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

<i>L.A. Weekly</i> Founder Jay Levin on the Vision That Started It All

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.

We mostly failed, partially succeeded.

Because in our mission we saw the Weekly as an education resource for the community, not merely as a newspaper, we sponsored heavily attended teach-ins examining the Reagan assault on Central America’s popular movements seeking to overthrow Banana Republic oligarchies and raise their people out of poverty and oppression. As Central American refugees poured into L.A., we relentlessly covered the Reagan brutality and the reality of the region. In my one sabbatical as editor, in 1984, I spent three months in Nicaragua, doing research during the early days of the Contra war, watching as each Friday the cabinet met and surrendered budget money intended for housing, education, economic development and food to the needs of stopping Reagan’s Contra army. This was just what the war was intended to do: create a failed, leftist government rather than a model of economic development. (The Israeli ambassador noted that the elected Sandinistas were no more socialist than Israel and, in fact, reminded him of the spirit of building a healthy, educated society that infused Israel in its early years. They reminded me of New York social workers I had known.)

Our most important regional story came earlier, shortly after the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps during Israel’s first invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Given that the press was finally paying attention to Western-inspired massacres in a Second World country, I thought it was a superb opportunity to hasten our investigation into massacres in El Salvador. The fine young journalist already on the story, Greg Goldin, agreed to step on the research pedal. The result was a profound cover story that detailed a dozen vicious massacres of peasant villagers in El Salvador in a two-year period, starting with a village in which 1,200 people, mostly women and children, were murdered, with babies bayoneted. The lead culprit was the El Salvador Altacal Brigade, which had been trained and secretly led by U.S. Special Forces troops. In short, just as in Vietnam, the massacres of peasant villages believed to be sympathetic to leftist rebels were in full force again under Reagan in Central America.

The story was seized on by Central America antiwar groups and played a small role in their lobbying of Congress, which eventually limited funds to El Salvador and cut off money entirely to the Contras (which led to Iran-Contragate and drug running by the Reagan White House, another story we billboarded). At one point in the massacre-story odyssey, the deputy to Reagan’s national security adviser lied to me that his boss had no knowledge of massacres in El Salvador. “I’ll get someone at the State Department to respond to ‘that bird’ in L.A.,” he told me. “That bird” was a reference to me. The man, who from his White House perch spoke this into my ear as if I didn’t exist, had the voice pitch and general vocabulary of a thug, an icon for the level of the Reagan people.

Those are the big memories, those and our sponsorship in 1989 of Remaking L.A., a conference in which we, in our community-education capacity, brought grassroots leaders from across the city to UCLA to articulate a community vision of the future of L.A. in contrast to the big-money, top-down, Realtor- and banker-influenced “plan” that had just been issued from Mayor Tom Bradley’s office — a mayor we gave much grief despite Bradley being a favorite of the Westside liberals, who were among our base audience. Journalist Harold Meyerson, whom we hired to organize the conference, then pulled together a cover story from the conference presentations, which still stands as a unique vision from the bottom-up of a remade L.A.

These stories stand out for their journalistic impact. Still, the stream that runs more quietly through my bones remains the privilege of being a revealer, and thereby a supporter, of the human creativity, wisdom and potential for positive change in L.A. and the world, as well as of the societal areas that needed compassionate attention. That, and the voluptuous gift of all the cool writers and staffers I got to be around.

Accordingly, I have no regrets for leaving, only satisfaction that, for a while, the Zeitgeist, the bigger forces, swept through us and allowed us to create a better model for others, imperfect as our Weekly was. Eventually, I left to bring the same vision to television, though I failed — or, more accurately, the industry that promised 500 digital channels in 1992 and didn’t deliver until 2006 had failed me. Now, I do some life-mastery teaching, and work on media projects that attract my attention, including LApoverty.org and until recently RealtalkLA.com, and I dream as the Obama era begins that the mass media may finally get it right, knowing that there’s zero chance it will, because collectively we are neither evolved nor empowered enough to insist on it as a first order of business, one as important as eating.