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The Greatness of ‘Sam Chu Lin, Reporting’


By Christopher Chow, Mar 17, 2006

Sam Chu Lin, who passed away at 67, on March 5, rose up from humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta city of Greenville, to become “a true broadcast pioneer” based on sheer guts, determination and talent. What made Sam Chu Lin a good, even great, journalist? He was dogged and fearless. He focused on people, more than the event, was always curious and proud of his heritage. He gave his heart. A one-man Asian American news wire service, he cared about the community. He worked fast and was a consummate pro. He did it all in multidimensional media: print, radio, TV, documentaries. And he had the Voice.

Those are the qualities that made Sam Chu Lin a pioneer, according to a wide array of professional journalists and politicians.

George Lum, the first Asian American television director and producer in San Francisco (KPIX, 1955) met Sam Chu Lin around 1962. “He wanted to be on-air. I told him it was going to be tough. They’re never going to let an Oriental get on-air. Go into production, directing. I gave him some pointers — but he had his mind set on going on-air. I’ll be damned, he made it on-air!”

In 1956, Chu Lin went on the air for the first time as a radio disc jockey and announcer on WJPR in Greenville, Mississippi, while in high school. He grew up in a region that was the birthplace of the blues and Elvis Presley. But the South was still a segregated society. Just a year earlier, 1955, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her bus seat for a white man, galvanizing the modern civil rights movement. In the 1950s, the most that Americans knew about China was that it was Red (communist) and Chinese Americans were at best, foreign laundrymen who spoke chop suey. Getting on-air in local radio was no easy feat. He was known as Sammy Lin on-air, a name that didn’t specifically identify him as Chinese American.

Sam’s wife Judy recalls how Sam altered and trained his voice by listening late at night to CBS Radio’s Edward R. Murrow, getting rid of his high Southern twang and establishing his solid, deep-baritone voice that would become a trademark.

Emmy Award-winner Belva Davis of KRON and KQED, is the first black American news anchor in San Francisco. Belva and Sam are of the same generation and got their starts in television around the same time in the 1960s.

Davis remembers Sam had “absolute determination and fearlessness. He was a hustler and never gave up. He had bravado, in the face of long odds. We shared a background: ‘They put us out here, they [the bosses] don’t think we’ll succeed, but we’re going to prove them wrong.’”

Both Belva and Sam came up with the generation that produced Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, the kings of network television news these past 20 years.

When Sam broke into television news as an on-air reporter and anchor with KOOL-TV in Phoenix, Arizona, it was 1968. The Vietnam War would force President Lyndon Johnson to not run for re-election. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.

It was in Phoenix that he met and later married Judy, whom he romanced on the dance floor during a Fourth of July social occasion. Judy remembers he told her, “I think I’ve fallen in love with you at first sight,” and it wasn’t long before they were a couple.

In the next three years, Sam Chu Lin would reach the national CBS News network as a CBS News reporter out of New York. In those days, people toiled in local television for at least five years before even getting a shot at being seen by the networks. Usually, this happened when a local reporter would get lucky with an exclusive story the network wanted.

In Sam’s case, early on, he would aggressively pitch his pieces to the network bosses in New York. In those days, getting something on the national network — ABC, CBS or NBC — was very costly and highly, highly competitive.

The CBS Morning News used to open with a scroll of featured stories listing the names of the correspondents and their datelines. So when you saw and heard the name, “Sam Chu Lin in Tuba City, Arizona,” you took notice. Hey, that’s a Chinese name! What’s he doing out there, on the network?

As a reporter for CBS News in New York City, Sam announced to a nationally televised audience the fall of Saigon more than 30 years ago.

Jeff Wald, news director of KTLA 5 – Los Angeles since 1997, knew Sam Chu Lin for 30 years. What made him tick?

“Obvious curiosity. He had tremendous energy and persistence and was very proud of his heritage. Always talked about his family. Gained so much strength from Judy and his sons Mark and Christopher, and from his religious beliefs — he was very spiritual.”

Sam left powerful highlights from his various KQED Pacific Time reports, “He did two fabulous reports for us — the Wen Ho Lee case coverage was first-rate, including his interview with Wen Ho Lee and the coverage of Chaplain Captain James Yee. He got one of the first interviews after Yee was allowed to speak by the military,” says George Lewinski, executive producer of Pacific Time.

