The Weekly was launched in 1978, but it was born of the Vietnam War. The cultural and political landscape had been polarized by Vietnam, and for boomer babies coming of age, the “enemy” was easy to identify: cops and the military, squares and rednecks, the political and financial establishments.
The journalism of the time tended to reflect the same extremes. The straight press continued to follow the signposts of the status quo, looking to government officials to point the way, while alternative journalism stood on the fringe and threw stones, galvanizing a generation that was alienated, angry and looking for someone to blame.
Even as the Weekly began publishing, all of that started to change. The Washington establishment began backing off the gross excesses of imperialist foreign policy — or at least attempted to better conceal them. On the domestic front, the government took as its charge the mission of reversing economic inequity and racial disadvantage. In California, Jerry Brown brought with him the priorities of social action to the statehouse. Soon the imperatives of the protest years evolved into the thorny dilemmas of policy: Sure, schools should be desegregated, but how? Was busing an idea to fight for, or flee from? A smog agency had been established, funded and empowered: Was it to be hailed or censured? What about redevelopment? What about crime?
Of course, there remained key issues that tended to cleave along the old ideological lines. The U.S. war in Central America, fought through surrogates in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, brought Southeast Asia quickly to mind. And the toxic boondoggle that was nuclear power brought out the old-style hubris of the establishment, as well as a new-style activism. These were natural stories for the Weekly, and we covered them with enthusiasm.
But in the main, and especially in Los Angeles, the lines became muddied, and slowly, the reporting in the Weekly came to reflect these ambiguities. Editors began looking for nuance, and writers for new strategies to define their vision. Former LAPD Officer Mike Ruppert explored the menace that crack cocaine represented even as he challenged the government’s punitive response. Rubén Martínez looked at race from several new directions. Mike Davis turned standard assumptions about progress and development upside down.
At the same time, the establishment press — the Times, of course, but also the national magazines, television and even film — began to give up the comfortable but remote sureties of mainstream culture. Sometimes following the lead of the alternatives, they did the obvious — reviewing rock music, reporting on police abuse — and occasionally even more, stretching the boundaries of storytelling, digging into the affairs of the city’s elite, paying attention to the struggles of everyday life.
As the culture changed, as the media changed, the role of the alternatives became more ambiguous as well. In newsrooms across the country and at workshops and annual conferences, writers and editors began to ask what it was that made them so “alternative” anyway. At some papers, that has meant a more narrow focus on entertainment and “lifestyle”; at the Weekly, it’s meant more reporting and more coverage of the stories that set us apart. These are not usually the sorts of articles that win popularity contests, but we hope they resonate with ä readers who are looking for something that challenges the assumptions of the status quo. Sometimes it’s simply a question of filling the gaps left by the dailies — the Weekly focused for years on the breakdown of leadership at the MTA, moving off the story only as consensus built that the agency was in trouble. More often, it’s a matter of attitude: Like the rest of the city’s media, we cover the institutions that shape L.A. — the police, the school district, the smog board, local government — but more critically, with an eye not just to what actually happened but to what should happen.
Of course, there remain occasional stories that the dominant press simply cannot bring itself to handle — the contra-crack connection, for example, or almost anything to do with labor — and there we operate in the clear, drawing attention to people and politics that would otherwise never see the light of day.
In the end, regardless of the political or social stakes involved in a particular story, we are journalists — freed of the restraints and imperatives of the corporate press, but journalists nonetheless — and that simplifies the sometimes vexing question of our role. We operate from the conviction that the history of our city and our times is a compelling saga, one told best accurately and in detail. Should the changing politics of the culture leave us adrift at times, we are able to fall back on one of the maxims of our trade: As V.I. Lenin put it, “Be as radical as reality.”
What follows is by no means complete, but a smattering of excerpts from stories that mattered.
In “L.A.’s Smog Control Agency: Who’s in Control?” (October 17, 1980), Rian Malan questioned for the first time whether the agencies in charge of our air had any real commitment to cleaning it up.
The [Air Quality Management] District openly acknowledges that it doesn’t want an adversarial relationship with industry, and that its rules reflect a consensus forged at the workshops. “The Clean Air Act doesn’t say we should achieve clean air regardless of the cost,” says Jeb Stuart, the retired Air Force colonel who heads the regional district. “We want to inhibit industrial growth as little as possible without relinquishing our goals.”
