LAST HALLOWEEN IN THE Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach, where neighbors put on a lavish fright fest each year, three young women left a haunted house and found themselves caught in a street brawl with a crowd of teenagers. By melee’s end, one woman’s face was fractured in 12 spots, her teeth were broken and she’d suffered partial loss of sight in one eye. Two of the women suffered brain concussions and assorted broken bones after being kicked, punched and even struck by a skateboard wielded as a weapon.
The story broke on November 3, when local Web site editor William Pearl scooped other media on LBReport.com, quoting Long Beach police spokeswoman Jacqueline Bezart as saying a crowd of black attackers hurled racial taunts (“White bitches!” “We hate whites!”) at the young women, and the police were pursuing it as a hate crime.
At the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, reporter Tracy Manzer quickly landed an exclusive interview with the victims, introducing awkward issues of race and culture rarely seen in California media. Said one victim, identified as Laura: “They asked us, ‘Are you down with it?’ We had no idea what that meant so we didn’t say anything and just walked by them up to the haunted house. They were grabbing their crotches — we didn’t know if it was a gang thing or what.”
Suddenly, newspaper editors, TV-news directors and other media faced an unsettling prospect of their own: If white-on-black hate crime is covered with an apologetic tone and references to the legacy of slavery, what’s the tone for covering black-on-white hate crime? Can a minority be a racist? And how can we, the media, get out of this?
As the Press-Telegram reported on November 3, three white women aged 19 to 21 emerged from a “maze” walk in a house and were confronted by up to 40 black teenagers who pelted them with pumpkins and lemons. The paper said, “The taunts and jeers grew more aggressive, the victims recalled, as did the size of the crowd. Now females joined in, and everyone began saying, ‘We hate white people, f— whites!’ ”
The bizarre case, now in its fifth week of trial, resulted in hate-crime charges against nine girls and three boys, two of whom will be tried later. Yet the story didn’t run in the Los Angeles Times until November 7, buried inside local news. In that piece, writer J. Michael Kennedy quoted the Press-Telegram’s interview with the victims, watering down the racist language to the vague and more acceptable phrase “a series of antiwhite epithets.”
While some media tiptoed around the story, another outlook was emerging as the fast-tracked trial — required in youth cases — hurtled toward its late-November start date. Well-known black political columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who has explored both sides of the story in a levelheaded manner, was quoted by City News Service as noting that the latest FBI hate-crimes report showed that blacks now commit more than 20 percent of the hate crimes, the majority of victims white.
BUT JOURNALISTS WERE IN unfamiliar waters covering what was, in essence, a “man-bites-dog story.” By late November, nearly a month after the beatings, the only national media reporting the case were Associated Press and UPI, despite extensive coverage in the Press-Telegram. That paper’s executive editor, Rich Archbold, declared to the Weekly, “We cover Long Beach better than everybody. We got onto it. There’s so much more to be done — the paper can take a bigger role.”
From the start of the trial, Press-Telegram reporter Tracy Manzer has offered a detailed picture of the courtroom, the families and the shackled teens in juvie-gray sweatshirts. She has veered into touchy racial territory, telling readers about Karl Rowe, a defendant’s uncle and a fixture at the trial. In a self-published pamphlet, Rowe declared that “ ‘n—-r’ for the N word is different from ‘n—a,’ ” insisting that the district attorney didn’t understand that words like “nigga” and “white bitches” are acceptable in some urban enclaves.
But the racial controversies simmering just below the surface didn’t hit national airwaves until November 29. That day, on National Public Radio’s News & Notes, a show touting an “African-American perspective,” Farai Chideya asked three prominent black guests whether, in fact, blacks can be blamed for hate crimes at all.
Said Chideya: “. . . some people say black folks cannot be racist because the root of the issue is power. So what do you make of this crime where you’ve got 12- to 17-year-olds and, you know, black people attacking whites? Is this a traditional hate crime? Should it be prosecuted as such? People in the community are kind of divided about that.”
Incredibly, Chideya’s show was the first mention of the unusual hate-crime case by national broadcast media — this, in a nation of 24/7 news cycles where hot topics like cats stuck in chimneys feed the electronic media maw.
Judy Muller, veteran TV broadcaster now at the USC school of journalism, toldthe Weekly: “To get national attention now, I think the bar has been raised.” If a crime seems to echo another notorious crime, such as the torture of Abner Louima by New York City police, Muller says, “then the national news might be interested. But a case with juveniles? You can’t show them, so that’s too hard, and TV doesn’t like hard stories.” The Press-Telegram’s Archbold noted, “There would be more national coverage if someone had died.”
Soon after Chideya’s report, the Times sent its sixth reporter to cover the story — its constant rotation of writers a hint that the paper had assigned the issue a low-priority. That reporter, Joe Mozingo, published a jarring — some say biased — juxtaposition of facts by identifying one of the victims of the violent attack — who had begged the court for anonymity — while granting one of the defense lawyers anonymity in the same story.
By naming the victim against her wishes, Mozingo arguably followed a Times policy of identifying all individuals aged 18 or over in criminal cases. However, the Times has touted another policy in the wake of media scandals, to keep self-serving anonymous quotes out of the paper. Yet Mozingo let an unnamed defense attorney brag he’d “impeach how the police handled the identifications.”
The Press-Telegram’s recounting of the same courtroom day was so different — filled with extensive detail about eyewitnesses’ descriptions of the clothing, jewelry and hairstyles of victims and defendants alike — that black activist Najee Ali and conservative KFI radio talk-show host John Ziegler, though strange bedfellows, publicly derided the differing accounts, with Ziegler saying, “It’s as if they were at two different places.”