What were his strengths? “He had a knack for finding an interesting element in a story that would engage the audience. For example, the story of the twin football players for collegiate champion University of Southern California, who were Asian American — tremendously interesting to people in Los Angeles.”

Gary Locke, former Governor of Washington, met Sam in 1996 when he was a candidate. Since then, he’s seen Chu Lin at democratic conventions, Asian American political leadership development workshops and campaign huddles for other candidates like Mike Honda for Congress and Judy Chu for Assembly. “Sam was a very probing journalist. Sam would always come at you in different ways. Is this right, how about that, don’t you think? And so on. He wouldn’t let you off the hook. He’d put the question to you every which way he could. You knew he was going to come at you.”

Sydnie Kohara, KPIX news anchor and KQED-FM Pacific Time guest host noted, “Sam was always curious. If you didn’t know the answer to a question, he’d help you find it. Especially on Asian American issues. One of his endearing qualities — he never stopped fighting for Asian American stories. He had a personal goal to tell Asian American stories.”

Sam Chu Lin’s claim to greatness was that he surmounted incredible obstacles early in his career and, in mid-career, when he was fired during a KRON-TV purge of union employees, he turned adversity to empowerment. Though he did find piecework (KTVU) and got some temporary stints (KPIX) in the Bay Area, he was essentially blackballed from getting a staff job in San Francisco TV news ever since he left KRON in 1984. He ramped up his coverage of Asian American issues and produced more prolifically for the Asian American press — from East-West to AsianWeek, to Rafu Shimpo to Nichi Bei Times and others. He co-founded the television news department at Hewlett-Packard and for 10 years, he produced and hosted the company’s video show, HP Magazine. When the gig at HP ran out, he found a steady freelance job at KTTV, Fox 11 in Los Angeles.

Sam’s greatness was in the difference he made in covering Asian American people and issues, and transforming them into news of national and international importance and impact.

Said Congressman Mike Honda, a longtime friend: “It was Sam’s interview with Senator John McCain that enlightened the Senator to the plight of citizenship denial for Asian American Civil War Veterans. And it was Sam Chu Lin’s coverage at the critical junctures of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, Captain James Yee and Captain James Wang’s careers that kept the Asian Pacific civil rights community rallying to their defense and eventually they were exonerated.”

His advocacy on behalf of civil rights and justice for Asian Americans continued to the day he died.


Christopher Chow is an Emmy Award winner, formerly with KPIX San Francisco and KCET Los Angeles.

“I admired his aggressive pursuit of news stories and especially those that involved Asian Americans. Sam was one of the most ethical people I’ve met, someone with whom I could trust my life’s savings. A large part of that I believe came from his faith, Sam was a religious man and devoted father and husband.”

 

Vic Lee, Emmy Award winner, formerly of KRON, now of KGO-TV

“A dogged reporter. Never ever satisfied with the last word, the last question. Old-fashioned great reporter. He filed more stories than any other freelancer we had. We’re going to set up a scholarship in Sam’s name for API students at the Graduate School of Journalism in UC Berkeley.”

 

George Lewinski, executive producer of Pacific Time, KQED-FM

“Sam was proud of his Chinese American heritage. He wasn’t shy about using his roots to make the entire Asian American community, and indeed the world, a better place. And today, thanks in part to Sam, doors and minds that were once shut to Asian Americans are now open and accepting. … He is someone whom I was lucky to call a peer, but even more blessed to call a friend.”

 

– U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta

A Celebration of the Life of
Sam Chu Lin

Saturday, March 18, 2006, 12:30 p.m.

Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills
Old North Church

6300 Forest Lawn Dr.

Los Angeles, CA 90068

In lieu of flowers, donations may be
made to:

 

Evergreen Baptist Church of       Los Angeles

1255 San Gabriel Blvd.

Rosemead, CA 91770

(626) 280-0477

First Chinese Baptist Church

4910 E. Earll Dr.

Phoenix, AZ 85018

(602) 955-3114

 

CAUSE (Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment)

260 S. Los Robles Ave. #118

Pasadena, CA 91101

(626) 356-9838

 

All checks should be made to CAUSE and note: “In Memory of Sam Chu Lin.”

Donations will be used for a media/educational project.

“Sam Chu Lin was among the very first Asian American reporters to appear on TV. He worked to increase mainstream America’s awareness of our community and concerns. He was a trailblazer for our community.”

 

– U. S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao

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