Peter Hong was a reporter at the Los Angeles Times who, he writes today, got his newsroom job because of the 1992 riots that tore up Los Angeles after the acquittal of white LAPD officers in Simi Valley. His career "roughly covered the rise and fall of newsroom diversity." The Times, he says, is much whiter now than the LAPD. In 1992 the paper identified that it had a problem of not looking at all like LA and tried to fix it, but he observes that the changes didn't survive the paper's massive downsizing of the 2000s. He examines the Times today at the website of South LA county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, for whom Hong is a deputy.
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....
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.
Hong discusses how, during the riots, some minority reporters felt pushed aside by their white colleagues. After the riots, the paper started to change and both promoted and hired more black, Latino and Asian reporters and editors. But since the paper's dramatic downshifting in size, minorities tend to join 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."