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.