This morning, I got an alert about an incident on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in late April. It was the day after Sanjaya Malakar's run ended on "American Idol." He delivered his "Top 10 Things I Learned from American Idol" and was followed by Letterman's next guest, Brian Williams, the anchor of "NBC Nightly News." As he sat down, Williams made an unfortunate joke about Sanjaya's name - "I remember a day when you couldn't say that on the air," he said.
I immediately contacted SAJA member Subrata De, who is Williams's producer and asked for a reaction. She assured me that Williams had already been made aware of the inappropriateness of the joke and that he was truly sorry. She got in touch with Williams, who sent the following note for sharing with SAJA folks and the South Asian community.
Dear SAJA members and friends,
While I'm the same person I was when I was honored by the South Asian Journalists Association back in 2006 with a Journalism Leader Award, I now clearly realize that my words, during a moment of levity, had negative consequences.
I regret that the joke I made on David Letterman's show last month may have hurt or offended anyone, this was not my intention.
Please know Sanjaya Malakar and I spent time together before and after his appearance, and he seemed to be in good humor, as did members of his family when I met them after the taping. I hope and trust he was not offended, but if he was, of course my apology extends to him as well.
Since my comments, my producer, Subrata De, and several letter writers have informed me of the significance of the name Sanjaya. I feel very badly for any upset I have caused.
Anchor and Managing Editor
NBC Nightly News
I have known Williams from a distance for more than 10 years, mainly through all the encouragement and opportunities he gave two of my former students and SAJA members - De, who has risen through the ranks to become one of the most influential producers on American TV news ("I probably could not - and would not - do my job without her," he said, in 2006) and Hanson Hosein, who was a producer at NBC HQ and in the Middle East for many years. Many of you were present as he gave an inspirational - and, yes, funny - keynote address at last year's convention. He graciously accepted our invitation to speak to our group and was generous with his time for us that day, patiently answering every question (as you can see on the video link). Now that I work at WNBC, I have gotten to know him and his show even better and have no reason to think this was anything but an aberration and a slip. A lot of people have made fun of unusual Indian names like Sanjaya's and mine - Williams just happened to have this happen on national TV in the YouTube age. Your comments are welcome below.
EARLIER ON SAJAFORUM:
- Coverage of 2006 SAJA Convention keynote speech by Brian Williams (video, audio and text).
- Posts on Sanjaya Malakar's run here.