On the LA Weekly, David Zahniser and the Progressive Movement

Over on LA Observed, you have probably been following a dramatic series of developments involving the LA Weekly: Harold Myerson’s departure as political columnist and cheerleader for the local labor organizations, David Zahniser’s cover story this week about the circumstances surrounding the untimely 2005 death of LA labor chief Miguel Contreras, and the way in which LA’s progressive community, including Myerson himself, views both events through the lens of how the Weekly’s new ownership has betrayed the paper’s past role in progressive movements.

Well, in all your clicking, don’t miss the series of posts in the LA Observed “We Get Email” section concerning this matter. The last note, from Larry Kaplan, makes the most crucial point about Zahniser’s scoop that all the “whither the Weekly” eulogies ignore:

…I think the crux of the story is the way Contreras’ death was handled by the coroner, the cops and the bigwigs who showed up at the hospital that day.

The story should NOT be where Contreras was and what he was doing when he died, and perhaps the critique of the Weekly story is that it did not make that clear enough.

Exactly.

David Zahniser is what this city hasn’t had for a long time: A government watchdog. His City Hall coverage at the Daily Breeze always had two things most of his competitors’ coverage did not — depth and style. In the face of generations of local news editors who alternately viewed LA’s municipal government as a morality play or a boring backwater, Zahniser actually found things out, and could turn them into interesting stories.  He writes stories that serve nobody’s interests but the readers’.

Zahniser’s accomplishments merited attention because, unlike the Times and to a lesser extent the Daily News, nobody in their right mind would strategically leak a story to any reporter for the almost unread Breeze. When I read an exclusive story in the LA Times, I can almost always guess who served it up it to them. That’s the advantage of being a reporter for the biggest daily in town. You don’t have to dig for stories, the stories dig for you. A Times reporter can be very lazy, and still look good to their editors.

Zahniser’s brought his talent to the Weekly, and now has a bigger stage on which to perform. The stakes are higher. As Kaplan points out, he or his editors might have erred in emphasizing the first half of the story, the tawdry death scene, rather than the second half of the story, the fervent efforts by high officials allegedly to cover it up by blocking an autopsy.

Normally, if a 52-year-old man dies in a store like the botanica where Contreras died, that would be considered an unusual death. Leaving aside the fact that the locale was later determined by police to house prostitutes, even the ostensible product, herbal remedies, would raise red flags. Whatever you think of the benefits of herbal medicine, some of the remedies in that category are, in fact, powerful chemical agents that are not regulated as drugs. If for no other reason than to protect public health, an autopsy should have been done. Public officials allegedly put pressure on hospital officials to ensure an autopsy was not done, for the sake of Contreras’ reputation and legacy. Folks, that’s a story.  There is a long history in Los Angeles of political interference in the County Coroner’s performance of his duties; of autopsy findings being buried, changed, leaked or otherwise abused by people in power to guard the private interests of the living and the dead.

The progressive community sees Zahniser’s article as a watershed. The old, progressive LA Weekly would not have published Zahniser’s story, Myerson basically asserts. Occidental College professor Peter Drier articulates the left’s rage in an email sent around the progressive community and published by LA Observed:

The article is irresponsible, gutter, tabloid journalism, with no redeeming value. It is difficult to understand why the paper published this crude story — and put in on the cover, no less — except to sell newspapers and/or to lend support to those who wish to harm LA’s progressive labor movement. Miguel and his family, who are still mourning his death, deserve better than this cheap hit. They will survive this crude piece of gutter journalism. They, and his many friends and allies, know that Miguel’s life as a warrior for justice, was his real legacy and his gift to us.

(snip)

The loss of the LA Weekly as a progressive voice is a tragedy. When we organized the Progressive LA conference at Occidental College in October 1998, the Weekly was one of its cosponsors, featured it on its cover, and published several stories in the September 30, 1998 issue about the past, current, and future of progressive politics in LA: link and link. This reflected the Weekly’s view of itself at the time as a watchdog and as an instrument for change. On politics, culture, and other matters, the LA Weekly has helped give voice to those forces who might otherwise be shut out of the public debate. It has reported on the people and organizations — unions, community groups, environmentalists, women’s rights and gay rights groups, immigrant rights activists, school reformers, fair trade advocates, living wage crusaders, and ordinary folks trying to cope with life in this diverse and sprawling city — who’ve been on the front lines of the struggles for social and economic justice.

(snip)

But how do we hold the new LA Weekly accountable? Outraged by this week’s cover story, some folks floated the idea of organizing a boycott against the Weekly. But how can you organize a boycott against a newspaper that is distributed for free? And how can you put pressure on its advertisers when its ad pages are dominated by penis enlargement ads, breast augmentation ads, and dating services?

The fear, which Myerson articulates too, is that the Weekly will become a muckraking journal that splatters muck on progressives, not just their enemies. Myerson cites Jill Stewart, the iconoclastic writer for the defunct New Times LA (whose owners now control the Weekly) as the kind of journalistic example he fears will take over the Weekly. Stewart enraged many at City Hall because her investigations and commentary evinced deep disillusionment with the left’s hypocrisy. She was tough on leaders like Jackie Goldberg, to whom LA’s left is devoted. And her writing was juicy and irresistable, so her scoops got attention. Back then and today, I’ll admit it — I’m a fan of Jill Stewart. And I’m a fan of David Zahniser (which is not to say he’s similar to Stewart — it was Myerson who made that leap).

Far be it from me to challenge Myerson and Drier on what’s good for the progressive movement — they work in it every day, and I don’t. But my opinion is, they’re wrong about the kind of journalism that helps those “who’ve been on the front lines of social and economic justice.” The news should not be ideological. It should not be afraid to hit hard at hypocrisy and double-dealing on the part of progressive icons.

Going back to the 1920s, there is an unfortunate history of socialist journalism, or journalism by socialists, that turned out to be propaganda, concocted to mask failure, corruption, even atrocities. Today’s progressives should want to take pains to disassociate their movement from such unethical and ultimately self-defeating reportage; to demonstrate that unlike the left-wing of the past, they are not afraid of the truth because their ideas have value quite apart from the flawed mortals who advocate them.

And let’s face it: the good-ol’ LA Weekly that Myerson and Drier could depend on as an ally and publicist was also funded by ads for plastic surgery, tanning salons, massage parlors and escort services. What does that suggest? That most Weekly readers, then as now, skipped over the political content to read the movie and nightclub listings, and were more interested in dancing than demonstrations. The Weekly could be edited by William F. Buckley and probably make the same profit if Buckley were willing to accept such advertising.

The left is not entitled to the news columns of the LA Weekly by divine right. But if the left can help scrupulous reporters like Zahniser find powerful stories to illustrate the need for their brand of politics, their presentation in a more balanced setting will give them greater credibility. In this era of nakedly partisan journalism and blogs, it is too often forgotten that most of us read journalism for stories, not political instruction. We can come to political conclusions on our own.

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