From the flight of big business to an enormous demographic and socio-economic shift, Los Angeles is definitely not the same place it was a decade ago. Harold Meyerson, former Executive Editor for L.A. Weekly has seen L.A.'s shifting civic and political ethic in his 12 years on the beat. He offers us his take on this evolution, why it may foreshadow a national shift in civic activisim and why labor has become such a dominant factor in this new paradigm.
Harold, as you leave L.A for the promise of Washington, share with our readers what your new bi-coastal political responsibilies will be.
Starting in mid-July I will begin my new job as executive editor of The American Prospect-a bi-monthly periodical that offers a vision of liberal philosophy, politics, and public life. In that capacity I will be running the magazine with one of its founders, Robert Kuttner. But since the magazine is published every other week, I will still be able to continue in my capacity as a columnist and political editor for L.A.Weekly.
With the benefit of your long tenure at L.A. Weekly, describe the evolution of our metropolis' political culture?
Things have changed so much in the 12 years since I first came to L.A. Weekly that the niche is really still evolving.
It was the last term of Bradley when I started at the Weekly. There were still some identifiable corporations in L.A.; overall it was not a hugely exciting time politically. However, as his term began to wane, we began to realize that a tremendous demographic and political transformation was about to unfold.
That was the turning point of the Weekly's coverage of Los Angeles. While our emphasis had already been on what was characterized as the "other Los Angeles," suddenly the "other Los Angeles" developed a political voice and force of its own. We witnessed a new population of Latinos and labor interests force their way into the body politic and watched as they tried to navigate and build coalitions. It was endlessly fascinating and is really, to this day, one of the reasons why I'm not simply decamping for the East. There's so much going on here in L.A. I would liken covering L.A. over the last 12 years to covering New York during the 1910s-it's that significant.
Harold: elaborate on L.A. Weekly's unique contribution to the picture/perceptions that Los Angeleans' hold of our government and politics. Elaborate also on your competitors.
The L.A. Times is the axiom of daily life. Any understanding of what goes on in L.A. on a day-to-day basis begins there. But while the Times can cover the big picture stories, they can't provide the nuance and advocacy oriented coverage that we can. The Times, as the city's paper of record, is mired in a culture of niceness and an inherent element of not wanting to rock the boat. And while that kind of civic boosterism can be beneficial to a city like Los Angeles, someone needs to be able to express a different point of view.
Journalism is a mix of knowing a beat and having a staff that is smart and resourceful enough to pick it up on the go. Oddly enough, our advantage may be that we have a core group of reporters who have a better feel for a particular beat than those at a paper that is constantly shifting people around. If you have someone who knows why LAUSD is unable to surmount the problems they've been confronting year after year and can provide that long-term experience, you're in a better position to report on a story. Periodicals like the Weekly may be one of the few institutions left in L.A. that isn't term-limited. That institutional memory is vital to journalism.
Most people would classify L.A. Weekly's political coverage as essentially labor oriented. Others assert that your key demographic is no longer labor/socialist, but a 20-40 year old readership that could be likened to David Brook's description of a bourgeois bohemian (BOBO)-an apolitical reader looking for quality of life and latte bars. Does the answer to who your readers are impact your political coverage- your political niche?
The clearest example of the current readership of L.A. Weekly can be seen in the response that the public had to the recent janitors strike. It was certainly not typical for Los Angeles, but may be a sign of things to come.
There I was, on the Westside, among the BOBOs stopped at an intersection for 20 minutes and they essentially cheered on a bunch of janitors parading through the intersection. Your average Westsider would've just gone and bought something at Fred Segal, but on that day, something different was happening.
So while there is this emerging identity which is hip and may have some of David Brook's "BOBOisms," the L.A. variety also finds it hip to be multicultural and live in a somewhat liberal city. So while there may be contradictions between the lifestyle focus of the Weekly and its political coverage, I think that as we've evolved over the last 10-12 years those two realms have permeated each other and helped to foster a new and emerging civic identity.
I don't expect all of our readers to relate to all of our stories. And part of my charge as editor has been to explain that there are two separate and distinct worlds residing within the confines of Los Angeles. But under certain circumstances I think the latte-drinking readership has found the political coverage something that they can relate to.
The demographic you speak of most likely reads L.A.'s other weekly publication New Times, as well. Distinguish yourself from that weekly which prides itself on a more libertarian, throw the rascals out philosophy.
