'This Is a Town Where . . .'

ONE OF L.A.'S PECULIAR PLEASURES IS WATCHING NEW YORK journalists cruise into town, spend a couple of days trawling for ironies, then grandly spoon out clichés about the city as if they were beluga caviar. In last Sunday's New York Times, hotshot reporter Alex Kuczynski did a piece on Hollywood's snooty reaction to the Robert Blake murder trial. Near the end, she was talking to Blake's lawyer Harland Braun and quoted his trenchant insight into L.A.: "This is a town where truth is fantasy, where you'll do anything to get a part, where you'll go to a restaurant where the food is lousy just because everyone else is going there."

Wow, Alex, great stuff. But are you sure he's not talking about New York?

Of course, I'd feel better mocking The New York Times' coverage of L.A. if our own major daily were doing its job. But too often the Los Angeles Times covers its hometown with all the street smarts of Neil Simon tourists just landed in New Delhi. Even as the paper was getting lambasted by some Jewish groups for being anti-Israel (what they actually mean is that it's not pro-Israel enough), it failed to cover the April 21 Israel Independence Day rally in Van Nuys that drew a crowd of 40,000, including turbo-campaigner Gray Davis and turbot-souled James Hahn, a man so invisible even Ralph Ellison couldn't see him.

While such an oversight might strike some as anti-Israeli bias, it's actually nothing more than the routine neglect that typifies the paper's local news coverage -- its real bias is against L.A. Nobody at the Times decided that the Israel rally shouldn't be covered because it didn't matter, let alone because such coverage violated secret orders from Chairman Arafat. Rather, the event most likely fell through the cracks of an editorial system that occasionally rouses itself to a clear sense of purpose -- as it did in the '92 riot and in the days after 9/11 -- but all too often seems merely haphazard.

Look how it treated the 10th anniversary of the riot (a perfectly honorable word, by the way, and more accurate than "uprising" or "rebellion"). A decade ago, the Times staff nabbed a Pulitzer for its full-court-press coverage of the turmoil, and I spent weeks expecting to be overwhelmed by the paper's D-Day-size attempt at a sequel -- juicy profiles of all the key players, brainy thumbsuckers about the future, a massive five-part series with a tone-deaf title like "Los Angeles: A City in Transition." After all, if there's any story the Times should own, it's this 10-year saga in which burning buildings produce the smoke of promises, the promises come to naught over years of lousy leadership (can you say Rebuild L.A. without snickering?), and lousy leadership culminates in loud calls for secession, ignoble racial politicking by the Invisible Mayor and the hackneyed perception that our city's slouching toward another day of the locust. Yes, for a daily with the Times' resources and desire to redeem its sense of lost mission, here was the chance to lay bare the very soul of L.A.

A cynic might cackle that the paper did just that, for its coverage was the newsprint equivalent of being lost for hours in a downtown parking garage. Even as national outlets from CNN to MTV geared up to cover the anniversary, the Times' various sections measured out their coverage in disconnected dribs and drabs: a lazy magazine piece about walking down Vermont Avenue's riot corridor, a workmanlike news feature on current black-Korean relations (could be better), an official chronology that left out how Police Chief Daryl Gates ignored the riot's beginning because he was partying at a Westside fund-raiser. Last Sunday, the moribund section ironically known as "Southern California Living" ran a collection of riot reminiscences that dragged on for pages and came fronted by (of all people) columnist Sandy Banks, whose piece had the weight and consistency of dryer lint. On the 10th anniversary proper, the front page merely offered the results of a poll -- rousingly headlined "A Decade Later, Residents More Upbeat" -- that resembled the sidebar for a mammoth piece that didn't appear. Indeed, the closest thing to a big vision came on Page 3 of Sunday's Op-Ed section, where Joel Kotkin proclaimed that L.A. is doing pretty doggone well (in The Wall Street Journal, he was celebrating the secession movement). Readers couldn't be blamed for asking, What happened to the paper's heavy hitters -- John "Papa" Balzar, David "High Life" Shaw, Ernesto Che Scheer, and Steve Lopez with the Hiaasenic complex? What happened to the governing editorial vision?

Perhaps editor in chief John Carroll and his East Coast posse are so new to L.A. that '92 means nothing to them; perhaps they're so new to First Street, they're still battling the inertia created by years of velvet coffining. Whatever the reason, the Times' coverage offered nothing remotely so memorable as watching Gates -- who's still hoping to win back his old post as law enforcement's Obergruppenfuehrer -- appear on CNN and insist that his LAPD was just like Rodney King. "The Los Angeles Police Department was beaten over and over and over again," he said with a grimness that let you know that he learned nothing from '92 -- he's still burning to reclaim the Sudetenland.

There's no vindictiveness at all in Reginald Denny, once the riot's most famous victim and now a mellow resident of Lake Havasu City (he jokingly calls his patch of crushed skull a "souvenir"). Talking to Today's Katie Couric in his beachcomber tones, the onetime trucker pondered his new life repairing outboard motors -- "I'm starting over, which is not a bad thing" -- and ruefully noted that the leaders who could change L.A. for the better "seem to be dragging their feet." I hadn't seen Denny since he'd hugged the mother of one of the young African-American men accused of trying to kill him, and I'd forgotten what a touching, strangely eloquent figure he can be. At one point Couric remarked that the people who had saved him from his attackers were also black, and Denny replied, "You know how the angels you see in pictures are always white? Well, these angels didn't come white. They came as people. Isn't that cool?"

GERMAN FOR BEGINNERS

There's a startling historical revelation in HBO's placidly inept new film, The Gathering Storm, which stars Albert Finney as a lovable Winston Churchill whose voice sounds like a bulldog gargling a ham. An idealistic Foreign Service officer is explaining Hitler's rise to his sweet-natured wife. "The Treaty of Versailles, it was far too punitive," he tells her solemnly. "It robbed the Germans of their self-esteem."

So that was their problem. I guess we should be grateful the Nazis weren't full of themselves. Otherwise they might have done some real damage.


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