Bill Boyarsky
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The Times and the gang epidemic

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.


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