Profiles

Television Reporter Robert Handa:
Coming in Through the Back Door

This article is the cover story of the spring 2008 issue of
Ameridreams magazine.
By Eve Kushner


If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you likely know Robert Handa from The 10 O’Clock News on KTVU Channel 2, where he reports with a serious demeanor and a soothing delivery. One of the first Asian-American men to break into television, particularly in the ultracompetitive arena of local news, the 53-year-old Handa has won award after award for 30 years. Given that he’s a fixture on Bay Area television and frequently serves as emcee at Asian-American events, you might think he’s had a smooth ride to success. But when he was a long-haired, minority teenager with working-class parents (including a mother who immigrated from Japan as an adult), few people expected him to amount to much. In fact, high school guidance counselors routinely pushed Handa (pronounced like the car Honda) and his working-class peers to forget about college and to aim instead for jobs as plumbers and electricians. Handa attended college anyway, at which time he heard discouraging messages about how few Asians make it in television and how he shouldn’t bother trying.

Although Handa comes across as a man at peace with the world and with himself, these experiences have filled him with passion for doing news stories about underdogs. Despite all his success, he still views the world from the anti-establishment perspective that shaped his early years. And his voice swells with emotion when he discusses one of his main goals: “trying to give a voice to people who don’t have a voice.” By this he means “people who are being wronged” through racism, sexism, or ageism and who lack a public way of lamenting, “This is what’s happening to me.” Having grown up in a working-class environment, Handa has witnessed plenty of injustices, as well as powerlessness in the face of injustice.

His family has certainly experienced its share of mistreatment. During World War II, the U.S. government imprisoned Handa’s grandparents and their children (including Handa’s father) in an internment camp, along with other Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals. While in camp, Handa’s grandparents couldn’t make the payments needed to continue owning or operating their farm, so the government foreclosed. When the Handas finally regained their freedom, they returned to a life in which they had no assets and no livelihood.

Sixty-five years after his family went to the camps, Handa appears freshly enraged by the travesty. He asks rhetorically, “Who could they speak up against? Who could they really speak up to? Who would listen?” As he nurses a Starbucks coffee concoction and mulls over the injustices, his sonorous voice scales the octaves, cracking when he emphasizes key points. His facial expressions become as dynamic as his voice, and at such times one would be hard-pressed to connect this man with his even-keeled counterpart on the nightly news.

In another departure from his television persona, the off-duty Handa can be as funny as Jon Stewart, pulling off great one-liners. He also punctuates conversations with a frequent and hearty laugh. Friends and colleagues emphasize how warm and personable he is. Elected class president in both his junior and senior years at Sunnyvale High School (in what is now called the Silicon Valley), he believes he won the races because he knew classmates in every group, from athletes to intellectuals. According to Karen Hansen, a close friend since high school (thanks to alphabetical seating arrangements), “Robert is a genuinely likable person. And he’s probably gotten that message all his life: ‘You’re interesting, you’re fun to talk to, you have great ideas.’” She remembers the teenage Handa as having listened intently whenever she spoke. “When you had his attention, you completely had his attention,” says Hansen, who cites his “genuine interest in what’s going on with other people.” At the same time, he himself was “very talkative,” says Hansen. “He would always get in trouble for turning around and talking to me,” she recalls with a laugh. “Robert still likes to talk. But I think it suits him well in his profession.”

Overcoming Early Obstacles

Chair of the sociology department at Brandeis University, Hansen offers insights into other traits that have helped Handa overcome the obstacles that he, Hansen, and others faced at their predominantly working-class school. (For instance, counselors largely failed to tell students that they had to apply to college before matriculating there. Among other reasons, this helps explain why only about 10 of 500 people in Hansen’s and Handa’s graduating class went straight to four-year universities.) In Hansen’s opinion, Handa pushed past numerous barriers with the help of a sharp mind, ambition, tenacity, and the courage to voice his opinion.

Handa in high school.

Then, too, she and Handa benefited from a late-1960s curriculum in which, as Hansen puts it, “Teachers gave us tools for critiquing the systems and inequalities that we were observing, especially in class and racial terms.” The school offered some of the nation’s first courses on black history and Mexican literature. “We were thinking in terms of social structure, in regard to inequality,” says Hansen. “And it profoundly affected my vision and how I became a sociologist. So it’s no surprise to me that Robert became a reporter in the way that he is.”

