Why Are Indian-Americans Targeted for Slurs in U.S. Media? Recent CNBC-AIF Event a Case Study?

Every Indian-American has known and experienced the bias in U.S. media against their ethnicity, their culture, and their religion. This bias often takes the form of gratuitous insults or outright slurs. Macro Viewpoints has been vocal in writing about the deliberate defamation we notice and taking the offending entity to task. Below we describe a situation that shocked us and frankly saddened us. It is, we think, a case study of why Indian-Americans continue to be victims of media stereotyping and wanton slurs.

1. “7-11” Indians – first by Twitter peeps & then by CNBC

Most people know the angry slurs directed at the new Miss America for her Indian origin. One tweeter wrote  “Miss America? You mean Miss 7-11?”; another tweeted “Miss America is brought by their sponsors PF Changs and 7-11”. We were gratified to see the U.S. media united in condemning these slurs.

Well, that feeling lasted just a couple of days. Because on Friday, September 20, veteran CNBC anchor Joe Kernen gratuitously expressed his contempt for Indian-Americans and his solidarity with the tweeter haters of Miss America. Kernen asked, with a smirk telegraphing that he knew exactly what he was doing, “Are they good at 7-11?”. He added “people say that all the time”. His colleague, Andrew Ross Sorkin, agreed “they do say that all the time”. This was on CNBC’s national show “Squawk Box”.

What did the producers of that CNBC show do? What did the Editor in Chief of CNBC do? Did he come in on the set and immediately apologize to Indian Americans on behalf of CNBC? Did he make Joe Kernen sit out the rest of the show? Of course not. CNBC Management did absolutely nothing either during the show or after the show to express their outrage at the racism exhibited on their network by one of their anchors.

Getting back to Kernen-Sorkin defense of “people say that all the time”, we wonder whether Kernen would ever use the N-word for African Americans and then explain it away saying “people say that all the time”. Would Andrew Ross Sorkin then agree and admit “they do say that all the time”? There are comparative slurs for Jewish-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and literally for most communities. But Kernen would not dare voice those slurs on his show and Sorkin would not agree with Kernen. 

Because people from those communities, people of all classes, wealth & professions, would unitedly go ballistic against CNBC. So would any CNBC anchors, reporters & staffers of that ethnicity. If only CNBC had Indian-American employees in senior positions, Kernen wouldn’t have dared publicize his contempt, right?

Sadly, Wrong. One of the producers of Kernen’s own show is an Indian-American and two on-air CNBC reporters are Indian-American. Did they react the way CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo & Rick Santelli would have reacted to similar slurs against Italian-Americans? Of course not. They remained silent. 

Then we wondered what did Nikhil “Nik” Deogun, CNBC’s Editor in Chief, say in public about his anchor’s slur against his own ethnicity. Nothing, absolutely nothing that we could find in the public domain. Understand Kernen and Sorkin work for this Indian-American Editor in Chief. The content of CNBC shows is his responsibility. But he remained supinely silent. It saddens us to admit that a non-Indian editor in chief would have responded with greater outrage than Indian “Nik” Deogun. 

But these are employees of CNBC and perhaps they are afraid to speak up for fear of hurting their own careers. After all, most Indian-Americans do that in their jobs. But surely wealthy connected successful Indian Americans must have spoken up in outrage, right? Rich organizations formed by “elite” Indian Americans must have gone ballistic against CNBC, right?

Sadly, Wrong, very Wrong. The rich & “elite” American India Foundation (AIF), did contact CNBC’s Editor in Chief. But not to chastise him for permitting & tolerating anti-Indian slurs in his domain & on his watch. Instead, AIF contacted Deogun to bestow upon him the honor of being the moderator of AIF’s signature event.

Get this, folks. Instead of banning CNBC & “Nik” Deogun for anti-Indian slurs, American India Foundation, a body of rich elite connected corporate type Indians, actually honored CNBC & “Nik” Deogun. Now do you understand why CNBC anchors like Kernen are free and clear to express their contempt of Indian Americans on national TV?

