At the USC conference on news and the criminal justice system, a luncheon companion, an Iranian, asked me if journalists were jailed as political prisoners in the United States.
No, I answered. They don't have to be put in prison to be silenced. Economics are silencing them. Big corporations control the major media. They are slashing costs and dumping journalists. The survivors don't want to lose their health insurance. Who needs government to silence journalists?
In that gloomy state of mind, I finished my cold cuts and salad, poured myself a cup of Starbucks, picked up a brownie and settled down to an afternoon of discussing journalism with other participants in the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism's conference on the criminal justice system and how the media covers it.
The first thing I must say is that journalism, basically a superficial business, does not bear serious discussion. Journalism is best discussed in bars by reporters who are amusing story tellers. However, this was a serious meeting and we all gave it a good shot.
Steve Montiel, director of the institute, and Joe Domanick, institute senior fellow and one of the nation's best criminal justice journalists, gave the news business a challenging charge. Reporters covering crime, for example, should know about prisons, the schools, the courts, the pervasive influence of years of discrimination, poverty and much more. And reporters should focus on solutions as well as problems
KPCC's Frank Stoltze, a reporter who gets everywhere, didn't' t disagree. But he said solutions are hard to cover. Sometimes, he said, "the problem is too big to be solved." And, he added. "Time is the big enemy in our business. We just don't have it." I agreed. When I was city editor, I didn't have time to tell a reporter all that stuff.
I, my mind locked in the great days of print journalism, talked about the economic obstacles that were preventing the kind of coverage advocated by Montiel and Domanick. I thought of what was happening at my alma mater, the shrinking Los Angeles Times, and how it could capture the complexity of our city when the paper's leadership is constantly changing.
I also thought about the influence of the Internet, which I serve as a blogger at LA Observed and Truthdig.
I read a lot about newspaper web sites, and how their bosses scramble desperately for "eyeballs" (once known as readers). What is going to happen to that well- reported, nuanced and longish story about crowded prisons if it doesn't get enough "eyeballs?" Will the web site boss persuade the paper's editor to dispense with such heavy fare?
The bosses are always blabbing about "innovation" and "local local news." Do they mean a story about the complexities of running a middle school? Or is their idea of local news a dispute about adding seven parking spaces at a mall? The new media bosses love talking about thinking "outside the box." Do they mean creative thinking? Or is "thinking outside the box" code for more layoffs and making another kind of box, career caskets for talented mid career reporters?
I could go on forever with this gloomy talk. I'd rather end on an upbeat note.
One conference participant, Anat Rubin, a young reporter for the Daily Journal, has done excellent work in the face of the obstacles of present day journalism. She is a tough reporter. Where some of the conference participants praised Police Chief William Bratton, a current media darling, she said journalists "spend too much frigging time with officials/" She said "we take our cue from Chief Bratton" and "when there is a story unkind to the LAPD, he lashes out." That's a good attitude. I have seen others like her when I was at the Times and in my USC journalism classes
Another participant was Jill Leovy of the Los Angeles Times who wrote The Homicide Report for the paper's web site. It was a report of every murder in Los Angeles County. She moved on to another assignment recently but said the blog "was the best thing I did in my career." It was, she said, "old fashioned straight reporting. " And it captured a lot of eyeballs.
With reporters like them good journalism will survive, overcoming obstacles as it always has done.
The day after news broke that the Los Angeles Times had fired its latest editor, the paper and the rest of the LA media took heavy criticism at a a USC conference on the criminal justice system.
It was a coincidence that the dismissal of editor Jim O'Shea occurred just before the opening Tuesday of the USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism meeting on "A 21st Century Criminal Justice System for Los Angeles: A Look At the Present, A Model for the Future and a Blueprint for Media Coverage."
But it was a timely coincidence. It offered a chance for participants to raise the question of whether the media could adequately cover the gang-crime situation. And, because of complex social ills that accompany the problem, it also raised the question of whether the stripped-down Times is up to the job.
The most perceptive criticism came from Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and a director for The Advancement Project, which advocates for the poor in the areas of law enforcement, transit and public schools.
Rice said the gangs, and the collateral damage they inflict on their neighborhoods, are like an epidemic of a sickness, infecting the schools, streets, parks, homes , relationships, every aspect of life. More than a third of youngsters surveyed in gang neighborhoods had the same level of post traumatic disorder as Iraq vets.
Rice pointed out that journalists report crime and violence superficially. And at city hall, they don't focus on the real villains--politicians who won't work together because of petty grievances and a press which plays "gotcha" whenever a public official comes up with a plan that does not work out perfectly.
I learned a lot at the first day session. Assistant Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told how the department was abandoning its old method of policing from patrol cars with little regard for the neighborhoods. It's not working in the long term, he said. The cops have to work with the schools, gang counselors, parents, and others to prevent young people from joining gangs.
Covering gang-related crime as if it was an epidemic of influenza or polio would require the Times to deploy its shrinking staff in imaginative ways. The crime, schools, health and local politics and government reporters all cover a piece of it. But as a devoted Times reader, I did not get a sense of it as a complex epidemic, affecting so many areas of public life here, until I spent a day at the conference.
O'Shea left because he wouldn't go along with more budget cuts, no doubt fearing the very core of the paper was threatened. The Times still has enough reporters to cover the epidemic. But with revolving door editors and constant turmoil, it may not have the drive and imagination that the task requires.