Armed with these tools of social analysis, Hansen, Handa, and their classmates came to feel indignant about how few resources their school had, compared with middle-class schools. Hansen, who was head varsity cheerleader, recalls, “We had to play our football games at Fremont School because they had lights for nighttime games. We didn’t have a developed facility like they did. We always said they built our school to look like a factory. And in fact it became a factory after it stopped being a high school!”

She and her peers converted their anger into determination and ambition. Hansen says, “In that sense of inequality, we felt a sense of pride that we had been wronged and that we would go out to show people that we were better than them and certainly better than they thought we were.” She says she and her peers intended to counter “stereotypes about our school and what it meant to be poor in America.”

Hansen believes that although Handa now draws on a sense of injustice formed in those early days, he balances that negativity with a positive outlook. For example, he has reported on Japanese-Americans who established baseball leagues during the internment as a way to have fun and boost morale. The leagues kept competing against each other in the 1950s, well after liberation from the camps. Hansen says that when Handa does this type of report, “It conveys a message of oppression, but it also conveys a positive action against that.” She adds, “I see Robert looking for human agency, where people are trying to change their conditions.”

Handa developed an optimistic attitude largely because his parents instilled in him an upbeat approach to life. He recalls that they encouraged him to “look at opportunities versus where the roadblocks are.” Although his father missed most of high school because of the internment, “He never said anything bitter about what happened to him.” Instead, the elder Handa passed the following message on to Robert: “Nothing is guaranteed. Everything is finite. So you should just try to enjoy what you can, while you can.” Robert’s father worked for a quarter-century as an aircraft technician and then became a rancher in rural California.

Handa’s family of origin at a 1998 wedding. From left to right: older brother Albert, Jr.;
father Albert, Sr.; younger sisters Angela and Suzie; mother Harumi; Robert.



Meanwhile, Robert’s mother, who moved from Japan to California in 1955, suffered her own set of difficulties. As a young woman in a sexist, rigid Japan, she had felt oppressed. After arriving in the United States, she again found herself on the low end of the totem pole because she spoke English poorly, stood just 4’11″, and worked minimum-wage jobs (e.g., as a cook in convalescent hospitals). Nevertheless, she told Robert and his three siblings, “You should look for opportunities. You shouldn’t have an attitude of why this system will deny you.”

As a youngster, however, he did have a negative outlook, largely because he wanted to fit in with other rebellious working-class kids. He cut plenty of classes “to show everybody that I really wasn’t all that.” In his crowd, lower achievement accorded a higher social status. He explains, “It can be real poison to be in neighborhoods where the kids view anybody who’s aspiring to succeed as some sort of a sellout.” As he sees it, such bitterness stems from people’s frustration at not having options. He shared this frustration.

Handa bonded not only with Asian-American kids in his midst but also with Chicano, black, and working-class white peers. It helped that he was a varsity athlete in football and baseball and could create relationships on the field. But beyond that, he says, “Minority kids tended to hang together or think of themselves as having common bonds, being minorities.” Working-class white kids also fit into this crowd, as they, too, lacked the advantages that wealthier kids enjoyed. Handa notes that members of his multiethnic crowd united around the collective sense that others looked down on them. Nowadays, he says, the races separate themselves much more: “It’s not like when I was growing up, where it was like, ‘We’re all in this together. We’re against the man.‘” He laughs hard as he hears himself use this expression.

Because his neighborhood included a mosaic of minority members, Handa says it’s not as if he and his Japanese family stood out from a homogeneous mass of people: “We blended in because we were just like everybody else. We were just a working-class, just-trying-to-get-by family.”

He acknowledges, however, that “always looking different” felt traumatic to him at times. He would drift off into fantasies about living in Japan, “where I wouldn’t be so different from everybody.”

Finally, at age 13, he had a chance to explore this fantasy when he and his family traveled to Japan for a month, meeting his mother’s relatives. Deplaning into a terminal filled with Japanese people, Handa felt shocked by the unfamiliar experience of finally looking like everyone around him. “You couldn’t have read enough books about Japan to replace the feeling,” he says. In the midst of Japanese people with delicate physiques, he came to understand that he’s small (just shy of 5’7″) not because he didn’t have enough of an American diet growing up, as he had assumed, but because, “This is actually what we’re supposed to be.”

Many things clicked into place for him on that trip, settling questions both small and large about who he was, where his family came from, and, as he says, “what was there culturally in my background and my genetics that I never even realized.” As he notes with amazement, deep conflicts that had seemed unresolvable “suddenly were kind of resolved!”