Not every one was publicly silent like AIF, “Nik” Deogun & CNBC’s Indian-American staffers. Paul Cheung, President Asian American Journalists Association, demanded and received what he termed a half-hearted apology. Actually, Kernen’s apology is best described in the words of Jon Stewart, America’s most trusted “journalist”:

  • “I am sorry you forgot we are kinda d***s”

2. Why don’t the honchos of AIF care about the “7-11 Indians” slur?

American India Foundation (AIF) calls itself a catalyst for social and economic change in India. It is a noble mission. We applaud any and all efforts to improve the conditions of India’s poor. But such efforts fall into two camps in India.

  1. India has a tradition of selfless activists who worked tirelessly to create
    social & economic change in India. Today’s India has many NGOs who
    are keeping this selfless tradition alive, even to the extent of
    donating back to their NGO the monetary awards they win.
  2. India also has a tradition of very wealthy merchants making money during the day by any means possible and then visiting temples & giving some money to the poor sitting on the doorsteps to the temple. This self-serving style of helping the poor was immortalized by the great Raj Kapoor in his classic movie “Shree 420”.

Which of these traditions does AIF follow? And why is AIF honoring CNBC’s Deogun instead of blasting him for tolerating anti-Indian slurs on his network? We don’t know. We tried hard to reach the CEO & Vice Chair of AIF and left voicemails for them. They have not returned our calls. We called an AIF insider who set up the event that features CNBC’s “Nik” Deogun. First she was rude in a “how you dare call me” fashion and then she became overly emotional. She also refused to set up a call with the CEO of AIF. So we sent an email to several Trustees of AIF detailing our concerns. AIF has not responded to our email either.

So we are left to conjecture & opine based on what is disclosed on the AIF website. That is what we do below. Readers can decide for themselves whether they concur with our opinions or not. We also seek feedback from AIF about our opinions below (see section 6).

Look at the Trustees of AIF. This council is unlike any social welfare or development organization we know. Usually organizations dedicated to helping the poor are staffed with respected veteran activists and development professionals. In contrast, we see an utter lack of expertize in social sciences, rural development or welfare of the poor in the list of AIF trustees.

What we think we see in the AIF Council of Trustees is a collection of well connected wealthy Indian or India-related Americans. The council seems to exude an aura of a mutually beneficial connected network of Businessmen, CEOs, Private Equity investors, Financial Brokers and high profile Lawyers under one umbrella, an umbrella with the protection of a high sounding mission of social change. Whether this is true or not, a basic question remains:

  •  why would these elite & supremely successful Indian Americans be so utterly indifferent to racist slurs against their own ethnic kin?

It is an open secret that Indians are very status conscious and that Indians in higher status professions tend to look down on Indians in lower status professions. This professional “caste” type hierarchy leads us to wonder whether the CEO, Wall Street honcho, and high priced lawyer trustees of AIF themselves look down on hard working Indian Americans who operate motels, Dunkin Donut franchises and 7-11 stores. If so, then we can understand why these “elite” Indian trustees of AIF might not be upset about CNBC’s “7-11 Indians” slur.

Look at the AIF Trustees again. You might notice a glaring omission that we noticed. We don’t see any powerful high ranking executive of a national TV network. If you know any “elite” corporate Indian-Americans, you know how desperate they are to get on national TV. They may have amassed wealth, they may have created their own business networks but they don’t have recognition in the public sphere that only national TV appearances can deliver. Put yourself in the shoes of an AIF trustee – wouldn’t you want to be able to influence a national TV network? And what better way to do so than to invite into your fold the Editor in Chief of a national TV network?

This conjecture borrows from how Indian business families reportedly think. If you look closely, you will find that most Indian newspapers & TV networks are owned by a family or business network along with other businesses. Having a media entity in your business group is great for marketing your brand and for protecting against attacks by other media organizations. As a recent New York Times article stated,

  • “A fact that will not startle any professional journalist in India is that the nation’s mainstream news media are firmly in the grip of corporations, which exercise control chiefly through direct or indirect ownership of news outlets and advertising budgets. It is rare for a major scam involving a corporation to be unearthed exclusively through a journalistic investigation”

We don’t know whether a goal of AIF was to draw CNBC Editor in Chief into its connected network. AIF refused to talk to us. But if this conjecture is valid in any way, then doesn’t it become easier to understand why AIF would honor “Nik” Deogun rather than chastise him for CNBC’s slurs against Indian Americans?

