Out With the Old: The Media and Black Los Angeles

On New Year's Day I got a phone call from a stranger. She was calling not to wish me luck in 2013, or to say she was a fan of my work (I forget sometimes that my number is listed in the old-fashioned phone directory; much as we wring our hands about the loss of privacy in the digital age, the fact is that before that lots of us were and still are pretty easy to find in the White Pages). Ann was calling to register a complaint about my work. Not about its quality but about the lack of quantity of my stories, and stories about black people in general, in the L.A. Times. She was anxious that we as a people had gone missing in the local media, and on this first day of the new year she wanted to talk about why and what I might do about it.

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I understood. Like a lot of journalists, I often feel like a one-person operation fielding complaints from the public about all the stories that don't get done. Over the last twenty years I've gotten that in droves from disaffected black communities; hardly a day went by without somebody pointing out to me a problem I needed to look into or am important but long-overlooked person I needed to profile. They were being my eyes and ears, my sources. But they were also trying to make up for lost time. Blacks had been so grossly misrepresented or unrepresented in the Times for so long, people felt we had a lot of catching up to do. I was therefore expected to up the story count, and not just of any stories but of the more subtle and complex stories that countered the usual urban news fodder about shootings and crime and poverty. The stories that, while true, didn't accurately represent the truth of black people. The concern was less about achieving a proper mathematical balance of coverage in the paper, more about blacks asserting their rightful place in the L.A. landscape as citizens and contributors to civic life.

Much has happened since I first started out. Newspapers now, including the Times, have shrunk and now have markedly less coverage of everything. For blacks, our fortunes have exactly reversed. In 1992 the Times showed a flurry of interest in what was happening in black neighborhoods besides mayhem; that interest faded like a trend, pushed aside by economic realities and a burgeoning Latino population that was remaking South Central demographically and politically. The black story became one of simply holding on, not exactly a sexy topic or arresting visual that would appeal to editors, the few that were still employed, in an increasingly competitive and atomized news scene. Blacks found themselves where they've always been: in survival mode.

That was exactly Ann's complaint. Survival is not good enough anymore and never will be. We have to get out of this stasis, she told me. We have to continue to let the world know who we are and why we matter and will always matter. The most encouraging thing about the conversation was the fact that Ann was so agitated to begin with, that she called me at in the first place. She's no crackpot with an axe to grind, but a 74-year-old retired teacher and resident of middle-class Leimert Park. Her generation is supposed to be done with this fight, but she isn't. Her kids and grandkids puzzle over why she won't rest and enjoy her twilight years, which seems to agitate her even more.

I think this a good thing. I didn't have any answers for Ann, only commiseration, but I did tell her she has a foot soldier in me. She's not a stranger. We'll see what happens. Happy New Year.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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