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.

To The Editor

To the Editor,

An article written by reporters Paul Pringle and Rong-Gong Lin in Thursday’s Times erroneously asserted that I used my position as a Coliseum Commissioner to “score” football tickets on the “public dime.”

As Ron Lin was told by both stadium officials and me, two tickets to an NFL game were billed to the Coliseum without my knowledge. The purchase –not a gift– should not have been expensed to the Coliseum. As the original official letter from the Interim Chief Executive Officer stated (September 12, 2011), I was never informed that an expense report had been submitted, and I never previously received an invoice for the expense.

Instead of sober reporting that would have informed readers rather than inflaming their suspicions, Pringle and Lin employed a mix of innuendo and hyperbole to write a slanted story borne of their cynical concoction.

The story strongly implies wrongdoing, and that the matter came to light only because of a Times records request in August. Wrong again. The expense was actually found by a financial staffer in July, before the Times made its records request.  I wonder why the Times tried to steal credit for someone else’s work.

Granted, there are genuine concerns with regard to the past management of the Coliseum, but this isn’t one of them. The Times unearthed nothing. The Coliseum found an invoice that had never been forwarded to me and when it was, I paid it. That’s not very sensational, but it’s the truth.


Mark Ridley-Thomas,

Supervisor honored at PVJOBS annual luncheon

Playa Vista Job Opportunities and Business Services (PVJOBS) brought together over 500 labor, business and community leaders to honor top workers and supporters at its annual Recognition Luncheon at the Cathedral Plaza in downtown Los Angeles.  This year was titled “Building New Careers & New Lives.” PVJOBS is a non-profit corporation created in 1998 to fulfill a Los Angeles City Council mandate: provide construction employment opportunities for at-risk local residents at the Playa Vista development site.  Today, as a result of their advocacy, PVJOBS works with several major construction projects.

[pullquote_right]”It’s about empowering individuals, strengthening families, and building communities,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.[/pullquote_right]Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas received a special recognition as a “Visionary of the Year” at the luncheon.  Kevin Sherrod was honored as “Intern of the Year”, Nathan Covington, as “Employee of the Year” for his work on the new Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, Jennie Garcia as “Employee of the Year”, and Hathaway Dinwiddie was honored as “Contractor of the Year.”

There are currently more than 100 community-based organizations providing life skills training to hard-to-serve individuals and referring them to PVJOBS for employment.  Together with collaborators, PVJOBS provides an array of supportive services to enable client success.  All referrals to PVJOBS are maintained in a database.  As employment opportunities become available, PVJOBS queries the database and makes referrals to employers.

Since most of the employment opportunities are construction and trade union affiliated, candidates are prepared for a union entry along with the cost of special tools and clothing barrier to employment.  PVJOBS makes supportive services available to cover these costs for clients.

PVJOBS is committed to supplying a minimum of 3000 hours work to each candidate.  This is accomplished by re-referral to similar trade work upon contract completion and subsequent lay off.  To date, PV JOBS has filled over 3,500 construction positions with more than 1000 contractors and a success rate of 89.5%.

For more information about PVJOBS, please visit pvjobs.org.

Push for local jobs in the second district

Support a Project Labor Agreement for the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Line at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority meeting on September 22, 2011. The Metro Board of Directors will vote on a proposal to establish an agency-wide Project Labor Agreement (PLA) to implement the new Construction Careers Policy at Metro.  The Construction Careers Policy and the PLA will ensure that at least 30% of total construction hours worked on a project are performed by residents targeted from areas characterized by high unemployment along project routes and within L.A. County.

Metro Board Room, 3rd Floor
One Gateway Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90012

Thursday, September 22, 2011, 9:00 AM

Other items of interest on the agenda:

  • Approval of the final Environmental Impact Report for the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Line
  • Adoption of an agency-wide Renewable Energy Policy that will impact the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Line

RSVP: Melissa Hernandez at MIHernandez@bos.lacounty.gov

Let your presence be your voice!


[Download the flyer here.]

Mark Ridley-Thomas & Gloria Molina each propose new LA County redistricting plans

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Gloria Molina each proposed new redistricting plans today, both of which adhere to the spirit and letter of federal civil rights laws and as a result would create two Latino-opportunity voting districts in the County.

“I have maintained from the start of the redistricting process that our top priority as a Board must be to adhere to federal standards, including the Voting Rights Act requirements,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “These requirements were not created abstractly to promote the political dominance of one interest group at the expense of other groups, but to serve all voters fairly. That the maps submitted today by Supervisor Molina and myself result in the creation of Latino-opportunity voting districts is purely a consequence of our commitment to abide by the civil rights laws that undergird our representative democracy and that have made our County better.”[pullquote_right]“I have maintained from the start of the redistricting process that our top priority as a Board must be to adhere to federal standards, including the Voting Rights Act requirements,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.[/pullquote_right]

“Our new maps simply follow the numbers,” said Supervisor Molina. “By doing so, our new maps honor both the letter and the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws voting discrimination based on race and serves as the legal foundation of our modern Civil Rights Movement. If approved, either new map will ensure that no minority group’s voting power is unfairly enhanced or diluted at the expense of another. Our new maps simply follow the law and the legal precedent set by the Garza vs. County of Los Angeles U.S. Supreme Court case. The Garza ruling clearly recognized and acknowledged how generations of disenfranchisement based on race prevented Los Angeles County from achieving the colorblind society we all strive for. We should persist on this righteous path because, in doing so, we propel the spirit of our American Civil Rights Movement into this new century.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ proposed map, submitted as the “African-American Coalition Map,” moves the eastern San Fernando Valley into the first District, connecting it with downtown Los Angeles and unincorporated East Los Angeles, among other changes, and designates the I-605 corridor portion of the San Gabriel Valley as the Fourth District.

The map also includes a coastal district that runs from Malibu through Long Beach to Cerritos. It also consolidates the central L.A. county community of Florence-Firestone, an unincorporated area currently divided between two supervisorial districts. Since unincorporated areas receive the bulk of their municipal services from the County, uniting Florence-Firestone is of particular importance and will diminish confusion and promote greater governmental accountability.

Supervisor Molina’s proposal, submitted as the “Voting Rights Compliance Map” is similar to the coalition map, leaving the Second and Fifth Supervisorial Districts largely unchanged. However, it proposes dramatic changes elsewhere. The First District would contain the I-605 corridor portion of the San Gabriel Valley and the Third District would stretch from the San Fernando Valley just west of the I-405 through Eagle Rock and downtown Los Angeles as far south as Lynwood and include communities to the west of the I-710.

Every 10 years, the County is legally required to use data from the latest U.S. Census to redraw district boundaries to ensure equitable distribution of population. It must also, however, avoid even unintentional disenfranchisement of minority voters. The map currently supported by a majority of the Board falls short in this regard: it concentrates Latinos into one district and disperses the rest into four districts, clearly diluting their voting power.

“Three times in 1965, African Americans marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, linking arms to insist that this nation live up to the ideals set forth in the Constitution,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas . “Stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and thousands of marchers faced down the opposition and resistance in their way so that all Americans would have equal voting rights under the law.”

With the introduction of these two maps, the Board will consider at least three proposals: one recommended by its Boundary Review Committee called Plan A-2; Supervisor Molina’s VRA Compliance Map; and the African- American Coalition Map introduced by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

To view the maps submitted by the Supervisors as well as those submitted by the public, visit www.redistricting.lacounty.gov and going to the “Boundary Review Committee” tab and selecting the “Submitted Plans” option.

Hispanic Population & LA County Supervisorial District Maps – 1970-2011 (PDF)