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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Essay on History of Los Angeles Times

Newspapers perform the following responsibilities, to wit: a) to disseminate information; b) to interpret events; c) to serve as a “watchdog”; d) to shape and influence public opinion.  Indeed, with all these responsibilities, it is without any doubt that newspapers play important role in our lives.  Newspapers provide us with information on the past and presents that happen within and outside our country.  Newspapers also perform the function of interpreting the events and so they serve as our lens through which we see the world

As our “watchdog”, newspapers also perform the function of guarding our rights.  For decades, the newspapers have been very instrumental in protecting our most cherished liberties.  Newspapers have also exposed the abuses that the government has committed against every American citizen and informed the public of their rights.

Newspapers have also helped open our eyes and minds to the important social and political issues that have confronted our country.  In fact, the influence of newspapers is so great that they have also been very powerful instruments in shaping the public opinion.  With its wide circulation, the newspaper is an effective medium to convey a person’s thoughts and to convince others about a person’s personal views. 

Has the Los Angeles Times effectively performed all these functions?  If the criteria in determining the quality of a newspaper are its capacity to disseminate information, to interpret events, to serve as a watchdog and to shape public opinion, then the Los Angeles Times must pass all these standards. 

While the Los Angeles Times may have made important contributions by entertaining and educating us, some critics say that the Los Angeles Times have failed in their responsibility to the public.  With great power however comes great responsibility.  There are people who question the neutrality of the Los Angeles Times in reporting the news events.  Some say that the Los Angeles Times purposely promoted racial bias and discrimination.  Others say that they promoted police brutality against some the minorities.  The involvement of the Los Angeles Times in these controversies have placed in serious doubt its integrity and reputation as a quality newspaper.  Based on these criticisms, it would seem that the Los Angeles Times had miserably failed in making proper use of its power as one of the leading newspapers in Los Angeles. 

This essay aims to examine the history of Los Angeles Times and its involvement in the Zoot Suit Riot, the Watts Riot and the Rodney King incident.  This paper aims to prove that the Los Angeles Times played a key role in influencing public opinion first against the Mexican American and against African Americans.  In the concluding part, I will present my own view and determine whether the Los Angeles Times had properly performed its responsibility to the public.  

Los Angeles Times
The Los Angeles Times was initially published in 1881 under its former name Los Angeles Daily Times.  When the newspaper can no longer afford to continue its business, the Mirror Company took control of the newspaper.  It then hired as its editor Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Gray Otis, a former military officer.  Otis was so successful in managing the newspaper that it did not take long for him to buy the newspaper from its former owners in 1886. 

As its owner, Otis was pro-business.  The Los Angeles Times and Otis were major proponents of the growth of private businesses.  They supported anything that will lead to the development of private businesses and opposed anything that will hinder its growth.  As a result, the Los Angeles Times engaged in serious and violent conflict with the labor unions.  This conflict resulted to the bombing of the newspaper’s printing plant in 1910 which resulted in the death of 21 people.  Two union leaders, James and Joseph McNamara were eventually convicted.   

Los Angeles Times’ Participation in the Zoot Suit Riot
The role of the newspaper in shaping and influencing public opinion is a power that is susceptible to abuse. It is sad to say that there are pieces of evidence that will prove that the Los Angeles Times abused its power by playing a key role in some of the worst riots in the history of Los Angeles starting with the Zoot Suit Riots, Watts Riot and the Rodney King incident.

Some critics blamed the Los Angeles Times and argued that they were responsible for the series of events that culminated in the Zoot Suit Riot.  According to Ruthie Grant quoting Acuna, “During the 40’s, collusion between the Los Angeles Times and the police department influenced the public with biased, inflammatory and sensational headlines about young ‘Mexican hoodlums.’ In fact, ‘articles and headlines were designed to inflame racial hatred’”  (Grant 2) It is indeed very ironic, however, that the United States, a country known for the ideals of democracy and liberty, once tolerated racial prejudice and discrimination.

