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Still, some former colleagues regarded him as ethnocentric, agenda-driven and consumed by identity politics.
“They came of age in the late 1960s. Alternative viewpoints were dismissed or disparaged, not publicly but privately,” says a former staffer who asked not to be named. “There were some Latinos who never quite got included in the ‘Brown Brotherhood,’ who chose for whatever reason to avoid identity politics in the newsroom.”
Another former Times reporter, Jesse Katz, who is now a staff writer at Los Angelesmagazine, says there was “hostility” directed at him from del Olmo and other Latinos in the Times newsroom for the raw, street-level reporting he did on the cockfighting subculture among immigrants in South-Central.
Katz, who is from Oregon, says that after arriving in Los Angeles, he became convinced that the city was “the greatest story of our time.” He married a Nicaraguan immigrant and soon learned Spanish. “I remember driving around Western and Vermont and Pico and Olympic in ’86 and just being blown away,” Katz says. “That’s what I wanted to cover.”
But doing so was never easy in the politicized L.A. Times newsroom, Katz and others say. Some Latino staffers resented a “white guy” reporting on aspects of Latino life, although recent Latin American immigrant life would have been as foreign to third-generation Mexican-Americans as to a reporter from Oregon named Katz. “Some of the stories that I did,” he says, “dealt with harsher themes, darker themes, and perhaps shined a light in areas that weren’t the version of the Latino experience that the Latino Initiative wanted to present.”
Much of the Times’ most comprehensive coverage of immigrant and Latino affairs is currently produced by non-Latino reporters like Anna Gorman and Jennifer Delson. Is their work less legitimate because their bylines don’t have Spanish surnames? What about Latino journalists who don’t have Spanish surnames?
“The issue has to go beyond that certain kind of ethnocentric view of things, and you’ve got to get everybody onboard,” Katz says. “You could have Latinos on your staff who aren’t culturally or linguistically fluent. They count toward numbers in terms of hiring goals, but they may be really ill-equipped to tell the stories of Vicente Fernandez or underground cockfights in South-Central.”
Cleeland says another solution may be to move away from an ethnic focus on local coverage to a class focus, by recognizing that Los Angeles “is a working-class town” and writing stories that directly address working-class people and new immigrants. So-called “Latino coverage” would naturally spring from that.
“I look at La Opinión and I see stories every day in there that I think we should be writing. Our immigration coverage has a real outsider feel,” she says. “It’s sort of like written for people who don’t know anything about it, as opposed to people who are living it and want information that is going to affect their lives.”
The point gets to the heart of the matter. The paper feels as though it’s written about L.A. and not for it. Which is a shame. There are now countless Southern Californians who understand L.A. — whether by osmosis or by marriage — through the prism of its Latino texture. Everyone here interfaces daily with Latinos, speaks some form of Spanish, and knows Mexican culture and cuisine. In effect, everyone in L.A. is Latino. Does your morning paper feel like it’s at all cognizant of this?
Current and former staffers say that the Latino communities in Los Angeles want what everyone else in the city wants: quality local coverage of the issues, people and events that affect their lives. In a post-border, globalized info-economy world, this means accepting and addressing L.A.’s transnational future, says Metro reporter Sam Quiñones.
“I see [the paper] very, very willing to hire qualified Latino Spanish speakers, but more than anything, I think what the paper lacks is not people who speak Spanish but people who are intimately acquainted with the culture of the countries of where these immigrants come from — the three being Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador,” Quiñones says. “If you don’t understand the back-and-forth, the intense influence that this area has on little villages all across Mexico, and how what goes on in Mexico can have deep ramifications up here, then you’re kind of lost.”
“This is really the truth. If we do not figure out a way to get deeper into the Latino community, both in the staff and in our coverage, we’re not going to grow,” managing editor Leo Wolinsky tells me. “We have an obligation to do that.”
He says so, but there’s been virtually no activity on this issue inside Wolinsky’s newsroom recently. Sources inside the paper say that Latino coverage and hiring have not been a focus of the so-called Spring Street Project, a new committee charged with searching — quickly — for ways to expand the paper’s readership. In an open electronic file where staffers can submit new ideas on how to re-engage readers, there are few ideas on reaching more Latinos — in reportedly hundreds of messages sent in. Wolinsky himself admits that the Latino question did not come up in a brainstorming retreat earlier this year attended by top editors.