In particular, the trip to Japan gave him new perspectives on achievement. He gained a sense of how much larger the world was than his small hometown community with its limiting messages. And as he learned more about Japanese culture and his mother’s early experiences, he understood the freedom that the United States could offer both of them. He recalls, “My mom wanted to break away from a society that basically encourages blending in and discourages trying to be an individual. So when I came back to America, I had the feeling, ‘I’m fortunate to be here.’”

Handa also realized that looking different from most Americans actually formed a vital and positive part of his identity. He figured, “I’m in a situation here where I’m unique.” For the first time he saw that looking like everyone else might have made it harder to develop a sense of individuality.

Aiming High

After that trip, sophomore year became a time of transition, particularly because Handa’s parents divorced. Meanwhile, Handa was still integrating his Japan-related insights into his sense of himself. As he did so, he recognized the futility of missing opportunities just so his peers would accept him. He resolved to aim as high as possible and to experience things just so he could know how they felt. With that mindset, he became class president and editor of the school newspaper.

He also gave more thought to career goals, though many of his ideas existed on a fantasy level: “I knew that I aspired to do something special and to do something on a fairly large scale. Whether it was going to be theater or movies or TV, I knew I wanted to reach people. I wanted to have a broad connection with people in that way.”

Inspired by Muhammad Ali’s style of singing his own praises so that others would perceive him as great, Handa felt it was paramount to come across as confident. He figured, “If I don’t believe I can do things, then why would anybody else think that?” He was all too aware that others viewed him with lowly expectations, and in retrospect, he doesn’t entirely blame them: “To look at me at that time, why would anybody think that I’m going to aspire to anything?” As a cover, Handa acted ultraconfident or, in some people’s eyes, cocky. He muses, “I really didn’t feel that I was a confident person so much as a person who was constantly trying to bolster my own confidence to keep on moving forward.”

Perhaps because of this act, others glimpsed real potential in him; Handa’s senior class designated him the boy most likely to succeed, an honor that Hansen didn’t expect at all. Laughing hard at the memory of how much that event surprised her, she says, “Something clearly happened between freshman year and senior year that led him down that path. He communicated that ambition.” The secondary school awards didn’t stop with his 1973 graduation; in 2001, Handa’s high school district gave him a Distinguished Alumnus Award.

He attended De Anza College (a community college in Cupertino, California) and then San Jose State University. Finances kept him from shooting any higher; he had to work three jobs simultaneously just to pay his state university tuition. He majored in journalism, with a minor in English.

In his De Anza television classes, professors tried to give students a reality check, asserting that only 3 percent of those taking such courses would actually break into the business. Handa recalls that many talented classmates took the warning to heart and decided on other careers. Not Handa, who says, “You either think of yourself as the 3 percent, or you think of yourself as the 97 percent. I thought of myself as the 3 percent.”

He received more dispiriting guidance from counselors who pointed out how few Asian-Americans were on television at all. As Handa explains, “This was before affirmative action” or other cultural ways of embracing diversity. In the mid-1970s, when he attended college, “The media was this white institution.”

But just as Handa had gained insights in Japan about the power of his individuality, he chose to view his distinctiveness as a career asset. He figured, “Because there aren’t many Asians, I’ll be the exception. Better to be the unique one than one of the masses.” He muses, “Even though people were saying it to discourage me from doing it, I actually took it as a way of motivating myself.”

He resolved to press on toward a TV career. And as he recalls, “I had no fallback plan. I had no idea of, what am I going to do if I don’t succeed?” As it turned out, he never needed a backup plan. “I really feel like I’m lucky,” muses Handa, “because for the most part, nothing threw me off track. Nobody punctured my fantasy world when they probably could have, at a time when I felt really vulnerable.”

Shaking Things up in Journalism

Success came quickly. In 1976, after his junior year at San Jose State, he took a summer internship at KNTV Channel 11, continuing to hold a part-time job there throughout senior year. He shot, wrote, and produced sportscast segments. By fall 1977, after he graduated, the station gave him a full-time job as a news photographer and weekend reporter. He eventually became a full-time reporter and senior reporter at KNTV, where he stayed until 1987.

Around 1980, Handa interviewed
then-governor Jerry Brown.

Becoming part of the “establishment,” as Handa puts it, didn’t quiet the angry young man inside. On the contrary, he had gone into journalism to shake things up and to change the world. Once he gained “inside access” to the establishment, he almost felt obligated as a minority to act as a gadfly, raising awareness about controversial topics.