The above are our opinions. We wanted to share these opinions and ask hard questions of AIF management and trustees. But they chose to ignore us. What AIF has done deeply saddens us. No other ethnic community in America would behave in such a manner. In our opinion, only Indian-Americans, rich connected “elite” Indian-Americans who only care about their own business interests, would behave in this manner. This “Indian” behavior may be the primary reason why Indian-Americans are a safe & open target for CNBC anchors like Kernen.

3. Why would CNBC care so much about this AIF “honor”?

We can opine why AIF might be eager to get a CNBC Editor in Chief within their network. But what’s the benefit to CNBC? The answer might lie in the make up of CNBC, a network that assiduously cultivates contacts among the wealthy & connected. What does CNBC want from an “expert” guest? Not expertise in investing, not good sensible advice for its individual investor viewers. CNBC wants new contacts and sometimes demands that from its guests as a price of appearing on CNBC shows. Who has admitted this on air, to our recollection? CNBC’s veteran anchor Joe Kernen, the same Kernen who took such delight in venting his contempt for Indian-Americans. 

It is their almost desperate yearning to get among the rich & connected that might have resulted in loss of viewership for CNBC. It seems American viewers have recognized that CNBC doesn’t serve them or even care about them. Look at what the inimitable Jon Stewart said in his A Nightmare on Wall Street segment on Wednesday, October 23:

  • “the passionate drive from so many CNBC & financial analysts goes solely in one direction and not in the direction you normally associate with journalism … only at CNBC is “Breaking Bad” the story of how one man through hard work & smart business practices slowly insulates himself from criticism “

Even so, what does CNBC hope to gain from AIF? Yes, their Editor in Chief, “Nik” Deogun, may be tempted by the chance to rub shoulders or hob nob with a network of “elite” Indians, the same network that, by the way, contained as AIF Trustees, two prominent people that CNBC covered for insider trading convictions.

But what can “Nik” Deogun get personally? A partner in a law firm can get new clients, a financial broker can get more assets to manage, a CEO may find deals. But what does Editor in Chief “Nik” Deogun get exce
pt perhaps getting CNBC involved in delicate or difficult situations? So why would CNBC President Mark Hoffman permit “Nik” Deogun to do what he wants?  

Why do Brokerage firm get caught again & again in bad practices despite maintaining large and heavy compliance manuals? Because, as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara argued on CNBC itself, such compliance manuals & compliance staff are essentially window dressing. Most Brokerage firms rarely penalize their stars for violating norms defined in their own compliance manuals & so they get caught again and again.

CNBC seems to practice similar style of compliance, especially regarding comments about Indian-Americans. It seems the standards at CNBC are essentially window dressing. And they do not get applied when the rule breaker is a veteran anchor and especially when the victims are defenseless Indian-Americans.

4. Does CNBC hoist “Nik” Deogun as a defense?

We don’t know the man but we can see him as reflected in his own actions. His public actions suggest that Deogun doesn’t feel passion or even any ethnic loyalty to non-corporate Indian-Americans. He has not taken any serious public action that will serve as a deterrent against future anti-Indian slurs from CNBC anchors. And Deogun has not taken any public personal responsibility for the culture of his own group, culture that permits or even invites anti-Indian slurs on air.

His own NBC bio proudly states that he attended the Doon School in India, the ultimate British school in India, the school where highly connected parents send their children to be like the British. The Doon School claims it is “dedicated to producing leaders of the future”, leaders who inherit, in our opinion, a sense of the British “white man’s burden” crap. This is not a school, we argue, that teaches respect for ordinary hardworking Indians who run small businesses, retail stores, restaurants, motels & 7-11 stores.

Is it possible Deogun has moved away from this “British-Indian” mindset? Absolutely. But do his actions in CNBC’s “7-11 Indians” slur episode suggest that he has? Not, in our opinion.

We don’t really like focusing on one individual. Our preference is to analyze the organization in the belief that the organizational culture determines actions of the individuals in the organization. But this particular story regretfully forces us to focus on the man at the center of the story, CNBC’s Editor in Chief, “Nik” Deogun.

CNBC’s defense is to point to “Nik” Deogun and other Indian Americans at CNBC to deflect any charge of an anti-Indian mindset. But, in the final analysis, you are as you do. And CNBC does have a track record of repeated instances of anti-Indian comments on its air. CNBC also has a track record of tolerating these instances without imposing any public penalty on the offender.  