For several months before this unfortunate incident, the Los Angeles newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, have been building up Anti-Mexican sentiment in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times gave emphasis on the increasing number of crimes throughout Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) blamed the crime wave against the Pachucos as the ones responsible for the criminality in Los Angeles.  The Pachucos were Mexicans who wore zoot suit, a long drape jacket. They were branded as street rebels and defied American social standards.

According to Thomson Gale, “They were branded ‘delinquents’ by the Los Angeles Police Department, and held responsible for the wave of juvenile crime that was sweeping the city at the time. The pachucos also incurred the wrath of their Mexican elders by their ‘degenerate’ behavior of draft-dodging, marijuana-smoking, and their foppish attention to their clothes. (Gale 2)

The Los Angeles Times was one of the newspapers responsible for the anti-Mexican sentiment.  The press, including the Los Angeles Times, headlined every case in which a Mexican was arrested, they featured photographs of Mexicans dressed in zoot suits, and police records and announced that there has been an increase in crime rates being committed by Mexicans. As a result, the public develop fear and hatred against the Mexicans.  According to Carey McWilliams “The constant repetition of the phrase ‘zoot suit’, coupled with Mexican names and pictures of Mexicans, had the effect of convincing the public that all Mexican were zoot-suiters and all zoot-suiters were criminals; ergo, all Mexicans were criminals.”(McWilliams 2)

In the light of the atmosphere of racial prejudice and discrimination, a murder case was committed.  The press eventually called this event as the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. On August 1, 1942, the group of Henry Leyvas was involved in a fight with another group. August 2, 1942 the body of Jose Diaz was found at a reservoir in Southeast Los Angeles near a lagoon. Reports say that he either fell asleep on the road after getting drunk or he was killed in a war between two rival gangs. One medical examiner reported that he may have been probably hit by a car.  Despite the doubt surrounding the death of Jose Diaz, the Los Angeles Police Department immediately concluded that the death was the result of the rising Mexican gang youth problems in Los Angeles.  Local newspapers like the Los Angeles Times were also quick in blaming the death to Mexican Zoot suiters.
Because of the bias against the Mexicans, 300 hundred to 600 hundred Mexican-American youths were arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department. Most of them were detained merely because of the clothes they wore or merely because of their general appearance. 

The trial against the suspects was even more controversial than their arrest.  It would seem that even the courts have been influenced by the atmosphere of racial discrimination stirred by the local newspapers. The defendants were deprived of the fundamental right to due process. They were not allowed to speak to their lawyers. They were not even allowed to change their clothes.  To ensure their conviction, it was said that for the entire duration of the trial, they wore their zoot suits which was at that time associated with hoodlums and criminals. Despite the weak evidence of the prosecution including the absence of proof that Diaz was in fact been murdered 12 defendants were convicted of murder and five were convicted of assault. 

It was only in October 1944 that the US District Court of Appeals overturned the conviction because of miscarriage of justice because of the efforts of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. The Sleepy Lagoon case was generally considered as the primary cause that led to several riots spearheaded by several sailors against Mexicans. On June 3, 1943, several sailors declared that a group of Mexican children launched an attack against them. As a result a group of 200 sailors hired cabs and attacked the heart of the Mexican community. Several Mexicans were injured in this attack. It is surprising however that though the sailors were arrested no one was charged with any crime. 

Los Angeles Times Role in the Los Angeles Riot
Two decades after the Zoot Suit Riot, the Los Angeles Times was once again involved in another issue involving racial discrimination. This time it was against the African Americans in what will later on be known as the “first major racially-fueled rebellion, Watts Riot of 1965. (“Los Angeles Watts Riot of 1965”)
In August 12, 1965, an African American Marquette Frye was stopped in Watts for speeding. Frye was initially cooperative as he submitted himself to sobriety test with the Los Angeles Police Department. When his family members arrived on the scene, an altercation ensued between the LAPD and the Frye family. At this point, it was reported that one police officer struck the crowd with his baton. This incident together with the taunting of the crowd within the neighborhood and rising racial tensions, triggered violence in Watts. The rioting stated and the residents began looting and burning local stores. 