At the beginning of his time at KNTV, he produced, shot, wrote, and edited a five-part documentary series on gangs. Because he succeeded in gaining the gang members’ trust, they remained unguarded even in the presence of his camera. Although he now laughs about his unpolished on-air presence in that early work, the documentary won a Peninsula Press Club award for Best Documentary News Series, putting him on the map, especially because he was just 22.

People often assume that Handa came to be on the air because of a pretty face or distinctive voice, but he’s quick to dispel that myth: “I was this minority kid with long hair and was kind of rebellious. Had that been what I brought to the table, it would have been difficult for me to become an on-air reporter.” He broke into television, he says, because he knew how to shoot and edit, put together stories, and tell them effectively. “I came in through the back door,” says Handa.

He couldn’t look to many minority television reporters as role models, because so few had broken through the barriers. Growing up, he had admired actor Desi Arnaz as one of the few nonwhites on TV. And in the 1970s, Handa had respected Geraldo Rivera, who had not yet become a tabloid icon but was still a TV reporter covering tough topics, such as the care of patients in mental institutions. Connie Chung and other Asian-American women made early inroads into television reporting, but people didn’t always take those attractive women seriously as journalists. Even when they became co-anchors, they didn’t necessarily come across as equal to the men sitting alongside them. When it comes to Asian-American male predecessors, Handa cites only Ken Kashiwahara, saying, “He’s a national ABC reporter, but he’s hardly a household word. You could go to a lot of people, and they wouldn’t know who you’re talking about.”

Handa was the first Asian-American reporter ever to work at KNTV. By the time Thuy Vu began working in television in the 1990s, she says Handa was still “one of just a few Asian TV reporters in the Bay Area.” Vu, who reports for KPIX CBS 5, immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975. She says she considers Handa a pioneer and a role model “because the number of Asian males in TV news continues to be low.” Vu muses, “I think the challenges are greater for Asian men than Asian women. For some reason, Asian men are often perceived as less authoritative and engaging than Caucasian men.”

In 1979 or 1980, Handa interviewed Jane Fonda.

Despite these ongoing barriers for minorities in journalism, the tides did begin to shift while Handa was in college. He attributes the change to Watergate. Before that scandal broke, reporters and politicians enjoyed “more of a chummy relationship,” says Handa. After Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the machinations of certain politicians, American journalists became more investigative, reporting widely on all types of abuses of power, particularly racism. Society began to embrace diversity and affirmative action, creating more room for minorities to enter journalism.

Reflecting on this turn of events that proved fortuitous for him, Handa says, “I have this philosophy: sometimes good luck comes disguised as bad luck. If you can survive the things that you think are so bad for you, they somehow turn around. Suddenly those disadvantages have turned into advantages. However, you had to get to the point where you could use that to your advantage. Had you been discouraged or derailed prior to that, you wouldn’t have been in a position to take advantage of those things. You had to deal with them as a disadvantage first. And then one day, all of a sudden diversity is embraced.”

A Man in Demand

For reasons that likely have less to do with diversity than with talent, Handa has been in hot demand at television stations for decades. He worked at KQED in San Francisco from 1987 through 1990, serving as reporter-producer for the newsmagazine show Express and making documentaries. As KQED is a PBS station, he also reported for MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, the PBS national newscast. In 1990, KPIX recruited him to work for the station’s South Bay bureau. He held that job until 1998, when KTVU snatched him up, having held onto him ever since.

Christmas, 2006. From left to right:
Mason, Robert, Olivia, Arlene.

In 1998, a woman also snatched him up, and Handa married for the first time at almost 43. Arlene Sison-Handa, who grew up on Guam, is of Guamanian, Filipino, Japanese, and Spanish descent. Like Handa, she has served as an on-air reporter, working most recently for KNTV. The couple has two children: Mason, 8, and Olivia, 3. Olivia arrived just before Handa’s 50th birthday.

Though it’s harder these days to recognize Handa as the disaffected youth who entered journalism to shake things up, he continues to report on racism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination, and these reports still win awards:

• The South Bay Islamic Association honored Handa in 2004 with the first-ever Media Excellence Award, because he covered hate crimes against Muslims after the September 11 attacks.

• The National Association of Black Journalists gave Handa a first-place award in 2002 for a series called “Race and Tolerance.”

