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20 Years After the Riots: A More Worldly Los Angeles, A More Insular Los Angeles Times

By Peter Hong

The 1992 riots got me a job at the Los Angeles Times.

Following the civil unrest, the paper responded, as it could back then, by throwing a lot of money and resources at its race problem. It created a special section to cover South Los Angeles, and, though often ham-handed in its execution, made a noble effort to hire many minority journalists throughout the paper. The new City Times section it created had a staff that reminded me of the 1970’s television show “The Mod Squad.” The three staff reporters on the section were racially cast: one African American, one Latino and one Korean American. I joined the Times in 1994, when the original Korean American reporter on the City Times staff left. I was at the Washington Post when the Times called. It was clear why they wanted me. A Times Washington bureau staffer had been advocating for me, and he showed me computer messages from the hiring execs in Los Angeles that always referred to me only as “the Korean guy.” I didn’t like it, but I longed to cover the communities that had erupted in 1992, and I would take any chance I could get. I stayed for fifteen years before joining Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ staff, to return to work in the same neighborhoods that drew me back to Los Angeles in the post-riot era.

My career at the Times roughly covered the rise and fall of newsroom diversity.

The recent news stories marking the 20th anniversary of the riots have given Los Angeles a well-deserved pat on the back. People who live in Los Angeles believe race relations are improving. The LAPD, especially, has been shown as the most substantial indicator of this progress; it is more engaged as a community partner, and the majority of its officers are people of color.

But journalists haven’t explored how another vital sector of Los Angeles may be less able to handle the city’s racial and socioeconomic complexities than it was 20 years ago.

The Los Angeles Times now has only one African American man on its local news reporting staff. That’s worse than 1992; and not much better than 1965, when the Times had no black reporter and sent a messenger to cover the Watts riot. Along with the last black man, there are three black women on the Metro staff. That’s not even enough to start a van pool.

The Times is now far less diverse than the LAPD, an institution forced to reform by a civil rights consent decree.

The paper had much to brag about in the past two decades. There was a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the riots, a massive effort that showcased the size and strength of every part of the paper’s operation.

But the relationship of the news media to the 1992 riots was complicated. There is no doubt journalists performed a great public service in the 1992 coverage. But at the same time, in the communities that burned, the news media –and especially the Los Angeles Times– was blamed by many as a cause of the riots.

This could be the topic of another lengthy essay, but can be crudely summarized this way: In the years prior to 1992, Korean Americans, African Americans and Latinos felt both stereotyped and ignored by the news media. African Americans and Latinos believed they were not only stigmatized by distorted coverage of crime and poverty, but also that their political and economic interests also got short shrift in coverage.

Korean Americans felt strongly that coverage of tragedies like the shooting of teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean American store owner inflamed tensions by failing to examine the broader issues of economic and social injustice that put Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du in their respective places that tragic day, while publishing superficial, stereotype-laden stories about cultural and racial notions of rudeness.

Again, the merits of these perceptions may be debated at length, but their existence in many Second District neighborhoods at the time was obvious to anyone who paid attention at the time. Korean American store owners repeatedly complained to me about the Times. Anyone who went to the movies in the 1990’s remembers that along with previews, there was always an artfully-produced feature promoting the Los Angeles Times. If you were seeing a movie at, say, the theaters in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, you’d fairly often hear people boo when the Times promo appeared. Sometimes, they’d shout “L.A. Crimes” when the Times logo appeared on the screen.

People felt the Times didn’t reflect their world, in both its staffing and coverage. There was real resentment. As a Times reporter in the mid-1990’s, I recall asking an African American man for his thoughts on a subject, and he politely declined to speak to me. I offered my business card, and he did not extend a hand to take it. I left it on the tabletop in front of him. As I walked away, I turned to see that he left it there, not wanting to touch it. Exchanges like this weren’t frequent, but they weren’t rare, either.

Around the same time, an African American Times staffer told me she knocked on the door of a random house to see if she could interview its resident. When she introduced herself as a Times reporter, the African American woman who had answered the door reflexively laughed – she just couldn’t believe a Times reporter was in her neighborhood, and a young black woman at that.

There was real tension within the Times newsroom as well. During the riots, some minority staffers at the Times felt they were being “big-footed” or subjected to second-class status in the reporting assignments.

