By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Over time, Hernandez has observed Latino staffers at the paper caught in a contradiction if they tried to tackle Latino stories — or went out of their way to avoid them. “You try to be mainstream, but that’s not good enough because you’re supposed to be ‘the Latino reporter.’ But if you try to cover the community, then you’re marginalized,” she says. “It’s sort of been, darned if you do, darned if you don’t.”
I navigated this minefield firsthand in my three years as a reporter there. Older Latino staffers would warn me against doing too many “Latino stories” because I might be pigeonholed. And when I approached a Latino story with a critical eye, Latino readers criticized and scolded me. The whole time, I felt the paper was holding on to a worldview that was clearly no longer relevant to the city.
The numbers show how absurd this is. L.A. County is a “minority-majority” region, where nearly 47 percent of the population is Latino and in 56 percent of households English is not the primary spoken language. Meanwhile, the L.A. Times editorial staff is 6.4 percent Latino, and 18 percent minority overall. Which means the paper’s staff is more than 80 percent Anglo. When the Tribune Co. first took over in 2000, the minority figure was slightly higher, at about 20 percent. Some current and former staffers say it’s unconscionable that the big local paper in a city as brown as Los Angeles is so white, particularly at management levels, where decisions on coverage and budgeting are made.
One former L.A. Timesstaff member says that during the period when the newsroom was led by editors Carroll and Baquet (who was Carroll’s managing editor before taking Carroll’s place), Page One meetings regularly featured only one female or one non-Anglo (in addition to Baquet, who is African-American). “I don’t know if it was that they didn’t care, I just think they weren’t aware of how important it is,” says the former staffer. “If we [Latinos] don’t see people in those positions of management, there’s a message. The message is either ‘Yes, there’s a possibility for you to move up.’ Or ‘No, there’s not.’ ”
Frank del Olmo died of a heart attack in the middle of the Timesnewsroom in February 2004. He was 55.
With del Olmo’s death, the Times lost its only high-level internal voice advocating for a broader and more relevant set of priorities at the city’s paper of record. His funeral was attended by some of the biggest names in L.A. media and civic life. An L.A. elementary school was recently named in his honor. A collection of his columns was published. “Frank understood where we were and what could be the future of the L.A. Times in Los Angeles,” Muñoz says.
Though del Olmo was a trusted adviser to former top Times editors Parks, Carroll and Shelby Coffey, he seemed to be permanently relegated to the periphery of power on Spring Street. Del Olmo publicly rebuked his own editorial page when the L.A. Times endorsed the re-election of immigrant-bashing Governor Pete Wilson in 1994, penning a commentary that cemented his position as the paper’s resident Latino dissident. When the paper was sold to Tribune in 2000, he wrote a column basically bidding good riddance to the Chandler family, the clan that founded and oversaw the paper for more than a century. He noted bitterly that the Chandlers’ L.A. Times helped fuel hysteria and rioting against Mexican-American zoot-suiters in 1943.
“Like many other Chicanos who grew up here, I’ve never considered the Chandler family, owners of the Los Angeles Times, to be the paragons of civic leadership that some other Angelenos do,” del Olmo wrote. “I know all too well the sometimes ugly history of their newspaper.”
In his role as a passionate advocate for newsroom diversity, he helped found the California Chicano News Media Association and pushed for the introduction of Latinos of every stripe into the news business. This is where many feel the L.A. Times most betrays his legacy. Del Olmo was also the primary force behind the paper’s adoption of the label “Latino” over “Hispanic.” It was a word he championed in his columns until his death, even as his paper’s own reporters were increasingly exposing how inadequate “Latino” was for L.A. In his Times obit, del Olmo was said to have “decried the use of ‘Hispanics’ to describe U.S. residents of Latin American extraction. ‘Ugly and imprecise,’ he proclaimed, calling the word ‘bureaucratese.’ ‘In all my years of living and working in Latino communities,’ he wrote in 1981, ‘I have never heard a Latino refer to himself as a Hispanic.’ ”
Ultimately, del Olmo’s legacy should be seen primarily as a product of his historical moment. His work flourished at a time when a state of perpetual protest seemed to be the defining characteristic of the Mexican-American intelligentsia. At a place as rigid and Anglocentric as the L.A. Times, he provided a consistent voice of opposition.