• In 1991, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) gave him an award for “Forced from Home,” a newsmagazine story about the dwindling supply of federally subsidized housing.

• His 1985 expose of a HUD housing scandal netted an Emmy and a UPI (United Press International) Award for investigative reporting. Furthermore, the revelations in that story led the entire board of directors at HUD to resign (which Handa interprets as roughly equivalent to a guilty plea), and the expose prompted the government to allocate more than $1 million in emergency federal funding to clean up the neglected, leaky housing project featured in Handa’s report.

• In the 1980s, Handa won an Emmy nomination and yet another AAJA award for stories about government reparations owed to formerly interned Japanese-Americans. Though that population had begun to die off without receiving money or even an apology, the government continued to drag its feet about taking action. Handa’s nationally televised MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour reports helped raise people’s awareness about the situation. And, says Handa, “Through that public awareness you are consciously adding to the pressure on the government to do something.” Ronald Reagan eventually signed the reparations into law, and the federal government apologized to the formerly interned population as part of a financial compensation package.

In 2006, Robert Handa, KTVU anchor Julie Haener,
and Ben Fong-Torres won Emmy Awards for their
San Francisco Chinese New Year’s Parade broadcast.



As Handa aims to give a voice to groups that have none, he draws on the wartime experiences of his grandparents, father, and uncles. He notes, “I think you have to have some sort of experience or relationship with being wronged in order to think that it’s something that you actually have to address.”

At the same time, he refuses to pigeonhole himself: “As a minority journalist, you tend not to want to get wedged into this thing like, ‘It’s your duty to cover race all the time.’” Similarly, he says, “You get reluctant to make it seem like you’re touting some sort of working-class roots,” particularly because he’s aware that other people endured much rougher childhoods than he.

Nevertheless, the public notices what sorts of stories he covers. Handa says, “A lot of working-class people call me and tell me about situations they’re in. So they must view me as someone who can relate to them.”

Harumi, Olivia, Robert, Mason, and Arlene at a
San Francisco Giants game, 2007.


Beyond his desire to advance any sort of social agenda, Handa thrives on simply telling stories. He likes doing research without any preconceived notions and then letting a story unfold in front of him. He believes that viewers want to “feel the truth” through whatever he finds.

Despite having ample outlets for telling stories through his reporting, Handa also spends his leisure time writing stage plays, screenplays, and fiction. Thus far, he hasn’t attempted to go public with these works.

His passion for storytelling may spring from the frustrations of his youth. If those who write history are the ones with true power, it’s entirely possible that telling stories enables Handa to enjoy a power and freedom he never knew as an angry, working-class teenager.

Having come so far in the intervening years, he has made one firm resolution: “I remember, for my kids, I always want them to be in an environment where it’s OK to aspire. You don’t have to keep it secret.”

7 Responses to “Television Reporter Robert Handa:
Coming in Through the Back Door”

  1. Clara Lee Says:

    I related so much to many of Robert’s beliefs and attitudes. I liked his account of being in the Japanese airport looking into a sea of Japanese faces. I have a similar moment in my life – when I was leaving Korea in the summer of 1989 to return to college, I looked out into the street and said to myself, “I am going to miss being able to blend into a crowd of people and to fit in perfectly.” Lovely article, Eve.

  2. Gertrud Kimme Says:

    I really liked your post.Really thank you! Fantastic.

  3. Eve Kushner Says:

    Thanks so much!

  4. Janice Sacjhiye Wong Says:

    What a Wonderful Story…even now some of the younger Asian American Males are amazed how difficult it can be to be a TV News Reporter…and there are so few Asian American Men as News Anchors…Female Asian Reporters are more in view on TV…Wonder Why?…I watch Mr. Honda on TV doing the News and now his road there…..

  5. Eve Kushner Says:

    Janice,

    Thank you so much for the comment! I really appreciate it, and I forwarded it to Robert.

    All best,
    Eve

  6. Sarah Sadigh Says:

    I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed Robert Handa’s reporting over the years on KTVU and it’s really interesting reading about his childhood. I am also from Sunnyvale, and attended SHS for two years before it closed in 1981. I am from a white working-class poor family (Fairwood) and almost everyone in my neighborhood was from somewhere else in the world, and so many of us were the first ones in the family to go to college. I am very impressed and insprired by all of his achievements. Wonderful article!

  7. Eve Kushner Says:

    Thank you very much! I shared your comment with Robert, and it made him really happy! I appreciate your stopping by and leaving such a kind note!