This opened deeper concerns that minorities were both few in number on the staff and subject to a “glass ceiling” of limited opportunities for advancement. Some white staffers felt the opposite, believing minority quotas led to hiring and advancement of unqualified minorities. I wasn’t on the Times staff then, but had many friends at the paper who were telling me about open conflicts in real time. As minority staffers aired their grievances, several told me the newsroom’s cultural gulf was summed up by a white colleague’s plea to stop, because “you’re going to ruin our Pulitzer!”

Just as the LAPD began to transform in the late 1990’s, the Times saw the complexion of its staff evolve. There would be an African American editor of the editorial pages, who became the Metro editor. Dean Baquet became the paper’s first African American editor-in-chief.

But the spurt of minority hiring in the few years after the riots was undermined by a more powerful shift: the decline of newspapers in general. The post-riot City Times section was shut down in 1995, along with all of the paper’s suburban sections during a cost-cutting led by Mark Willes, the controversial former General Mills executive who was the Times CEO. As he cut staffing overall, Willes also started the Latino Initiative, an effort to boost Latino readership. Though driven by marketing, the Latino Initiative also led to the hiring and promotion of several Latino staffers. Such contradictions were the norm; real gains were made in some areas, while bigger losses offset them.

The Times actually had a very strong group of minority writers who had been on staff before 1992. They included Ed Boyer, John Mitchell, George Ramos, Janet Clayton, Ashley Dunn and Mark Lacey. Many left for various reasons over the years and weren’t replaced by similarly seasoned veterans.

Minority staffing became largely bifurcated: there would be a handful of very visible top managers who were minorities, and a cohort of young reporters in the paper’s minority training program or recently out of college.

As the newsroom staff shrank, the Times’ hiring practices perpetuated this two-tiered staffing pattern that is today’s status quo. Minorities came to the paper primarily through the minority hiring program, while the overwhelming majority of hires for full-fledged staff positions have been white. I don’t know why this has been the case, but the numbers are what they are.

In the communities I once covered as a Times reporter, where I now work as a deputy to Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, the resentment of the paper has faded.

Perhaps most tragically, as circulation and staffing have plummeted, the Times now lacks the everyday presence to get people worked up about its coverage the way they did 20 years ago. They may feel the Times abandoned them, but increasingly, the abandonment goes both ways. They may think the Times has stopped trying; but, too often, they now have stopped caring.

Celebrating the first community garden in Lennox

On Saturday, April 14th, over 100 residents and business owners gathered on the southwest corner of 112th Street and Inglewood Avenue to celebrate the first community garden in Lennox. Attendees of all ages became gardeners. They planted cabbage, corn, and tomatoes on each of the 23 plots of land. Aside from planting the first crop of fruits and vegetables, participants assisted in the planting of twelve new trees, including bougainvillea and jasmine plants. The celebration included composting workshops, sign painting, and food and music.

This occasion was an opportunity for community members to chat with fellow residents, enjoy delicious chicken, beef, and vegetable tacos and listen to rhythmic sounds of salsa and Cumbia music.

A series of meetings informed residents of the community garden project. Gardeners for each 4’ by 12’ plot were chosen randomly from a pool of interested residents at a community meeting in February. The garden beds were constructed by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. and From Lot to Spot, a local non-profit organization, will be charged with managing the garden. The community garden was a joint effort from the Lennox Community, From Lot to Spot, the Los Angeles Conservation Corps., the Lennox coordinating council, the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, and Caltrans.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas receives Crystal Service Award

A rooftop downtown dance floor drew hours of dancing under the stars in celebration of the work of Crystal Stairs. Located in Ladera Heights, Crystal Stairs, Inc. is one of the largest nonprofit child care and child development agencies in California. Each year, the organization provides child care, advocacy, and other critical services to 30,000 children and low-income families. Founded in 1980, the agency serves communities of Central and South Los Angeles as well as the cities of Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood and Lawndale.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas was honored with the Crystal Service Award, given to individuals who have tirelessly demonstrated their efforts in helping to improve the lives of young children and families. “Your award affirms our commitment to strengthening communities by strengthening our families and providing quality education to our children,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

The Community Gem Award was given to Michael and Catherine Meyer. In the legal community, Michael Meyer and Catherine Meyer are sought-out experts in the field. Michael Meyer is the Managing Partner of the Los Angeles Area Offices for DLA Piper and he is considered one of the country’s leading authorities on major lease transactions and renewal rights. As Counsel with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, after having been a partner with the firm for 20 years, Catherine Meyer is internationally renowned on the issues of privacy and data security breach situations.

