600.

On Feb. 1, Tribune Media Services issued an apology, saying that the column “did not meet our journalistic standards” and that it had “provoked a highly critical response from our readers.”

Though Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for almost 25 years, said the column’s reception had been “unexpected and quite surprising,” he defended the substance of the piece.

“What I wrote is what I observed and what I learned in quite a number of interviews,” said Brinkley, who conducted reporting during a 10-day trip to Vietnam in late December and early January.

Brinkley said he has been to Vietnam “four or five times” and recently published a book on neighboring Cambodia.

“There’s only one part of [the column] that I did not phrase as well as I should have, and that was the link between food and aggression,” Brinkley said.

Having spent months in Laos and Cambodia, where people primarily eat rice, Brinkley commented that “the Vietnamese seemed a lot more robust.”

“It’s perfectly logical,” he said. “If you don’t eat protein, you’re not going to have a lot of energy.”

Critics—both national and on-campus—of Brinkley’s column argued that the piece presented negative stereotypes about Vietnamese culture. In an op-ed published in The Daily, the Stanford Vietnamese Students’ Association (SVSA) complained that the article lacked factual rigor.

“His offensive statements, such as the assertion that the Vietnamese have consumed almost all of their wild/domesticated animals, are inaccurate and sensationalist,” SVSA wrote.

Katherine Vu ’13, one of SVSA’s core members, said that the op-ed was not intended to be “an offensive or defensive attack.” Kimberly Vu ’13, another core member, said that most members of the group did not agree with outside calls for Brinkley’s resignation.

“It would be so much better if this had a positive outcome in which we had a really good discussion and we could bring to light that these things [that the column describes] happen, but these are the true, real facts about what they are,” Katherine said. “We definitely want to talk to him, and I think it would be great if he came to our Culture Night or something.”

Cindy Ng, the director of the Asian American Activities Center, echoed that sentiment, crediting the “thoughtful, constructive, respectful discussion” that emerged on campus in response to the column.

Kimberly and Katherine said that the group recently decided to email Brinkley to discuss the issues raised by the column but that they had yet to reach out.

Brinkley said that there had been no communication between him and the SVSA since the column’s publication, but that he would be open to talking with them.

“Sure,” he said. “I spoke with a group of Cambodian students last week. I speak to groups here all the time. If they want to speak to me, I’d be happy to speak with them.”

  • eyedrd

    . I do not fault him for making a theory of the association
    between eating meat and aggressivity. He is entitled to his own opinion
    and that theory can be studied or explored by other sociologists or

    Calling someone racist is a very harsh critic that should not be used frivolously.

    Mr. Brinkley seems to forget that
    Vietnamese culture is deeply influenced by Buddhism, which preaches
    pacifism and vegetarian consumption, and specifically forbids dog meat
    consumption. Mr. Brinkley has mistakenly prided himself that he could understand a culture in such a short time over 10 days span.

    In the article’s paragraph:”Vietnam
    has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China
    since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded
    Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to
    its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.”, he
    made it sounds like Vietnamese love to fight against the giant neighbor
    China. Vietnam has endured to repell 17 times of Chinese invasions for
    the past 1,000 years when it regained its independence in 939. Sadly,
    Vietnamese people have known more wars than peace time in their history.
    Therefore, they are more likely peace-loving people rather than being aggressive.

    In conclusion, the question is whether Mr. Brinkley happened to use poor
    choice of words or he intentionally distorted the image of Vietnam and
    its people as aggressive? He corrected he would replace the word “aggressive” with “robust”. It is again not factually correct, Vietnamese are far from being robust according to statistics of average human height or male height. Vietnamese men’s average height is 162.1cm.


  • Dino Saur, Class of ’73

    As I read David Brinkley’s article, I was struck by his conclusive remarks unaccompanied by any substantiation. Racism? I doubt it. Sloppy journalism? You bet.

  • Not rat, dog, or horse eater

    I’ve been waiting for the Stanford Professor, NYT journalist, Pulitzer winner, Joel Brinkley to throw in some remarks about the horsemeat eating French people, an issue that has been stirred up lately in the European horsemeat scandal. How does this horsemeat eating habit influenced the French people, Professor? Is it the reason why they are regarded as the most cultured and elegant people of the world?

  • Phuong Tran

    Mr. Brinkley was surprised at the outrage his article caused. To him, it seemed as if Vietnamese people are particularly thin-skinned and can’t take some criticisms. He’s wrong.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, as Mr. Brinkley is to his. What separated us from Mr. Brinkley, and provoked such outraged response to his article, is that we’re not acclaimed journalists. When the rest of us express our opinion about Vietnam, or rat meat for that matter, our audience is limited to some few friends and family who might not take us seriously, or a comment on the Stanford Daily. When Mr. Brinkley expressed his opinion, however, he was given a medium to reach thousands, if not millions, of people. And he has a Pulitzer to back it up. People are prone to trust him, and to give his opinion more credibility, just as they’re prone to dismiss mine as another rambling comment on the internet.

    What Mr. Brinkley needs to realize is that with that trust comes a responsibility- it’s his responsibility as a journalist to not just opine, but also research, report, and inform. Some people are angry at his opinion. I am angry because he clearly didn’t do his job, and in failing to do his job, gave a bad name to an entire nation.

    Vietnam as a country has barely escaped its war-ridden past. To people from other parts of the world, the word Vietnam evokes bombs, B52s, burning villages, a collage of loss and destruction. People who have never been to Vietnam rely on journalists like Mr. Brinkley to from an understanding of Vietnam, especially in modern times. And this time around, Vietnam is portrayed as a land of rat-eating barbarians by someone with such recognition, credibility, and such a powerful medium to spread his message. How do you think Vietnamese people would feel?

    So, Mr. Brinkley, please take some time to reflect, not on how angry and sensitive the meat-eating Vietnamese are, but on how sloppy a job you did, and not just on the “phrasing”.

  • guest

    The worst part of Mr Brinkley’s column is his inability to conduct effective research and to draw logical conclusions. His column is written in a very awkward, amateurish style. I’m a Stanford alum and it’s difficult for me to believe that a student, much less a professor, would submit such a sub par effort.

  • Brinkley’s piece is careless and perpetuates damaging stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. He also doesn’t seem to understand this concept or why people are upset, instead placing the blame on overly “sensitive” Vietnamese people. I for one don’t think this type of baseless, irresponsible journalism and attitude has a place in a nationally syndicated column, “American Voices”. His voice certainly doesn’t represent me. If you agree, check out this petition, created by the Asian American online organizing group 18MillionRising.org: bit.ly/jbfail

  • Murricah Numbuh One. Oink oink

    Typical hipocritical American

  • Kenny Hoang

    Mr. Brinkley,
    If you respect yourself, please resign from teaching journalism at Stanford. Thanks!

  • Dan

    This guy is not welcome to vietnam anymore

  • Steve

    >.< is it your time of the month or something? Why such shitty article and bitchy attitude, Mr. Brinkley?

  • You SVSA don’t know that Vietnamese kills/ eats wild animals just for luck and their weak small dicks ?

  • SNguyen

    Shame for a Pulitzer awarded Stanfor professor ! Please review for his knowledge.