July 13 was one of the worst days of Sunny Liang’s life. That morning, almost half a million New Yorkers were informed by the New York Post that Liang
— a social studies teacher at a Brooklyn high school — was an incompetent immigrant who couldn’t speak English and didn’t deserve to be teaching our children.
“READ THIS E-MAIL” screamed the Post’s front-page headline. “It was written by a New York City HS Teacher.”
Underneath was an enlarged graphic of a letter that Liang had written to the Post editors, voicing his concerns about problems in the city’s school system. The letter contained spelling errors and a few grammatical mistakes; according to the Post, it was proof that “students are being taught by instructors who can barely write in English.”
The article went on to express astonishment that Liang had passed the teacher-licensing exam, and described other educators as being “embarrassed” by Liang’s mistakes. Liang’s ultimate boss, the city’s Board of Education president, was quoted as saying, “We have some issues with teaching quality. An example like this shows it’s worse than we might have thought.”
The fallout from the article was immediate and intense. Because the Post had left Liang’s e-mail address clearly visible on its front page, he received hundreds of negative letters from Post readers. Some of them used obscene and racist language. In subsequent days, the Post ran follow-up articles on Liang, in particular, and more generally on the competency of all bilingual teachers. One student — a conspicuously Asian American teenager — was quoted as saying “I wouldn’t want that teacher to teach me.”
When all the dust had settled, it was clear that Liang’s reputation, if not his career, was ruined. All because of what he calls a few “typing errors.”
“When you write an e-mail, it’s just like talking to someone in person. You don’t care about grammar,” explains Liang. “You’re just concerned about the content. The ideas.”
Liang immigrated to the United States from China in 1985, and has taught at Fort Hamilton High School for eight years. He speaks English with a strong but lucid accent, and says that students rarely have trouble understanding him. Many, in fact, are themselves children of Chinese immigrants.
The writing ability shown in the Post letter, Liang insists, is not at all indicative of what occurs inside his classroom. “I wrote that e-mail in a few minutes,” says Liang. “When you prepare a lesson plan, you take hours.”
Liang says he wrote the letter (one of three he sent to the Post) because he was concerned about low teacher salaries and the lack of parental participation. When the Post reporters, Stefan Friedman and Carl Campanile, contacted him for an article, he assumed it would be about those issues.
“They told me, ‘We found some great ideas in your e-mails, and we would like to discuss them’,” Liang says. “But they came here for another purpose.”
The interview lasted only about 25 minutes; for the first 20 minutes, Friedman and Campanile asked Liang about the problems he saw in the New York City school system. Only in the last five minutes did they ask Liang about the mistakes in his letters. He never imagined what kind of article the two reporters would eventually write.
“I was naive,” Liang says.
Character assassination is par for the course these days at the New York Post, which specializes in sensational crimes and sex scandals (it ran several Chandra Levy-Gary Condit covers immediately before the Liang issue).
A British-style tabloid, the Post has a daily circulation over 480,000. It’s owned by Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul who also owns the right-leaning FoxNews channel. His son Lachlan Murdoch, a tattooed 29-year-old with little experience in journalism, was recently named deputy chief operating officer for Murdoch’s News Corp. and oversees all its U.S. holdings, including the Post. Under Lachlan’s guidance, Post articles have become shorter and even more lurid in an attempt to overtake its competitor, the New York Daily News, which has a circulation around 710,000. The end result has been a less-than-stellar brand of journalism.
Critics of the Post’s treatment of Liang, who come mostly from the city’s Chinese community, have focused on the racial subtexts of the article. It was no coincidence, they say, that the target of the piece was Asian American.
“The Post has bad racial issues,” says Sam Chen, who wrote an article defending Liang for a local Chinese newspaper. “Sunny is Chinese, so they said what they wanted. They did not care.”
Neither Friedman nor Campanile, the Post reporters who wrote the story, responded to repeated requests for comments to this article.
For his part, Liang is more circumspect on the race issue, answering the question with a question of his own.
“Let me put it this way,” Liang says. “If my name had been Sunny Smith instead of Sunny Liang, do you think it would have been a front-page story?”
Chen is not the only person who has written on Liang’s behalf. On July 24, almost 30 of Liang’s fellow teachers wrote a letter to the Post supporting his record. They pointed out that 88 percent of Liang’s students passed the state regents exam for social studies in June. The teachers also praised Liang for his work ethic and said that the school system should be grateful to have a teacher with Liang’s language capabilities: “Don’t you think he would be able to get a better-paying job with his bilingual skills?” they asked.
Notably absent among Liang’s defenders are his superiors at Fort Hamilton High School and on the Board of Education. The Board issued a statement saying only that it would take no punitive action against Liang. In reality, says Liang, the Board just wants the entire debacle to blow over quietly.
“I’m under tremendous pressure not to talk to anybody,” Liang says. “Both from the Board of Ed and from the teacher’s union.”
For now, Liang is continuing to teach summer school. He expects to return to Fort Hamilton in the fall. He does not expect to write any more letters to the New York Post.