Shark Patrol

Illustration by Shino Arihara

LATELY, WITH ALL THE SANCTIMONIOUS, WAR-JUSTIFYING dreck flowing out of the White House — the kind of talk absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco was doubtless referring to when he coined the phrase "cascades of caca" — I've been feeling newly grateful for media outlets that aren't afraid to voice the Ionescan point of view. I've always listened to Pacifica Radio in the morning with the blow dryer running and in the car between cell-phone calls; now, as we count down to war, it gets my undivided attention. KPFK, The Progressive magazine, In These Times and the L.A. Weekly itself — all have quickly emerged as a collectively small but crucial portal through which I can both breathe out anxiety and take in the oxygen of reasonableness and prudence that's been all but absent from Capitol Hill these last two years.

I'm not even talking about inhaling leftist air, which would be a luxury in anybody's administration. I'm talking about the oxygen of ordinary people of various persuasions who share significant and persistent qualms about the simultaneously imploding economy and exploding military buildup. It's not that mainstream outlets like The New York Times aren't expressing any qualms at all, but they're not expressing them with the force necessary to move them past the leonine paper of record's arcane (and, frankly, uncourageous) notion of objectivity and fairness. When they're not being baldly conservative, big media like to think of themselves as expansive and detached because they're always careful to quote people on both sides of an issue — think CNN's Crossfire — which maintains the dangerous illusion that all opinions are equally valid and worth considering. But the eternal distraction provided by so many opinions is exactly what we don't need right now; what we need is to know that we're sailing straight at an iceberg and that we might be dashed to pieces at any moment.

So I listen and read avidly about the height and breadth and depth of the iceberg, not only on officially anti-war KPFK and in the similarly inclined Progressive, but in the pages of this paper, a 25-year-old alternative that has survived wild demographic shifts and fluctuating political tastes to remain pretty much intact as an alternative. We rail against Bush with the best of them, sometimes with more elegance and humor than the subject deserves. In a deliberately muddled philosophical landscape, we still range clearly to the left. Given how mushrooming governmental transgressions encounter little editorial resistance at most papers, the Weekly is part of the solution, which is certainly not something all conscientious journalists can say these days about the places they work.

THERE ARE OTHER THINGS WRITERS CANNOT SAY about the places they work that I am going to say here, too, because the Weekly is still a place where you can say them. For some time there has been a philosophical disconnect between our parent company, Village Voice Media (VVM), and the editorial content of the papers it owns, which include the Village Voice as well as the L.A. Weekly: VVM has in recent years been sharpening its nose into that of a corporate shark. Last year, VVM vigorously opposed a union organizing drive in the advertising department here at the Weekly in the same way that corporations typically oppose such things (full disclosure: I was then, and still am, president of the union local). The difference, however, is that a corporation running alternative papers should watchdog other corporations, not mimic them. There's a certain idealism and maybe even a touch of willful naiveté bound up in such a belief, especially in the age of Rupert Murdoch and media conglomeration, but the role of alternative media — from the paper on up to the company boardroom — is just that: to seed idealism in the worst possible soil.

Last month, after weeks of being investigated for possibly violating federal antitrust laws by agreeing to shut down its Cleveland paper at the same time it bought and closed New Times Los Angeles, VVM agreed to a fee settlement in lieu of a trial. Nobody admitted guilt, but everybody paid to keep guilt at bay. The matter was resolved bloodlessly and blamelessly in a manner that corporations always prefer to resolve problems, if possible, before they puddle into public-relations messes. I was less relieved than chilled by the efficiency of the whole thing, and a little sorry that a source of lively underground debate among some fellow Weekly staffers who were also troubled by the New Times deal was suddenly gone. Part of the debate was why it had to be so underground, why management didn't appear to mind dissent so long as we kept it to ourselves and didn't challenge its regular assurances that the company was fine, spirits were in perfect health and the investigation mattered not at all.

 

None of this, however, was expressed in these pages while the antitrust investigation was in process (my colleague Harold Meyerson did publish an impassioned critique of VVM last year in the Weekly after the union campaign was lost, which gave me more consolation than I expected). I understand the awkwardness, and the precariousness, of criticizing your own employer, especially in a soft economy and a shrinking newspaper market in which writing jobs are scarce, and I would have understood, though not approved of, the Weekly saying nothing. But the troubling thing in the antitrust matter was not quite that we said nothing, but that we defended our management the few times we chose to acknowledge the matter at all. We claimed to have no opinion about the merits of the case and made a tyrant out of Tim Rutten, the Los Angeles Times media reporter who dogged the issue from day one. We loudly mounted the lesser-evil defense in accusing the Ashcroft Justice Department of targeting a relatively small concern like VVM for antitrust violations when Enron and Microsoft were getting off cheap, if not free. (This is deplorable and probably true, but if we're going to argue political persecution of the liberal media, it would behoove the liberal media to examine their own potential big-business hypocrisy.) Of course, our corporate malfeasance — assuming we did break antitrust laws — doesn't rise to the level of Enron's, nor does any wish we might harbor to dominate the L.A. market or contain union activity rise to the imperialistic arrogance of AOL Time Warner's. But such a comparison is guaranteed to get us off the point of whether our own house is in order, and whether the disorder undermines any or all of the pro-labor, anti-corporate, anti-establishment positions we continue to take. I am not prescribing that we fix the internal inconsistencies — that might not even be possible — so much as I am prescribing that we acknowledge that inconsistencies exist. Denial has taken on criminal proportions in government and at corporate giants like Enron. Our level of denial at the Weekly may only be unbecoming, but it feels criminal nonetheless.

I use we liberally, as I always do when referring simultaneously to community and my place in it. In my many delineations of black life in L.A. and in black culture everywhere I am frequently both observer and participant, critic and problem, condemner and the damned: Race is an obvious paradigm of community. The Weekly is a less obvious community, yet it's as critical because it is a community of words and notions in which I can create any paradigm at all. It is the chalk circle in which I can routinely scribble hosannas, doubts and misgivings about communities that might not ordinarily see or welcome them. It is more of a participatory democracy than is the country at large — and I'm talking the country historically, not just post-PATRIOT Act — a little piece of promised land that seems fitting to declare as such now, in the opening weeks of Black History Month.

As a Weekly citizen I can sound off about the VVM government because it is my ideological right that the alternative-media business and editorial model gave to me — gave to us — in the first place, in the days when the counterculture was years away from looping back on itself. I wish VVM had taken the ironies of its position more seriously, and that we, its people, had employed the power of our pen more self-critically on the topic of the antitrust case in the last month or so, but I am the first to say that I didn't exactly take that initiative myself. You know, too much to do — Christmas, post-holiday recuperation, enough racial and social-justice frays (the final resuscitation of the affirmative-action fight, for starters) to consume my community energy for at least the next year. But it's worth pausing to note the state of the union between the Weekly and me, because without us there's nothing. The upshot is that I will hold the VVM contradictions in my head for as long as it makes sense to, and continue to write my dispatches knowing that our largest editorial aims — heading a Bush-driven disaster off at the pass — are perfectly in sync. Like the alternative media that have become my lifeline, I am foolish enough to believe that I am charged with being something greater than a cog in the wheel, and if I do not assail the wheel I have not done my job or brought honor to my community. In the theater of the battle for spirit and sanity, the Weekly is in the foxhole with me. It's the wisdom of the higher command that, like any good soldier, I wonder about.


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