The journalism of the time tended to reflect the same extremes. The straight press continued to follow the signposts of the status quo, looking to government officials to point the way, while alternative journalism stood on the fringe and threw stones, galvanizing a generation that was alienated, angry and looking for someone to blame.
Even as the Weekly began publishing, all of that started to change. The Washington establishment began backing off the gross excesses of imperialist foreign policy — or at least attempted to better conceal them. On the domestic front, the government took as its charge the mission of reversing economic inequity and racial disadvantage. In California, Jerry Brown brought with him the priorities of social action to the statehouse. Soon the imperatives of the protest years evolved into the thorny dilemmas of policy: Sure, schools should be desegregated, but how? Was busing an idea to fight for, or flee from? A smog agency had been established, funded and empowered: Was it to be hailed or censured? What about redevelopment? What about crime?
Of course, there remained key issues that tended to cleave along the old ideological lines. The U.S. war in Central America, fought through surrogates in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, brought Southeast Asia quickly to mind. And the toxic boondoggle that was nuclear power brought out the old-style hubris of the establishment, as well as a new-style activism. These were natural stories for the Weekly, and we covered them with enthusiasm.
But in the main, and especially in Los Angeles, the lines became muddied, and slowly, the reporting in the Weekly came to reflect these ambiguities. Editors began looking for nuance, and writers for new strategies to define their vision. Former LAPD Officer Mike Ruppert explored the menace that crack cocaine represented even as he challenged the government’s punitive response. Rubén Martínez looked at race from several new directions. Mike Davis turned standard assumptions about progress and development upside down.
At the same time, the establishment press — the Times, of course, but also the national magazines, television and even film — began to give up the comfortable but remote sureties of mainstream culture. Sometimes following the lead of the alternatives, they did the obvious — reviewing rock music, reporting on police abuse — and occasionally even more, stretching the boundaries of storytelling, digging into the affairs of the city’s elite, paying attention to the struggles of everyday life.
As the culture changed, as the media changed, the role of the alternatives became more ambiguous as well. In newsrooms across the country and at workshops and annual conferences, writers and editors began to ask what it was that made them so "alternative" anyway. At some papers, that has meant a more narrow focus on entertainment and "lifestyle"; at the Weekly, it’s meant more reporting and more coverage of the stories that set us apart. These are not usually the sorts of articles that win popularity contests, but we hope they resonate with ä readers who are looking for something that challenges the assumptions of the status quo. Sometimes it’s simply a question of filling the gaps left by the dailies — the Weeklyfocused for years on the breakdown of leadership at the MTA, moving off the story only as consensus built that the agency was in trouble. More often, it’s a matter of attitude: Like the rest of the city’s media, we cover the institutions that shape L.A. — the police, the school district, the smog board, local government — but more critically, with an eye not just to what actually happened but to what shouldhappen.
Of course, there remain occasional stories that the dominant press simply cannot bring itself to handle — the contra-crack connection, for example, or almost anything to do with labor — and there we operate in the clear, drawing attention to people and politics that would otherwise never see the light of day.
In the end, regardless of the political or social stakes involved in a particular story, we are journalists — freed of the restraints and imperatives of the corporate press, but journalists nonetheless — and that simplifies the sometimes vexing question of our role. We operate from the conviction that the history of our city and our times is a compelling saga, one told best accurately and in detail. Should the changing politics of the culture leave us adrift at times, we are able to fall back on one of the maxims of our trade: As V.I. Lenin put it, "Be as radical as reality."What follows is by no means complete, but a smattering of excerpts from stories that mattered.