Every people would expect that because of the magnitude of this event a major newspaper like Los Angeles Times would give important attention to this news information by placing this story in the front page of the paper The sad thing about this is that the Los Angeles Times brushed this important event aside and placed this news event only in page three of its August 12, 1965 issue. According to Weena Perry, “An unidentified staff member, basking in the racism his anonymity allowed him, bluntly revealed the paper's attitude toward black Angelenos during the 1960s. Apparently strife in Watts was routinely dismissed at the Times as the makings of "a bunch of black jigaboos." …Whether expressed with a veneer of politesse or vulgarly proclaimed, the racist sentiments of the Times would affect their coverage of what was then the worst riot in American history.” (Perry 1)

Despite all these events in the past, we would expect that the Los Angeles Times would finally uphold neutrality in its reporting of news events so that the public may have accurate information of what the actual events were.  However, the Los Angeles Times still had not learned its lesson. The same thing happened with the Rodney King incident. In March 1991, Rodney king led LAPD on a high-speed car chase in San Fernando Valley. When the LAPD cornered King, they ordered him and his companions to pull over and move out of the car. King was subsequently beaten by the LAPD officers. King suffered 56 baton strokes, was kicked in the head and body and was stunned by a stun gun (“Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in United States”, 1998). An amateur photographer who caught everything on video subsequently showed the footage around the world exposing the extent of force and violence law enforcement officers may employ against an unarmed individual. 

Charges of assault with a deadly weapon and assault under color of authority were filed against the police officers. On April 29, 1992, the police officers involved were acquitted by the state court. This triggered one of the worst riots in American History (“Rodney King: Reluctant Symbol of Police Brutality”, 2001). It is very disappointing however that the Los Angeles Police Department Chief, Daryl Gates, failed to take the necessary steps to anticipate the possibility of a riot on the day of the promulgation of the judgment.  He also miserably failed to control the riot.  Instead, Daryl Gates in an interview which was published in “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992” admitted that on the day of the riot he was outside the police headquarters attending a political fund-raiser. (p.180)  He also admitted that this was a serious mistake on his part.  (p.181)  This mistake of the LAPD resulted in the death of fifty four (54) people, injuries to two thousand three hundred eighty three (2383) people, and property damage amounting to seven hundred Million ($700 M) (“Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in United States”, 1998). 
The coverage made by the Los Angeles Times of the Los Angeles Riot after the acquittal of the police officers was heavily loaded with racial bias.  The Los Angeles Times in its coverage signified that the African Americans were mainly responsible for the chaos in Los Angeles. 

In his article, “The Los Angeles Times’ Coverage of the 1992 Rebellion,” JoÃo H. Costa Vargas, after examining the coverage made by the Los Angeles Times of the riots in 1992 concluded that the Los Angeles Times erroneously cast the African Americans as the main perpetrators of the rebellion and that racial oppression was justified.  

Clearly, the Los Angeles Times failed to properly perform its function of providing an accurate and neutral presentation of the three important events in Los Angeles.  It failed to perform its function of accurately interpreting the events and serving as our protector and “watchdog.”  The Los Angeles Times aroused public sentiment against the Mexicans which eventually led to the Zoot Suit Riot.  The Los Angeles Times also hid from the public accurate and reliable information on the police brutality committed against the African Americans.  The Los Angeles Times also erroneously depicted the African Americans as the people responsible for the Los Angeles Riot.  Clearly, the Los Angeles Times was partly to be blamed for these three events in our history.  Had the Los Angeles Times performed its responsibility of educating the people, the three riots would not have been as bad as it was.  In fact, it may even have been avoided.  The Los Angeles Times had shown how powerful the mass media is in informing and misinforming people.  It can reveal to its readers the entirety of truth.  It can also hide from its readers the truth.   

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