A USC symposium honoring the late Frank del Olmo, a highly respected Los Angeles Times journalist, produced some gloomy thoughts about Latino news coverage in his old paper and the rest of the news media.
It was not gloomy as my own view, I thought as I listened to the Oct. 11 panel sponsored by the California Chicano News Media Association and USC Annenberg's School of Journalism. Still, it was an enlightening look at how Latino political life, and news coverage of it, has evolved over the last quarter of a century.
One of the panelists was Kenneth C. Burt, author of an excellent new book. "The Search For A Civic Voice: California Latino Politics." Burt tells the story of Latino politics from before World War II to the present day. His book explains the long and difficult Latino rise to present day influence and shows the complexities and subtleties of the Latino community in a way missed by the mainstream news media.
The characters in his story are amazingly diverse--business leaders, small shop owners, publishers, Communist Party members, priests, politicians, union leaders, housewives, factory workers, doctors, teachers, social workers, Republicans, Democrats and many more.
That was the Latino world observed by del Olmo, who was a reporter, editor and columnist for the Times. Moving from his reporter's desk in the newsroom to a spot on the editorial board, he doggedly pressed his case for a more sophisticated coverage.
In other words, he wanted a break from the black and Latino coverage you usually find--gang killers, tragic murder victims and the occasional kid who succeeds against all odds.
The panelists talked about the huge gains Latinos have made politically. Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles, and others noted the increase in the number of Latino legislators--men and women-- in the past decade and a half. He noted that five of the seven Latino members of Congress from California are women. Rosalind Gold of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials said the 1990s saw "an explosion of Latino politics."
The panelists discussed how the English speaking news media was late to wake up to the importance of the huge 2006 immigration march, which packed downtown Los Angeles. There was a general consensus by the panelists that the Times missed the run up to the march. Aside from that, the panel was fairly kindly toward the hometown paper.
I wouldn't have been so nice. I don't think del Olmo would have been so charitable either.
He and our editor, Michael Parks, now the director of the USC journalism school, sparked a project called the Latino Initiative, composed of Latino reporters and editors (and top Anglo journalists such as Nancy Cleeland, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and Lee Romney) who met every week to talk about story ideas and how coverage of the Latino community could be improved. I was city editor and since much of our local coverage centered on the Latino community I attended the meetings. Also, at least four of my assistant city editors were Latino. Each of them had a different background. They were a microcosm of the Latino community. Their daily crosstalk and their arguments for stories shaped and broadened the news coverage.
By the time the Tribune takeover was complete this structure had been abandoned. Today, a reduced staff struggles to cover the ethnic complexities of the huge Southland, hard- pressed to report on an area that stretches from Palmdale to the beach and from Ventura to Orange County.
In a thoughtful summing up at the end of the panel, Annenberg Professor Felix Gutierrez talked of the daunting challenges ahead. What, for example, will Latinos do with their new power? "Will we do to others what others have done to us or will we be inclusive?" he asked. Tracking these kinds of stories will be a great challenge for the Times and the rest of the media.
In a few areas, the Times coverage of Latino cultural life is much better than it was. The addition of a Spanish-speaking baseball writer has improved interviews of the Spanish speaking Dodger players. But the Times' coverage of the many other facets of the vast Latino community is pretty limited.
More and more, the paper relies on stories reflecting a narrow view of life: Child slain by gang members. Gang members slain by cops. Gang member sheds past, enrolls at UCLA.
I haven't done a story count. I am not into journalism research. The closest I come to journalistic academia is teaching beginning reporting and news writing at USC. Maybe somebody at the paper could produce a story analysis to prove me wrong.
But I doubt it. When my reporting students studied Huntington Park and Downey, cities in heavily Latino southeast Los Angeles County, I learned much more about Latino life from their stories than by reading the Los Angeles Times.
Maybe the housing slump and the mortgage mess will give us a respite from the tear downs, condo conversions and expensive apartment projects that are ravaging Los Angeles low income and middle class neighborhoods.
If developers can't finance new projects for a while, it will amount to a moratorium that would allow Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council to figure out a way to retain apartments affordable to people of moderate means while still permitting needed construction.
I got interested in the subject through my column in the Jewish Journal. Condo conversions, often requiring the destruction of apartment buildings, were hitting the Jewish community hard. Many people, including large numbers of seniors, were being forced from stable neighborhoods where they had lived for years, often in rent-controlled apartments.
The impact on Los Angeles is severe. The Los Angeles Times reported that between 2001 and 2006, 12,364 rent controlled apartments were removed from the housing market. Most were torn down or converted to condos.
A while back, I joined a bus tour of low-income housing threatened by demolition to make way for more expensive units. The tour was sponsored by the Liberty Hill Foundation, an organization that does many good things around town, including providing money to Project Acorn and the Coalition for Economic Survival, groups have worked hard to save affordable housing.
Just west of downtown, in an area that will be the next to be gentrified, we stopped at an old apartment house. Rents are $750 a month for a one- room apartment with a bath. The apartment house looked clean. I've seen much worse in the neighborhood. But the owner was planning to tear it down.
Earlier in the month, while working on my Jewish Journal column, I visited an apartment in the Pico Robertson area and talked to tenants Mary Ellen Satterfield, Brenda Lara and Rachel Minkove. Their affordable housing is destined to turn higher priced condo.
They are perfect examples of how the middle class is being squeezed out by the wave of condo conversions sweeping through the city. Satterfield is a portfolio administrator for a financial company. Lara is assistant principal in a Los Angeles public elementary school in Echo Park. Minkove is a fifth-grade teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. Their rents range from $850 to $1,680 a month.
These are among the people Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky had in mind when he opposed a city proposal that will give developers a huge break. It would permit tear downs if the developer promises to put affordable housing in the new building. Of course, the developer could get away with putting in only one such unit.
In return for putting in a laughable minimum of lower rent housing, a developer could build bigger, taller and more profitable projects. "This is a wolf in sheep's clothing," Yaroslavsky said.
Developers have huge power in city hall. But the mayor and the council should think about the kind of Los Angeles do we want. We don't want a city where the working class and middle class are forced out.
And if city hall doesn't care, maybe Yaroslavsky can take his fight to the ballot, as he did several years ago with a successful measure that imposed development controls that the mayor and the council had refused.