Linda Sullivan of Southern California Edison was also awarded the Corporate Jewel Award. Edison International, through its subsidiaries, is a generator and distributor of electric power and an investor in infrastructure and energy assets, including renewable energy. Southern California Edison is one of the largest electric utilities in California, serving more than 14 million people in a 50,000 square-mile area of central, coastal and Southern California – a service territory includes more than 180 cities.

“I am humbled to be recognized alongside honorees with a track record of advocating for children and families every day.” Studies show that the absence of quality child care negatively impacts an individual’s education for life. Crystal Stairs has been providing access to quality care for 30 years.  Supervisor Ridley-Thomas concluded, “Thank you for all you continue to do for our families and the little ones who will soon be our own leaders and caregivers.”

A new wellness center and community garden come to Fremont High School

A new community garden and Wellness Center are coming to Fremont High School thanks to a partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT) and the University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA) Community Clinic, two community-based non-profits. The community garden and Wellness Center, which will be located on the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 79th Street, will be the first in its area to serve both students and residents in the surrounding community.

Aside from being a place for residents and students to gather their harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables, this one and a half acre project includes a community health center that will provide educational programming, job training opportunities, and direct clinical care to the students and community members in South Los Angeles.

“We’re so delighted to see this long planned project come to life,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “This wellness center and community garden will provide Fremont High’s 3,200 students and the surrounding community with accessible high quality healthcare in addition to providing sorely needed open space.”

The project is scheduled for completion in November of 2012.

The Neighborhood Land Trust

The Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (NTL) is the leading non-profit organization working to grow healthier communities through urban parks and gardens in Los Angeles City and County. Founded in 2002, NLT has played an important role in the creation, renovation and opening of nine parks and gardens, seven of which it currently manages and programs. The Neighborhood Land Trust mission is to grow healthier, safer and stronger communities by creating small, accessible urban parks and gardens that help remedy the critical lack of green and recreational spaces in greater Los Angeles’ underserved neighborhoods and to ensure participation and collaboration among low-income residents throughout the process of envisioning, building and managing the parks and gardens created. To learn more about the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, please visit: http://lanlt.org/

University Muslim Medical Association

The mission of the University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA) is to promote the well-being of the underserved by providing access to high quality healthcare for all, regardless of ability to pay. UMMA envisions itself as part of a larger network of institutions addressing the health and wellbeing of the underserved and indigent, mindful of the cultural, spiritual, social and economic realities that impinge upon them and the traditional barriers to accessing care. UMMA strives to: cultivate and expand a robust network of collaborative relationships with individuals, organizations and institutions among the community at large and pursue opportunities for interaction and understanding between Muslim Americans and people of all other cultural, economic and religious backgrounds. To learn more about the University Muslim Medical Association, please visit:  http://www.ummaclinic.org/the-community/who-we-are

Audit shows need to disband Coliseum Commission

Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel today issued an audit of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission.

The audit found numerous examples of questionable practices, including $870,000 in payments to overseas companies for events that never took place and nearly $1 million in untracked cash payments to technical workers.

The Controller also noted Commissioners “have not assured that adequate controls were in place and allowed a Tone-at-the-Top unsuitable for a government entity.” The audit concluded Commissioners delegated substantial control to the General Manager, requiring only “superficial reporting” in return.

The audit recommends the Coliseum Commission ensure timely internal audits and work with the General Manager to improve communications so Commissioners may be “fully informed” to “ensure its long term fiscal health and appropriate condition of its facilities.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Coliseum Commission, said of the audit:

“The City Controller’s audit captures many of the major financial missteps that have put the Coliseum in its current predicament. Her recommendations for correcting past mismanagement, however, stop short of what is truly required: the Coliseum needs an entirely new governance and management model.

The Commission structure established in 1923, when Los Angeles County’s population was less than one-tenth its current size.

A nine-member commission composed of three representatives each from the city, county and state made sense when the entire state of California had a population roughly equal to Orange County today.

Now, the tripartite structure too often pits competing interests against common ones. The result has been the indecision and excessive compromise endemic to management by committee.

It’s unrealistic to expect such a body to provide the kind of hands-on oversight required at the Coliseum today. Part-time supervision by elected officials is an out-dated model.

It’s time to dissolve the Coliseum Commission and replace it with stewardship by one of the current public partners – the city, state or county. Los Angeles County has a strong track record in managing the Hollywood Bowl and the County’s Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. The county might very well have the experience and financial stability to take custody of the Coliseum.”