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.