Stuart’s hands cut the air as he strives to make his point. “Let’s say it’s possible to achieve this level of control,” he says, holding one hand high above the other. “We don’t come in at the bottom. We come in here” — and he indicates a point two-thirds of the way between the two extremes. Stuart repeatedly stresses that there are no easy solutions and that sound air quality is a question of degree and balance. Beyond that, Stuart argues that to be more adamant with industry would only invite lawsuits which would, inevitably, slow down the enforcement process.
Stuart is, in a sense, quite correct; it is impossible to totally eradicate industrial air pollution without doing mortal damage to the regional economy. But the critics both in and out of the agency argue that the District’s aim should surely be to push industry to the very brink at which smog abatement programs become a truly serious economic threat. The District often yields to industry intimidation short of that point.
In his prophetic “Message to White L.A. From South Central” (March 27, 1981), Isaac Richard alerted readers to black L.A.’s distrust of the LAPD.
I especially don’t trust Daryl Gates, the chief of police. He looks so pious on television talking about the crime wave and how he’s working so hard to stop it. If people only knew how the cops act in my community. In the white community they may protect and serve, but over here they simply subject and observe. They behave as if they are in a war and the entire ghetto is their battleground. No matter if you’re a hard-working, tax-paying citizen; if you’re black in South-Central, you can expect bitter treatment from the LAPD. I know of one lady who lives five houses from the 77th Street Division. Some gangbanging types had chosen her driveway as a place to shoot dice; when she told them to move on, they threatened her with violence. She then sent her 12-year-old grandson through the back door to the police station. The boy came back minutes later with the message that the desk sergeant had refused to send any officers and had suggested that the boy learn to fight. L.A.’s finest strike again.
In “Don’t Read This Article” (May 1, 1981), a reporter who went simply by “M” reported on the exhilarating — and terrifying — new freebase cocaine.
With freebase you can have a new orgasmlike swish every five minutes — for hours, days, weeks. Perhaps heroin never became popular in the hip culture because it’s such a hassle to jab a hole in your arm. Freebase is easier. You just smoke it. When you snort a line of coke in your nose, the powder dissolves into several square inches of mucus membrane. When you smoke base, the smoke hits several square feet of membrane in your lungs. And the rush increases accordingly. You go from zero to 10 in just a couple seconds instead of the slow, steady rise of snorting, and that’s where the most insidious nature of the drug comes into play. The high is wonderful, but it’s that incredible rush from zero to 10 that really gets you off. One short minute later you’re down to nine. Five minutes later you’re down to eight or seven and you feel like another hit. If you take one ä you’ll make it back up to 10, but the rush will only be from seven. You’ll get the high, but you’ll end up vaguely unsatisfied: The hit wasn’t quite as overpowering as the first. Maybe you need one more.
No two people make freebase the same way, and every method of preparation produces a unique high. That’s another excuse for continuing the habit. You may have had it prepared with baking soda, boiling water and ice cubes. But have you tried it with ammonia, distilled water and two rinses? . . .
So you try freebase again and again until it’s all gone. Which means, if you’ve only got half a gram and no more money, you’re going to have to stop until your next paycheck.
In “Cops and Punks: Report from the War Zone on the Destruction of a Subculture” (October 21, 1983), Patrick McCartney, with Bob Rivkin, documented police intolerance of the punk movement.
Episode number one happened this way. A torrent of kids streamed down the rickety back stairs of Mendiola’s in Huntington Park — something was happening inside. Mary Lou wanted to photograph the exciting punks for her project on L.A. teenage society, but at that moment a number of punks rounded the north corner of the building, running straight at us. We move behind a guardrail, which served to part the crowd and gave us a sense of protection.
Behind the fleeing punks followed four or five officers, nightsticks held high. They fanned out as they rounded the corner. The kids broke and ran; Mary Lou and I stood still. When the police were 15 feet away, Mary Lou took a photograph, the flash briefly lighting the green uniforms and young, mustachioed faces of the cops.
One officer rushed directly toward us. Mary Lou, in her early 40s, the mother of three teenage daughters, started a no-nonsense explanation. “Officer, there’s no problem. We’re photojournalists here to cover a story about teenagers.” Too late, we realized the officer was after us. As we turned away, he leapt the guardrail and struck Mary Lou in the ribs with his stick. A second later he hit me too.
We staggered away. Mary Lou held her side and told me she was hurt, “really hurt.” As we walked away, a policeman stuck his baton in my back and kept pushing. A kid with blood streaming from his head approached. “Where can I get emergency medical treatment?” he asked the officer, his voice slightly hysterical. “Anywhere but here,” the cop told him. “Get the fuck out of here.” (Later I would learn “Get the fuck out of here” was what the nice cops said.) Behind us, in the parking lot, I saw policemen in twos and threes pursue kids, catch them and beat them with their sticks.
