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July 12, 2007

Paul Weeks, unsung hero

Paul Weeks, a retired newspaperman who died recently at the age of 86, was an overlooked hero of Los Angeles’ traumatic civil rights struggle.

I didn’t know Paul in those days. I met him in the ‘70s when he headed public relations for Rand. Later, we had good talks at meetings of the media alumni group, the OFS (originally called the Old Farts Society by its grizzled founders but cleaned up to suit modern sensibilities).

But some of my veteran Times colleagues told me a bit about his civil rights coverage, and when I was researching the era for my biography of Jesse Unruh, I asked him for details. He e-mailed me his story, and I learned more from Rob Leicester Wagner’s book, Red Ink White Lies: The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962.

Paul had a social conscience, rare and scorned in newspapers before, during and after World War II, his era.

We old guys like to glamorize those days, remembering ourselves as hard drinking buccaneers, chasing crime, hanging out with cops, covering stories big and small with equal zest. There was a lot of that but mostly it was a myth. The newspapers were narrow, superficial and racist. My first paper, the Oakland Tribune, printed little or no news of Oakland’s black community, one of the nation’s most vibrant. The paper said nothing while freeways and the BART rail line ripped the heart out of African American Oakland. We looked on while the cops, prosecutors and judges administered racist Alameda County justice to black defendants

It was the same in Los Angeles and throughout the west and the rest of the north. When World War II servicemen roamed through downtown Los Angeles attacking Mexican Americans wearing zoot suits-long jackets with wide shoulders, pegged and pleated trousers, long key chains and wide brimmed, flattop hats-the newspapers cheered. Police arrested the zoot suiters rather than the servicemen and, as an example of the slanted news coverage, the old Los Angeles Daily News delightedly reported “zoot suit … gangs of hoodlums continued to lose their trousers to service men, and in many cases nearly lost what was in ‘em.” And the Daily News was the city’s liberal newspaper.

In the mid ‘50s, Managing Editor J. Edward Murray of the Los Angeles Mirror gave Paul, one of his reporters, a difficult assignment. He asked him to do stories on the black community. Ignoring the obstacles, Paul tackled the assignment with enthusiasm and skill. Some of his Mirror colleagues criticized him to his face. “Paul, the way you are writing those stories, you would think you were part nigger,” one of them said.

The Mirror was owned by the much bigger Times, and Paul said that Murray’s inclination to investigate Los Angeles’ social problems was risky because of the attitude of his Times overseers. “…as I recall the Times frowned on the series I wrote for the Mirror on the blacks moving into L.A., their problems with employment, housing and education.” he said. When the Mirror was closed in 1962, Weeks moved to the Times. Frank McCullough, one of the managing editors, told him that “we’re doing a pretty good job covering the situation in Mississippi and Alabama, but would I look at what we’re doing in our own backyard?” Weeks said blacks were “at first suspicious of anyone wanting to put anything in the white press about them. And I didn’t blame them.” He recalled how reporters covering the police “characterizing murders, rapes, and so on among blacks as misdemeanor crimes,” not worthy of coverage. “When the crime became black upon white, it could reach headlines.”

Such coverage was not a career booster. Weeks got into trouble with his bosses when he protested the ejection of a black reporter working for the African American newspaper, the Sentinel, from a meeting of a segregationist organization. Eventually, Weeks was removed from the civil rights beat. When he left the beat in 1964, he told his editor “This town is going to blow up one of these days, and the Times won’t know what hit it.”

The Watts riot occurred a year later, and the Times had to recruit a young African American man from the advertising department to help cover it.

Paul knew it was coming, and why. But nobody listened.

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