Then, in an opinion piece on December 3, Times senior editorial writer Michael McGough floated an argument critics said reflected the Times’ shading of news-side race stories. In the op-ed, he wrote that hate-crime laws “could end up punishing blacks who commit violence against whites — which is a far cry from the historical experience that inspired hate-crime statutes.”
The piece prompted a fiery response by David Mills, a black former Washington Post reporter turned Emmy-winning screenwriter. In a letter to the popular Romenesko media blog, the Glendale-based Mills wrote: “You don’t have to be a card-carrying Klansman to point out that the L.A. Times surely would be treating this story differently if three black women had been attacked by 30 white teenagers hurling words like ‘F— black people.’ ”
Mills was also aghast that Times editors buried a vivid story a day after newspapers in 20 states, Canada, the U.K. and Australia published a wire-story account of how reputed gang members rammed and ruined the car of a black woman, Kiana Alford, who testified that she saw a crowd of black youths attack, kick and beat the white women without provocation on Halloween.
Yet when Gary Spiecker, deputy editor of the Times’ Sunday opinion section, invited Mills to submit an “Outside the Tent” op-ed critical of the Times, Mills declined, later explaining in an e-mail to me, “I’d rather see the Times deal with this ‘inside the tent.’?” (Asked bythe Weekly whether the Times’ coverage has been timid, Gale Holland, courts and law-enforcement editor, declined to comment and sent the Weekly a list of many pieces the Times has published on the case.)
THE TIMES WAS HARDLY the only media outfit to give the story also-ran status. Despite the juicy trial, Los Angeles TV stations — quick to go tabloid on unusual crime stories — didn’t even send news vans to Long Beach. The noncoverage prompted Darleene Barrientos Powells, online news producer at KCBS-2, to complain on her blog about “the deafening silence” of L.A. TV stations.
For their part, KTLA 5 and KTTV 11 avoided the trial, yet managed to send teams to cover a feel-good community meeting for “unity.” Val Zavala, executive producer of KCET’s Life & Times, told the Weekly that her station also hasn’t covered the case because most stories at KCET must be shot in one day and must remain fresh for second airings.
As to the trial winding down in Long Beach, in which the prosecution has rested its case, she’s “looking for an opportunity to do it, but I have to think, how long will it be viable? When would be a good time for us to step in?”
In the trial’s fourth week, on December 20, Times reporter Louis Sahagun finally published a tantalizing peek at some of the more troubling racial currents. He quoted Richard Love, black publisher of the tiny Long Beach Times, who claimed the white women had caused their own vicious beatings by starting a fracas. Sahagun quoted black activist Ali, head of Project Islamic HOPE, who voiced support for the white victims.
Ali later told the Weekly he organized a “Walk Against Hate” because the victims got such short shrift from the community — and from Los Angeles journalists. “If a mob of angry whites had attacked and beaten a group of young black women yelling racial slurs, Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters and other black groups would have stormed the barricades and demanded justice for the victims,” Ali said, adding, “A crime is a crime and should be prosecuted according to the seriousness of it, not by someone’s race or gender. But it’s clear to me that this was a racially motivated attack against whites.”
Ali wasn’t the only black leader disturbed by the media coverage. In a December 13 column on Huffington Post, Ofari Hutchinson asked why the usual media attention was lacking, and why angry civil rights leaders who abhor hate crimes were so subdued.
Then, a few days later, Judge Gibson Lee dropped a legal bombshell, barring admission of DNA evidence found on a black defendant’s jeans, reportedly arguing that he wanted to save courtroom time. At that point, the Times finally published a highly detailed piece about the trial, with Mozingo citing several inconsistencies, such as how a victim’s cell phone could have ended up in a suspect’s car if the women had not been overtaken by the raging crowd. (A defendant claims it was found abandoned.)
Mozingo wouldn’t comment on his December 19 piece, but he must have won an argument with his editors. The verboten phrase “white bitches” finally appeared in Times coverage seven weeks after the incident. (That story has vanished from the Times Web site. Conspiracy theorists might say the Times is sanitizing the news; a more likely explanation is that the story identified accused teens who turned 18 in custody, creating a murky situation about whether their IDs should still be protected.)
As the media struggled to find the right tone, Arthel Neville, West Coast correspondent for Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera Show, aired a segment on the intimidation of the 18-year-old female witness whose car was totaled by possible gang members. Neville’s piece starkly illustrated how little protection the police were capable of providing to the witnesses. It was so disturbing that it apparently scared off a key eyewitness, Marice Huff, a black man dubbed a Good Samaritan for stopping his car to break up the angry black crowd on Halloween. Huff, fearing for his family’s safety, had moved into a hotel, and told the district attorney he no longer wanted to identify the attackers.
While rumors abound around the courtroom that hardcore gang members are intimidating the eyewitnesses, the media have yet to do serious legwork on that angle. Yet, as if on cue, a film is opening in Los Angeles this week starring Hilary Swank and based on a real-life Long Beach teacher and her students’ efforts to escape gangs.
The trailer’s voice-over for Freedom Writers recites the conventional media wisdom: “In Long Beach, it all comes down to what you look like. It’s all about color. If you are Latino or Asian or black, you can get blasted anytime you walk out your door.”
Sadly, anyone can get blasted or beaten — and it’s still all about color.
Kate Coe blogs at mediabistro.com/FishbowlLA.