You've already made the distinction. There's nothing alternative about being cynical of government. We're cynical of government as well, but we also think about the bigger picture and a clearer sense of where we'd like the city to go. That in and of itself distinguishes us from any other paper.
The city is going to muddle along and some of the ideals we advance will be realized and some of them won't. But because we start from the platform of general progressive politics and then extend it into the civic progressive community we offer our readers the chance to interact with a set of academic activists, neighborhood activists, attorney activists and labor activists who help us frame a picture and advance a vision for the L.A. community.
Some have posited that, outside of Miami, L.A.'s news coverage is the worst in the country. What's happened to local news coverage? And does it affect L.A. Weekly's impact on L.A.?
I was raised on Walter Cronkite back when the local KNXT had Saul Halpert as political editor and Warren Olney in the Sacramento Bureau. What those reporters were trying to do was what all great newspapers strive to do-blur the lines between the mass and elite coverage of topics all at once.
In the years since, news broadcasts have really become disgraceful. The electronic news media has divided that coverage back into a two tiered system. It's not that they cover politics or city life badly, they basically just don't cover it. And when they do, you only get part of the story. My greatest fear is that the civic elite have resigned themselves to the NPR, Life and Times, KPCC circuit and have given up entirely on trying to force better local TV news. Generally, if all you knew was what you learned from newscasts on channels 2,4 and 7, you'd be a dangerous moron.
How will you explain L.A.'s politics to the national readership of The American Prospect? What's the prism you'll use to discuss California?
For years California's contribution to the national political spotlight was Richard Nixon, Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan. My first order of business will be to tell people that things have changed. The demographic changes that have swept over California and are sweeping over the rest of the nation are creating a new political terrain. And while that terrain can go in several directions, I have no doubt that because of the Republican's miserable handling of the emerging Latino Population it will be primarily Democratic. And it is that emerging immigrant population-heavily mobilized by the labor movement-that gives L.A. such a distinctive political climate. The labor movement has filled the void left by the business community's departure and created an alternative power structure. I don't know how replicable it's going to be in other parts of the country; there are hundreds of central labor councils and they don't turn around on a dime. The more they're actively organizing immigrants, the more those labor movements in other cities begin to look like L.A. So L.A. is really a harbinger of the future of other cities across the nation.
Another key point is that this demographic and political transformation has led to a rebirth of municipal investment. L.A. is now willing to incur debt and spend public money to invest and upgrade its infrastructure. In the past, the heavily white and elderly electorate has voted against public projects, school bonds, etc. that would primarily benefit the young, Latino populace. Now, with this emerging population realizing it has the numbers and the voice to make a difference, they are voting for bond money so that the public school system and park system are improved. That is an enormous difference from 10 years ago.
You spent a lot of political and journalistic capital on L.A.'s recent mayoral race. Recap the election and what it meant for L.A.?
I always knew Antonio was pushing the envelope. And it was never clear to me how pliable that envelope was. And you are right to say that we invested a lot in that campaign, but I never wrote that I thought he was going to win. The kind of political coalition he needed to assemble-minus the African American community-was always going to be very difficult. If the African American vote had not gone to James and if Antonio had been able to run on his record and not have to defend his actions re: the criminal justice stuff-he would've prevailed. But Hahn had a clear claim to black support and Antonio's civil libertarian record was hardly an electoral asset.
In many ways, this election proved two things: 1) By American standards, Los Angeles is becoming more liberal-the Republican party really had no presence in the election. And 2) The future of this city will no longer be shaped solely by the historic civic and business elite but also by the numerous and increasingly powerful liberal factions located throughout Los Angeles.
Let's close by focusing on labor. It's substantially uncovered by the media locally and nationally. Give our readers your sense of the evolving politics of labor movement in Los Angeles.
Labor isn't covered much in America for the simple reason that it has been unexciting for years. However, with the migration of a new immigrant workforce to L.A., the Service Employee Union has become much more ambitious and organizing nearly 100,000 new workers in the L.A. area, things changed. And under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, who took the helm at the County Federation of Labor in 1996, the local labor movement has become more of a vehicle for political socialization, education, naturalization, registration and voter mobilization.
A prime example of the new found power of this group could be seen last year in the USC service worker strike. The fact the City Council was able to unanimously pass an ordinance amending the allocation of community development block grant funding so that USC food service workers could receive increased safeguards-while All-American USC football tackle John Ferraro was Council President-is testimony to the union's ability to make concrete changes within the city and a simple reminder of the amount of moral and political capital they have amassed. They will be a major player in L.A.'s foreseeable future.