One kid, seeking two older persons, fell to his knees in front of Mary Lou and me and stretched a bloody hand toward us. “Why are they doing this to us?” he sobbed.
We reached my car and left. Instead of the early evening I’d anticipated, I waited at the hospital until 4:30 the next morning. By then doctors had X-rayed Mary Lou’s broken rib, taped it up and given her something for the pain.
After dropping her off, I listened for news. KNX radio ran the police version. “Punks went on a rampage in Huntington Park . . . $25,000 damage . . . Police called to quell the disturbance.”
In “The Hammer Tapes” (August 7, 1987), Mark Ryavec reported on FBI tapes in which an in formant suggested that oil man Armand Hammer had paid him to infiltrate a group opposed to drilling in the Pacific Palisades.
The tapes, recorded by the FBI in March and April of 1979, feature two agents identified only as “Johnson” and “McNally” questioning Herbert Itkin in the FBI’s local office. Saying that he came “to clear up any questions,” Itkin details in a soft New Jersey accent how Hammer allegedly hired him the previous April during a meeting in [Occidental Petroleum’s] Westwood headquarters. Itkin says his first job was to determine the membership of No Oil, since a local court had just ruled against Oxy’s request for disclosure of the membership roster. According to Itkin, Hammer claimed the information was necessary because the Oxy office had recently been vandalized and he wanted to see if there was a tie between No Oil and the Jewish Defense League, which was critical of him for reasons other than the oil project.
To that end (and at Occidental’s expense), Itkin said, he set up his English girlfriend and future wife Sandra Downs in the luxurious Edgewater Apartments in the Palisades. Oxy also allegedly paid to have the apartment furnished, to rent ä a car for Downs and to buy her a fake diamond ring — all to convince No Oil members that she was a wealthy widow who had moved from her native England after having been involved in stopping a proposed North Sea oil pipeline project.
The ruse worked, Itkin said. Though it took her two months to overcome the suspicions of No Oil leaders, said Itkin, Downs infiltrated the organization’s inner circle and got the membership list for Hammer. “The peculiar thing about it was there was no insidiousness on [No Oil’s] part,” Itkin told the FBI agents . . . They really were people from the Palisades who had banded together . . . They had argued against divulging names only because they wanted their own privacy.”
Itkin goes on to tell how Hammer then allegedly told him to keep Downs on the case “because we’re going ahead [with the drilling application], and I’d like to know if they plan anything in the future . . . Let’s keep it going.” According to Itkin, Downs was “to find out strategy . . . to see what politicians were visiting them [and] to see where they got their power.” Downs stayed undercover for Hammer until September 1978, when she abruptly dropped out of sight. The infiltration effort cost Hammer a total of $40,000, Itkin said.
Neither Itkin nor Downs could be reached for comment; neither has surfaced publicly since 1985, when they lived in Playa del Rey. But No Oil board member Nancy Markel confirms details of Itkin’s infiltration story. “It did happen that way,” she says. “She approached us saying she had just moved into the neighborhood, was very concerned about the drilling plan, and had time and money to volunteer. There was something peculiar about her story, but she worked on different people and eventually was invited by them to closed board meetings where critical strategy was planned. Then she just disappeared.”
In “The Master Biller” (April 8, 1994), Ron Curran examined the business practices of L.A. subway baron Ron Tutor.
Ron Tutor was born and raised in Los Angeles, but he comes off more like the stereotypical old-boy Chicago concrete baron. At least one major Chicago contractor, however, says business doesn’t have to be done Tutor style. And Wes Brazas Jr. found out the hard way — firsthand.
Brazas is a project engineer for a contracting and construction company that worked on the recently completed $1 billion expansion of O’Hare Airport. Back in 1992, Parsons-Dillingham hired Brazas to come to L.A. and help with various matters pertaining to the subway construction. Brazas agreed, only to return to Chicago almost immediately after starting work.
“I lasted three days before I saw enough to tell me to get out of there,” says Brazas. “He wanted me to handle construction claims, but the first one he gave me involved a contract overrun on which Tutor had more than doubled the original cost to the client. I checked around and was told that this would be the norm with Tutor. I helped bring the O’Hare expansion in at the promised cost, on time, delivering the promised goods and services. But the prevailing attitude with these Tutor types is that you have to expect to end up paying more for a late project in which you get an inferior product. That simply doesn’t have to be the case.”
