By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“I would definitely agree that I’m getting sick of seeing Latino in headlines over and over again . . . It shows a definite lack of creativity, I think, and adds to the impression that we’re pandering,” came a reporter’s response over the message system.
“I also agree . . . that we don’t have to scream LATINO in every single story. It is starting to offend readers who are non-Latino,” shot another reply.
“Recent story on need for county hospital is a good example,” wrote another reporter. “Headline: Latino Leaders demand larger hospital. But it was more than [Molina] and [Villaraigosa] who want the hospital. Yvonne [Brathwaite Burke] also weighed in. but we had to make it a latino thing.”
The paper’s Latino Initiative was having an identity crisis.
“i wish we could delete the phrase ‘latino community’ from the paper for good,” another reporter finally wrote. “It’s meaningless, since there is no single community, and too often used by self-appointed community leaders.”
The impromptu exchange was uncovered recently by the L.A. Weekly in the mountains of clippings, proposals, letters, notes, memos and reports compiled by the late L.A. Times columnist and editor Frank del Olmo over the course of his three-decade career. Largely unsorted and piled in stacks of boxes at the special-collections archive at Cal State Northridge’s Oviatt Library, the del Olmo papers show there was hand-wringing over the Latino Initiative even before the project began. “Are we ghettoizing Latinos by suggesting their lifestyles . . . are inherently different than everybody else’s?” wrote a high-level editor in the margins of one 1998 planning memo. “Various groups have special health concerns. Is this a function of ethnicity or poverty? Again, it seems to me we don’t want to create a beat based on a false premise.”
A year before that, dozens of staffers attached their name to a memo addressed to then-publisher Mark Willes warning against creating a separate Latino section. “We believe many in the Latino communities will rightly be offended by this approach .?.?. Latinos are important enough that they should be incorporated into the main sections of this newspaper, not marginalized in a supplemental insert. This approach could produce a backlash among other groups. Asian-Americans have the fastest rate of population growth in the area, and have a higher per capita income than Latinos. Why not a supplemental insert for them? What about white readers? Or African-Americans?”
The del Olmo archives tell only part of the story. In more than 30 interviews with current and former staff members of various backgrounds, as well as many longtime community leaders and newsroom-diversity advocates, a portrait of the Los Angeles Times emerges as an institution that remains incapable of adapting to the city’s changing faces. Year after year, the paper still feels like it’s manufactured for the recently arrived Anglo Westsider. Who wishes he were in New York.
Meanwhile, as editors and staffers busy themselves with memos and position papers, crucial chapters in the running novela of the city at its doorstep are left out. Take, for instance, last spring’s immigrant-rights march and rally at City Hall. The March 25 event is now credited as the largest demonstration in Los Angeles history and the spark for a wave of marches and rallies that brought millions of people to the streets across the country for several months. It was the start of a movement that permanently shifted the debate on immigration reform. Yet the L.A. Times, situated in the most immigrant of immigrant cities, appeared unprepared to effectively cover the march or grasp its historical significance. The top of its next-day story read like any other standard demonstration summary and was padded with material from the Associated Press. There were no sidebar profiles of the organizers or next-day analysis — standard packaging elements when a daily covers major events. It took the paper three days to complete a profile on one of the main architects of the march, top-rated radio personality Eddie “El Piolín” Sotelo, and weeks before the tone of the coverage adjusted once the editors understood how big the movement was becoming.
At times, it seems the paper uses the terms “Latino” and “mostly Latino” as signifiers of goodness and automatic moral fortitude, signaling the reader to feel sympathy or pity for the subjects. When a small feudal war was erupting at the South Central Farm between factions of what the paper called “mostly Latino” farmers and their Chicano activist leaders, the Times insisted on simplistically viewing the farm story as a plucky-brown-immigrants-versus-evil-Westside-developer narrative. It was as if the idea that immigrants could be divided and plot against one another was somehow inconceivable.
When recording artist and Mexican-American heartthrob Adan “Chalino” Sanchez was killed in a 2004 car accident in Sinaloa at the age of 19, some editors at the paper were stunned to hear that thousands of sobbing, hysterical teenage girls were staging impromptu vigils all over L.A. upon learning of his death. At the time, I was a general-assignment reporter on the Times Metro desk. The night Chalino died, an editor called me in a panic, asking if I knew who Sanchez was, and if I could run down to cover a brewing mob scene. I couldn’t help chuckling. Chalino portraits, T-shirts and CDs were always hot items on Broadway in downtown L.A., a block away from the L.A. Times headquarters.
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