L.A. Weekly Founder Jay Levin on the Vision That Started It All | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

L.A. Weekly Founder Jay Levin on the Vision That Started It All 

The journalist's dream

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008

Founder, president and editor 1978-1991 (president until 1992)

A confession: For my adult life I have lived in a dream world, where I imagine one day, miraculously, there will appear only the kind of journalism that would honor and support a people bent on ultimate human liberation, truth and justice, and infinite higher evolution.

In this dream, I turn on the TV and witness only the most penetrating, intelligent and truthful reporting. No public official ever gets away with lying. No positive sign of human progress ever goes unnoticed. No opportunity for compassionate smarts goes unbidden. No entrenched oppression, exploitation or class privilege goes unchallenged. No liberating irreverence is ever quashed. No great artist, leader or thinker ever goes ignored.

And thus is the world transformed, with mass media, and journalism in particular, showing the way rather than, as at present, constituting one of the core reactionary forces holding back human growth and progress.

The universe that dreamed this through me had a playground in the early days of the L.A. Weekly. Not that by any means we completely lived up to this ideal; the fun was pushing to get as close as we could. Occasionally, we got so close we floated in journalistic pig heaven.

When I, Joie Davidow, Michael Ventura, Ginger Varney, Bill Bentley and Big Boy Medlin first formed the core of the Weekly’s editorial staff, supported in the early days by Tracy Johnston and then Phil Tracy and a host of freelancers, the smog in L.A. was so bad that much of the year you could barely see the hookers on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue, steps from our original office in a converted two-story house. The official narrative on the smog, purveyed loyally by the then fairly wretched L.A. Times, was that it was automobile-induced, and nothing could be done about it here in what the Indians called the Valley of Smokes because the San Gabriel Mountains held stagnant air in place.

Since our very élan came partly from the notion that we would challenge all official stories, we jumped gleefully on this one. In our sphere was the superb South African writer Rian Malan, later to become famous after returning to his homeland. While Malan, whose interest was arts and culture, had never undertaken investigative journalism, he was so smart and incisive and such a keen bullshit detector that I brought him on staff and assigned him to investigate the South Coast Air Quality Management District, and, in particular, its relationship to the polluting industries in the L.A. region. He demurred, balked, professing not to be the right reporter and not knowing even how to start. I told him it was easier than he feared and that I would guide him every step of the way. Needing the money, complaining privately that I was a pushy Jew, he finally gave in, and I assigned some freelancers to comprise his team.

A few months later, we published the first of a two-issue compendium of articles on air pollution in the region, something around 40 pieces. Within hours after the paper hit the street, the chief of enforcement for the AQMD was fired. Malan and his team laid out a vivid, devastating case of a government institution completely corrupted by polluting local industries (not by the auto industry) and protected by political hacks and right-wingers at the board level. The L.A. Times came in for its share of blame for its atrocious nonjournalism (part of our fun was bashing it about almost all its coverage and noncoverage). Not long after, pushed by our articles, the California Legislature held hearings that mimicked our investigation and then rewrote air-quality regulations, some of which transformed how the AQMD board was selected, as well as it responsibilities.

From that point on, the AQMD got down to the business of cleaning up the air. If you think it’s bad now and didn’t live here in 1980, think of China now versus L.A. now.

Another keen memory: Our investigation of mass slaughter in El Salvador was for me possibly the most meaningful cover story of the 13 years I was editor in chief. The backstory was our commitment, mine and that of the remarkable writers Ventura and Varney in particular, to do our best not to let Vietnam happen in Central America, to act as a truth-telling source of information, which might help to mobilize the public sufficiently to prevent the genocide the U.S. had wrought in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (at least 2 million civilians murdered). And if genocide was transported to Central America, we sought to build the record in order to minimize “Good Germanism” among the U.S. public and to challenge the mainstream press, which had covered up (as it does to this day, and add Iraq to the list) the Southeast Asia mass slaughter, Seymour Hersh’s great reporting on the My Lai massacre notwithstanding.

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