MAILANDER’S LA - A recent Reuters/Oxford study of journalism in three countries--England, Holland, and Spain--indicated most of all that the expectation of readers of newspapers and online news sites is that journalists perform a watchdog role. The closer the media are to the power, the more readers distrust media--whether they are good at distancing themselves from powerful figures or not.
As the last thing Los Angeles needs is a less-trustworthy media, we would do well to heed the warning of the study.
We could apply this locally and find, I believe, why political news has come to matter so little to the people of Los Angeles in recent years. Most citizens would be hard-pressed to recall a single interview with the outgoing Mayor in which the journalist wasn't riding shotgun with him. The softballs most print and broadcast and para-academics served up the two mayoral candidates in our recent election were mostly completely unchallenging, a willful surrendering of agency to the Mayor-to-be even before the term has started.
Meanwhile, the great "watchdog" stories of recent times have involved locales like Maywood, Huntington Park, and Bell--places many Angelenos have never even been to and would have a hard time locating with confidence on an unlabeled map. The ethical lapses of our own horseshoe on Spring Street--where one only routinely sees Rick Orlov and Alice Walton in the media offices during most Council meetings--remain far less explored.
After the recent mayoral election, the top consultants involved with the top campaigns--most of whom should have been roasted and sent packing--were instead extended a polite little media tour of various print and broadcast outlets, and everyone seems content with that. Many media were known to grumble privately, but publicly said very little that might upset any political apple carts in town, perhaps honored merely to be talking to the very people who complained so much to them across the preceding year.
That kind of media obsequiousness is not the only challenge to local watchdog journalism. We also have the absurd situation in which people who represent openly political organizations are increasingly placing purely partisan op-eds in print and at top online outlets. Their lobbying rhetoric is treated by most media as valid discourse. In these cases, it's difficult for the casual reader even to identify that the argument being presented is a completely bought one.
Space at a newspaper is always finite, and when a piece from a lobby appears, it only displaces that much opportunity for real criticism. And it's even tighter than you may suppose. We all see how thin today's newspapers are around town--and so are the alternative weeklies that are still in business. Thus, even while there is less space than ever available for news analysis and news criticism, increasing amounts of this dwindling space is devoted to paid political statements and transparent lobbying efforts.
I specifically worry in the upcoming mayoralty, for instance, that the cluster of people close to Mayor-elect Garcetti, including his wife, are too close to the organization Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a local lobby that parroted much of the erstwhile Community Redevelopment Agency's stances on economic development during its final year of existence, when it was trying to become a low-level jobs creation agency. Tim Cavanaugh, who used to work at the Los Angeles Times, provided a chilling expose two years ago of how well the organization curried favor with editors there.
I also worry that the city's Affordable Housing lobby, one of the city's strongest, will ride herd with both Mayor and media far too obsequiously in the coming Garcetti years. Now is the time to recognize failure--as, after thirty years of affordable housing projects, housing is less affordable than ever, the agencies reward themselves more lucratively than ever, and the numbers of homeless have barely diminished--but there is little in Garcetti that suggests rocking the status quo on this all-important matter.
Garcetti has found a very different path to the mayoralty, one that may anticipate an even stronger alliance with local mainstream media than the one Villaraigosa expected as though a birthright. He has exchanged emails with many constituents and has appeared at perchance thousands of micro-events throughout the city. It is even possible that a decent percentage of people who voted for him have had a personal interaction with him.
This predilection to affability reminds me of the earlier days of Tom Bradley, who even kept his office open to drop-in visitors on certain Fridays. It was good for the city; but Bradley also had to worry about pleasing a media that could throw fifteen or even twenty reporters at him in the event of missteps anywhere in the City.
The greatest concern with a coming Garcetti administration to me remains the concern that media will remain too fawning towards him and his team. Already vastly diminished of local Fourth Estate watchdog agency, the mere availability of Garcetti, which will sit as a relief when compared to Villaraigosa, is certain to become a cozy contrast for media types to the preceding Mayor's habits--and perhaps a too-cozy one.
City beat correspondents at print and broadcast media are also younger than ever and easier for politicians to game--I suspect most of them would be hard-pressed to entertain a single memory of John Ferraro. This lack of long institutional memory makes it harder for someone to put news stories into a grander political perspective, and make the kind of snap editorial judgments that a situation as fluid as a political campaign or civic emergency warrants.
Our journalistic agency in Los Angeles began slipping a little over twenty years ago; a New Yorker "Letter from Los Angeles" of February 26, 1990, filed by Joan Didion, documents trouble at the lead newspaper, including an increasing rift between downtown and Westside interests. It is worth a read today, for we are left in the wake of top-drawer editorial approach decisions made at that time.
We also have recently seen in stories such as the how ruthless the Times was towards other media in the nineties and early zeroes, mistaking vilification for competition, openly discrediting other media while their own house was on fire with scandal. That has left us with a local media landscape in which many other media organizations were tarnished and with the Times itself barely surviving its own ruthless excesses.
The change in power in the City of Los Angeles that is coming on July 1 will be a welcome one to almost all. But it needs to be accompanied by a change in journalistic practice--a much greater distancing of Fourth Estate from local power--if it is to remain a meaningful sea-change.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)
Vol 11 Issue 46
Pub: June 7, 2013