Whose “Agenda?” Who’s “Agenda-driven?”*

For the third time in 10 days, I’m going to mention Jill Stewart, having blogged 11 months without mentioning her once! It’s purely coincidental that the first two mentions came only days before she was appointed local news editor of the LA Weekly. I must have sniffed it out in the ether.

Actually, it was David Zahniser’s recent reporting at the Weekly that reminded me of Jill. His piece on the local government’s questionable handling of Miguel Contreras’ death was the kind of story the Weekly used to spike, but that Jill would’ve run with during her years at New Times LA. And then her name came up in Harold Meyerson’s parting blast at the Weekly, inspired by his disgust at Zahniser’s story. To argue that his beloved progressive LA Weekly was dead, Meyerson made connections among the Contreras story, the Weekly’s new ownership (the former publishers of New Times LA, which bought the Weekly’s parent company and appropriated its name, Village Voice Media), and his recollections of Stewart, who was the alternative to the alternative media during the height of the Weekly’s progressive era.

Like some others, I have been struck by the words used in various reports on Jill Stewart’s hiring — words like “ideological” and “agenda-driven,” which Kevin Roderick used in LA Observed. The syntax of these citations makes it unclear whether Roderick was airing his personal opinion, or taking the temperature of the LA journalistic/political world. There’s no question that’s what a lot of people say about her. You might think I’m being disingenuous, but I am baffled by it, in the same way I was baffled by the negative reaction to Zahniser’s journalism.

What has always made Jill Stewart stand out to me — going back to when I first met her as an LA Times reporter — was her lack of an agenda. Yes, Jill Stewart had a distinct temperament — part populist firebrand, part smirking brat — that comes out in her writing. But there is no political movement or philosophy that she’s so attached to that she would shade her reporting to suit it. That’s more than you can say about her critics.

Los Angeles has many “agenda-driven” reporters and publications. Harold Meyerson’s LA Weekly was openly so, as he acknowledged repeatedly in the few weeks’ trip down Memory Lane. The Daily News has a distinct agenda — to demonstrate how the San Fernando Valley is getting screwed over by the “out-of-touch downtown interests.”

The Los Angeles Times is widely accused of having a standard-issue “liberal” agenda — to the right of the Weekly, but still left-of-center.  But its agenda goes deeper than that.  It’s local news coverage is so inconsistent, and the choices of what it decides to cover and what it decides to ignore arouse suspicions of agendas that are more like personal vendettas.  Over the years, readers have detected a kind of poster-boy favoritism toward certain political figures (Tom Bradley in the 70s, Gloria Molina, Antonio Villraigosa, to name a few), and knives out for others (Tom Bradley in the 80s, Richard Alatorre, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Hahn), based on criteria that seem to mix the political with the personal.

I remember having an argument with a Times reporter about a situation where political rivals Molina and Alatorre both tried some fishy tactics to steer lucrative contracts to their respective allies. The Times was selective in their outrage, deciding that Alatorre’s hardball was news but Molina’s was not.  They had settled on that storyline before the fracas started, and made it clear to me (we represented a client in the Alatorre mix) that no facts that disrupted that storyline would be published–using the airy, dismissive, “We don’t think it’s news.”

On and on it goes. I’m sure people closer to the entertainment industry see agendas in what Variety and the Hollywood Reporter choose to cover. The Times’ sports columnist Bill Plaschke went on an all-out campaign in 2005 to discredit the former Dodgers’ GM Paul DePodesta, leading directly to his unexpected firing. In Los Angeles, agenda-driven reporting is the rule, not the exception.

So why is Jill Stewart called out?

Her most famous journalistic accomplishment was her work in the 1990s focusing on the Los Angeles Unified School District. Alone among reporters in Los Angeles, Stewart refused to buy into the political consensus that the poor scholastic performance of LAUSD’s students was due to factors beyond the school board’s control. For at least a decade as LA’s schools declined, the conventional wisdom was LAUSD problems were all due to overcrowding and low teacher salaries, and that those problems could not be solved unless Proposition 13 was overturned, allowing the necessary taxes to be raised. The political community clearly hoped that at some point, the awfulness of LAUSD would cause an uprising against the tax-limiting measure — so they didn’t do much about it.

Blaming LAUSD’s problems on Proposition 13 was, at best, an incomplete diagnosis. Stewart shined the light on other factors that were more responsible — like the strict, inpenetrable labor rules that made it almost impossible to fire teachers and principals who weren’t merely incompetent, but who refused to do their jobs. She took on a major sacred cow, bilingual education, and shared with readers the objective studies that demonstrated the failure of this once idealistic concept — as well as the heartbreaking and often absurd anecdotal experiences of parents that made one’s blood boil.