Charges of financial sleight of hand have dogged Tutor on projects throughout the state. Caltrans once hired Tutor to help build a highway near Eureka, a project for which he ended up billing the agency $78 million. Caltrans ruled that $17 million of those costs were “fallacious and, in fact, inflated in the magnitude of approximately 700 percent.”
Controversy has also followed Tutor’s activities away from the job sites. In 1992, when he served as co-chairman of the regional carpenters’ pension fund, eight Southern California locals accused Tutor of having persuaded the fund to invest $40 million in Southdown Inc., a Houston concrete company. The problem was, Southdown supplies nearly all the concrete for Tutor’s L.A. projects. (However, Labor Department regulations only prohibit pension-fund trustees from steering investments to companies in which they have a direct financial interest.) The investment quickly declined in value by 31 percent, costing the fund $12.5 million.
In “Scrambled City” (December 16, 1994), Harold Meyerson examined the polarization produced by the anti-immigrant Proposition 187.
This is Los Angeles, as scrambled by Pete Wilson.
The map divides L.A. into those council districts that voted for Proposition 187 and those that voted against, and it’s an alignment the likes of which L.A. has never known. Eight districts voted against 187 — an Eastside-Westside alliance running from Venice and the Palisades to El Sereno and Boyle Heights. Seven districts ä voted for 187: four, predictably in the San Fernando Valley; Rudy Svornich’s harbor-area district; and the two core districts of the African-American community: Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Eighth District and Rita Walters’ Ninth. On this most polarizing of issues, South-Central finds itself on the same side as the Valley — and the city finds its politics turned rudely upside down.
In “The Roots of Reaction” (March 3, 1995), Sam Gideon Anson examined the motivations of the men who drafted the anti-affirmative-action initiative, Proposition 209.
Left unchallenged in all of this are the motives of these anti-affirmative-action crusaders and the methods by which they plan to turn their discontent into a ballot-box victory. Thomas Wood and Glynn Custred did not arrive in the vanguard of the affirmative-action debate out of the clear blue of ivory-tower academia; they each bring to their campaign particular axes to grind, personal and political. And their campaign, managed by a leading GOP political consultant and backed by some of the state’s leading conservative activists, bears the markings more of a high-powered political play than a shoestring, grassroots operation.
Innocence, good citizenship, pure political virtue: They made for great story elements in Frank Capra’s classic political morality play Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Whether they have any relevance in the visceral and volatile arena of racial politics is a question that has gone largely unanswered.
In “The Learning Cure” (November 14, 1997), Sara Catania examined a series of children’s textbooks written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that the state of California was considering for inclusion on a list of approved supplemental texts.
Many pages in the book are devoted to listing and illustrating the symptoms children will suffer when they don’t “clear up” words. Children who don’t follow the proper procedure could end up feeling “squashed,” “bent,” “blank” or “not there.”
“As simple as it seems,” goes a note to parents and teachers in several of the volumes, “many of the tribulations in children’s lives can often be traced back to words they have not understood in their reading materials or in life.” In fact, Hubbard claimed proper application of study technology should eliminate learning disabilities and attention-deficit disorders, which he did not consider real. Students with these disorders “are failing to learn because no one has ever taught them how to learn,” according to Rena Weinberg. No one has taught them “how to identify the barriers to learning and how to overcome these barriers.”
In “Feeding Frenzy” (March 6, 1998), Howard Blume exposed the team of consultants responsible for creating the state’s most expensive high school, Belmont High, near downtown Los Angeles.
Between the fits and starts of El Niño’s downpours, concrete and steel are rising at the corner of Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue, but a project once described as a Cadillac will almost certainly look more like a Pontiac with manual windows — except in terms of the $200 million price tag. The affordable housing has been scrapped, at least for now, and even a scaled-back shopping center appears iffy. Also in doubt are such promised features as a pool and lights for the athletic fields.
From the start, the Belmont complex was overly ambitious, all at once attempting a kitchen sink full of untried approaches. But it also became the feeding ground for a district-subsidized brain trust — some of them with troubling conflicts of interest — who answered mainly to [Dominic] Shambra and were rarely accountable to anyone. This clique of outside consultants, attorneys and financial analysts became consumed with the idea of pursuing retail development at Belmont, an emphasis that directly benefited project developers and the consultants themselves, while it delayed construction of badly needed classrooms, jeopardized state funding and drove up costs. In the shark-infested waters of real estate speculation, Belmont triggered a feeding frenzy, one that left the needs of students high and dry.