CNBC should understand that anti-Indian slurs are disgusting whether they are permitted by a European-American or by an Indian-American. CNBC should also understand that the British committed horrific atrocities against Indians by hiring Indians to wield the weapons. That did not diminish British responsibility in the least. So hoisting “Nik” Deogun as a symbol of CNBC’s respect for Indian-Americans does not serve to white wash CNBC Management from their role in tolerating anti-Indian contempt within CNBC. Frankly, in our opinion, the complicity or tolerance of  a “Nik” Deogun reflects even worse on CNBC culture.

Does CNBC Management really care whether “Nik” Deogun accepts the “honor” from AIF? We don’t think so. Would CNBC rather wish that this issue would go away? Yes, in our opinion. Should “Nik” Deogun act as a team player and spare CNBC any further embarrassment? Yes.

But in CNBC’s stars can behave any way they want culture, CNBC Management cannot bring themselves to instruct “Nik” Deogun just as they cannot bring themselves to instruct Joe Kernen. And “Nik” Deogun doesn’t feel any responsibility to act as a team player and serve the larger interests of CNBC. In that, he behaves just like his anchor, Joe Kernen, did.

5. What about Comcast?

CNBC has virtually zero interest in “retail” Indian Americans, those who run non-corporate businesses like 7-11 stores. But what about Comcast, the corporate parent of CNBC? Doesn’t Comcast have hundreds of thousands of Indian store owners as customers? Don’t they feel any concern about how CNBC, their subsidiary, treats these Comcast customers? So far, there is no evidence that Comcast cares enough to change behavior at CNBC.

And why should they? Indians have been never been able to unite against any one who harms them, whether they be Afghans, Moghuls, British or CNBC-Comcast in this case. This is why Indian-Americans are so supinely fatalistic about the racial abuse they take.

This is why we think this CNBC-AIF episode is a perfect case study of why the U.S. Media feels absolutely free to target Indian-Americans with racist slurs. But an objective of a case study is also to suggest solutions. So we offer a suggestion to all Indian American owners of small businesses in America and specifically in New Jersey & Pennsylvania:

  • All Indian American small businesses, restaurants, motels, small stores, Dunkin Donuts, 7-11s, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania should form a group. This group collectively would represent a very large amount of business for both Comcast and Comcast’s main competitor Verizon. They should demand strong enforcement action against CNBC from Comcast as well as financial damages for CNBC’s slurs against them. We believe that Comcast will listen to this large group and their anger. And who knows, Comcast might even offer better group terms to keep their business. And if Comcast doesn’t, then Verizon will. 

We have a simple question for Mr. Brian Roberts and the Board of Directors of Comcast. What is in the best interests of Comcast shareholders? Taking care of Indian-American customers of Comcast, ensuring their business remains with Comcast or tolerating a potentially harmful decision from “Nik” Deogun and anti-Indian slurs from Joe Kernen? 

We urge Brian Roberts and his fellow Comcast directors to do their fiduciary duty to Comcast shareholders:

  • Fix CNBC’s stars can do what they want culture and cure CNBC’s anti-Indian contempt disease.

6. Our Invitation

What we have written above are our opinions, opinions that have been developed from publicly available information and from public websites maintained by AIF, CNBC and NBC. We tried our best to discuss these with both AIF and CNBC-NBC-Comcast via phone calls & emails. We have nothing that we can report publicly from CNBC-NBC-Comcast and all we have from AIF is contemptuous silence.

So we hereby invite AIF, CNBC-NBC-Comcast. Mr, “Nik” Deogun, Mr. Joe Kernen to tell us if, how and where our opinions might be inaccurate or wrong. Any response for publication will be printed verbatim. We would also welcome a private discussion.

And a special note to Mr. “Nik” Deogun. Please treat our opinions as a window into how your actions or lack thereof are viewed by CNBC’s viewers. Our opinions are not and not intended to be personal. They only reflect what you reveal by your own CNBC-related actions. We hope you will become an equal advocate for all Indian-Americans, regardless of their standing in your eyes, regardless of their schooling or of their ways to make a living. If you do so, you will benefit all CNBC viewers and improve CNBC we well.

Send your feedback to [email protected] Or @MacroViewpoints on Twitter