Going just from memory, I recall reading Jill Stewart stories about Hispanic parents who were begging to have their children released from bilingual classes, to no avail. She — alone — reported that the larger the bilingual population, the more money went into LAUSD coffers and individual teachers’ paychecks. This conflict of interest, and the tragic consequences for thousands of students whose parents wanted them to learn in English, was never reported by the LA Times, the LA Weekly or the Daily News until long after Stewart had established the facts — if then.   To “progressives,” any information that undermined bilingual education was racist, and any information that made the education unions look bad was “anti-worker.”  LA’s press corps was afraid to cross these invisible lines — except for Stewart.

Which strikes you as more “agenda-driven?”  Reporting the facts about these things, or suppressing the facts? Would you rather have an education reporter who starts from the premise that the mission of the schools is to provide the best possible education for its students, and focuses on stories of how the system fails to meet this goal? Or a press corps that pretends to do that while sweeping problems under the rug because of the possible political fallout?

I don’t think Jill Stewart’s education reporting was driven by any particular ideology. Her stuff was refreshing because it was simply about what’s working and what’s not working, and if it’s not working, why not … and then to follow the story wherever it took her. She ended up on the wrong side of the education unions and the political defenders of bilingual ed — that was how the cookie crumbled. She didn’t start out from an anti-union position. But the rest of the press corps, and especially the Weekly, started every story from a pro-union, or a leave-the-unions-out-of-this, stance.

The mindset on education in Los Angeles has changed in the past 15 years. The city’s power elite used to be shockingly complacent about the decline in education. After all, they could afford to send their kids to private school, or could afford to live in San Marino, Palos Verdes or Beverly Hills — while working “productively” with the labor leaders who benefited from the status quo.

Stewart’s reporting contributed to a dramatic change in that mindset. Reformers from Dick Riordan to Eli Broad to Antonio Villaraigosa have been inspired — perhaps without even knowing it or wanting to admit it — by what Stewart uncovered. The education unions, while still incredibly powerful, are viewed by the press corps more skeptically. Mayor Villaraigosa’s efforts to assert city control over the school system were portrayed in the media as a “battle” with the education unions — and the unions were not portrayed in these stories favorably. That narrative would have been unimaginable without Stewart’s reporting in the 90s.

They say that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Los Angeles frequently rewrites that cliche: It is the land of the willfully blind. And the one-eyed man is “agenda-driven.”

I don’t envy Jill. When you’re in her position, if you make any mistakes, foes will pounce. I respect Parke Skelton. In one of the letters to LA Observed, he accuses her of sloppy reporting on a story that involved him directly. Naturally, I’m not in a position to know what happened, but he’s generally credible. As it happens, his campaign firm almost exclusively represents progressive candidates. It is understandable he would draw the inference that her alleged mistake was ideological. Just as it is understandable that every time the New York Times or CBS News makes a mistake, conservatives think it’s ideological.

But no one’s perfect, least of all reporters. They take snippets of reality and (sometimes) disguised spin and try to tell a story that will enlighten and divert their readers. If they make a career out of reporting or commenting, they write tens of thousands of words and dozens of stories every year — and will sometimes get things wrong. Jill and her reporters now are on the firing line more than most. They will produce stories that make highly regarded, powerful people unhappy. In retaliation or in an effort to exonerate themselves, the targets will look for errors and occasionally find them.

You might be tempted to join the outraged brigade. It will feel … so right-on … to be in line with the cool people who can hand out jobs, contracts and other emoluments.

If that ever describes you, just stop for a second and think. Where would LAUSD be now, if not for Jill’s daring break with the conventional wisdom? You’ll never get the establishment in Los Angeles to admit it, but she is one of their most valued sources of information. She deserves the benefit of the doubt. And she deserves to be read.

*(Copy-edited, 11/5/06)

2 thoughts on “Whose “Agenda?” Who’s “Agenda-driven?”*

  1. Like you, I have admired Stewart’s writing for many years (when I have run across it). It has always seemed to me that she has been more willing than most to point out the usually-unreported obvious fact that the Emperor has no clothes (as in the case of bilingual ed).

    Not really knowing anything about her politics, I tended to think that, because she genuinely cared about an issue, she was willing to write the truth about it. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe you are wrong. Judging by the comments I just read at the links you provided, I don’t think so.

    One thing for sure, she is interesting and her tenure should be as well. I wish her well and hope she continues to “speak truth to power” and “question authority.”

    (Sorry about that last line, but found it impossible to resist the temptation😉

  2. Plaschke’s unrelenting assault on De Podesta was baffling to me, but De Podesta (brilliant as he is as a student of baseball, you are lucky to have him in SD) wasn’t at his best when talking to the media. The local ESPN also had an axe to grind. Never mind that De Podesta had to deal with the fiasco of a payroll that Fox left the new owners and management team.

    That all said, as much as I admire De Podesta, if the Padres hire that abomination Dusty Baker pray that Jake Peavy gets traded. I don’t want to see either happen, but Baker has a way of killing young pitchers and has been quoted as saying that players “really hit their stride” at 35. (35??)

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