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The perils of being a female, Asian fact-checker in a tense election

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The first email calling me a “b‑‑‑‑” for my Pinocchio rating came early in the election season, when there were so many presidential candidates it was hard to keep track. I showed it to my colleague and editor Glenn Kessler. He was surprised; people don’t really call him that. Over the next 18 months or so, “b‑‑‑‑” became one of the more pedestrian names I was called for doing my job.

Facing intense criticism is just a part of being a fact-checker. Politics is personal, which means fact checks are, too, especially when our ratings or analyses challenge people’s core political beliefs. Some of our loudest critics are our most dedicated readers, who hold us to a high standard and make sure we know when they think we failed to deliver. They send lengthy emails, laden with bullet points and citations, to explain why they disagreed with our rating or analysis.

I expected the volume of criticism to swell throughout the campaign, and it did. But what surprised me was just how fiercely racist and sexist the comments became.

The messages that landed in my inbox, Twitter mentions and even my newsroom mailbox became more vitriolic as November approached. Increasingly, it wasn’t what I wrote that angered these readers; it was that I wrote it while being me. It felt like they read my byline, saw my photo, barely skimmed what I wrote, and decided I was incompetent because I’m a 28-year-old Asian woman.

An email calling me the c-word was the first thing I read when I woke up one morning. One night after dinner, my phone buzzed with a Twitter mention from someone wishing I were sent to an internment camp (I’m not Japanese). Many emails began with, “Ni hao” (I’m not Chinese). I even learned a new slur word that I had to look up in the Urban Dictionary — but will refrain from sharing here.

“Who knew that ‘happy endings’ at the local DC Chinese owned massage parlor could earn you a press pass and journalistic credential? … Perhaps you are better suited for rolling egg rolls and making wonton soup. Get off your knees and go back to the kitchen.”

“So young and already such a great liar. Also stop with cheek injections. Ridiculous.”

“Michelle, the sex workers in Times Square have more integrity about their prostitution than you have about yours. You can prostitute yourself by letting people use your genius, just as you can prostitute yourself by letting them use your genitals.”

“Beautiful girl whose soul is blacker than Wesley Snipes’ skin.”

At first, I didn’t respond to any of them. But when I started getting so many so often, I couldn’t ignore them anymore. So I started asking questions.

To the reader who wrote me and Glenn to say that “the Asian c‑‑‑” was “worse” between the two of us, I asked: Is it my being Asian or being a woman that makes me, in your view, worse than white or male? I received no response.

To the reader who made a snide Facebook comment about my being an Asian woman, I replied: What does my being Asian or a woman have to do with the quality of my work as a journalist? I received no response.

In fact, most people didn’t respond when I wrote them back. The few who did reply either doubled down on the insult or apologized, saying they were too emotional when they wrote me.

I didn’t travel on the campaign trail this election. I wasn’t blacklisted. No one booed or yelled at me. But I was berated almost daily for doing my job, and so were many other reporters on and off the trail. I understand people feeling frustrated with the media. What I can’t relate to is what, exactly, compels some people to describe in detail how I’m prostituting myself or how I will be raped by an illegal Mexican immigrant. (Many of the comments were in response to my fact checks of Donald Trump, but not all.)

I hope such comments were a product of heightened emotions as Election Day approached — not the new normal. And I have a good reason to be hopeful: The vast majority of Fact Checker readers I’ve communicated with are opinionated, thoughtful, respectful, brutally honest and passionate about the truth. I have hope, because of readers like one I emailed with recently, who wrote me a valid point-by-point critique that ended with this:

“I would like to thank you for writing me back. I am sorry that I wrote ‘Do Better’ in the subject line. I was hoping that someone would read it and did not figure it would actually go to you. I am now engaged in the sort of harsh discourse that I deplore. …

The fact that you wrote me back is awesome. I am honored. And it shows me that you do care about your journalism. For what it is worth, I think you have one of the most important jobs in the world. I mean that. If you doggedly truth checked stories, you could single-handedly impact our polity.”

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