After being battered by the media for 14 months after the Rodney G. King beating, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates thought things couldn't possibly get any worse.
He was wrong.
Media coverage of the Los Angeles Police Department's slow response to the rioting that followed the verdicts in the King beating trial made the earlier coverage of Gates and his department look almost benign by comparison.
"Much of Blame Is Laid on Chief Gates" said the Washington Post.
"Post-Riot Fingers All Point at Gates," said USA Today.
"Gates Attended Fund-Raiser as Riots Grew" said the Daily News.
"Gates' Absence Early in Riot to Be Examined" said the Los Angeles Times.
Day after day, the media hammered away at the same theme: Thanks largely to Police Chief Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department was confused, tardy and indecisive in the first stages of the riots, and that very inaction was primarily responsible for allowing the first flashes of violence to explode into the deadliest urban riots in the United States this century.
A wide range of publications--Time magazine, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the L.A. Weekly--even published speculation that Gates was guilty of something far worse than inaction, that he had deliberately withheld his forces from the riot area for reasons ranging from personal vindication to political calculation to peevish retribution.
Gates dismisses those charges as nonsense, as part of a campaign to portray him as "a sinister monster," and, in fact, most publications that printed the charges did not give them prominent play. Moreover, most backed away from them immediately after reporting them, either saying "There is . . . no evidence to support" it (Time) or quoting someone challenging it (the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the New Republic) or saying outright, "The facts . . . point to answers slightly less bizarre: The traditional arrogance of both Gates and his department, a lack of preparation, and sheer incompetence" (the L.A. Weekly).
That is not exactly a ringing vote of confidence for Gates, but at least it acknowledges that whatever his shortcomings, he did not deliberately put the lives of thousands of people at risk for his own satisfaction.
The possibility that Gates had deliberately withheld forces from the early stages of the riots to vindicate himself or to lay the groundwork for subsequent repression was one of the most widely discussed questions in many areas of Los Angeles--especially among blacks. But was it responsible to report such incendiary, defamatory speculation, either anonymously or without supporting evidence?
"If it's in the atmosphere and it tells you at least the level of suspicion in the city . . . it strikes me as legitimate," as long as the context and characterization are proper, says Joseph Lelyveld, managing editor of the New York Times. "I don't think it ought to be forbidden to talk about what people are talking about."
Craig Turner, metropolitan editor of the Los Angeles Times, agrees.
"This was something that was being speculated on by people of some public substance," Turner says. "As long as you put it in context, it's proper to report it."
Turner says The Times' primary objective in covering the performance of the LAPD in the riots was to "find out exactly what happened, what the facts were. . . . In the pursuit of that, we didn't find there was any evidence of withholding of forces by Gates."
The Times did move quickly and aggressively on the overall question of how Gates and his department performed during the early hours of the riots.
Two days after the riots began, The Times published a Page 1 story under the headline "LAPD Slow in Coping With Wave of Unrest." Four days later, The Times began a run of four consecutive days in which accounts criticizing the LAPD's response to the riot were the lead stories on Page 1.
The first of these--based on an amateur videotape and interviews with witnesses, police and government officials--offered a detailed reconstruction of the first hours of the riots; it portrayed the LAPD as failing to take the most rudimentary steps to control the increasingly unruly crowds. A companion story--headlined "Video Captures Police Retreat at Outbreak of Violence"--reported that officers who responded to the initial violence at Florence and Normandie avenues "jumped into their cars and peeled away" rather than trying to control the gathering, angry crowd.
The next day, under a Page 1 banner headline that said "Riot Found Police in Disarray," The Times recounted scenes of chaos and indecision and quoted Lt. Mike Moulin of the 77th Street Division as saying he had ordered officers to leave the first riot scene at Florence and Normandie because they were overwhelmed, and "I didn't want to get them killed. . . . I didn't want the incident to escalate."
Lt. Moulin "ordered his units not to respond to most" 911 emergency calls in the area, the story said. It went on to report, for the first time, that 12 of the LAPD's 18 patrol captains were attending a training seminar in Ventura on the day of the King verdicts--and, also for the first time, that "angry city fire officials disputed . . . Gates' contention that the police response to crimes committed during the riots was delayed partially because police had to protect firefighters."
Thorough coverage of Gates, the LAPD command structure and the role of the department during and after the riots has continued in The Times, most recently in stories on the LAPD's chronic lack of communications equipment, on officer-involved shooting deaths in the riots and on anxiety among street officers about increased threats of violence toward them. Times coverage has also included stories--most notably one on May 15--that sympathetically portrayed the frustrations and morale-sapping embarrassment suffered by street cops in South Los Angeles who had wanted to do their job but were ordered not to.
The Daily News has also given prominent, hard-edged coverage to the LAPD's performance in the riots.
Editorially, the Daily News called for Gates' immediate resignation three days before The Times did. On the news pages, the Daily News published much of the same information as The Times on LAPD deployment and chaos--some of it first, some of it at the same time, much of it later.
Although The Times provided the most comprehensive examination and chronology of LAPD behavior in the first hours of the riots, the Daily News was the first to report that "tensions (in the LAPD hierarchy) were so severe that the normal weekly command staff meetings were suspended in the four weeks leading up to the riots."
The Daily News was also the first to report in any detail on the seeming impotence of the Police Commission during and after the riots.
But the riots were so devastating and the role of the LAPD so controversial--all the more so because it was the LAPD, of "Dragnet" fame and Rodney King notoriety--that the national media also jumped on the story quickly and vigorously.
The Washington Post called the LAPD's response to the riots "tardy and incoherent."
The Wall Street Journal published a story that compared LAPD tactics unfavorably with those used in cities that had "more success" controlling massive violence.
Time magazine said: "The performance of the LAPD during the crucial early moments of the uprising is an object lesson in how not to deal with civil disorders. . . . It is heart-rending to wonder how much destruction, how much lawlessness, how much human tragedy could have been prevented if only the Los Angeles Police Department had been prepared, had been resolute, and--most important of all--had been well led."
The New York Times, in particular, gave prominent play to several stories questioning Gates' conduct in the early stages of the riots. Beginning two days after the riots started, the paper published four such stories in five days on Page 1.
One of these stories disclosed that Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley had not spoken directly to each other in 13 months--information that had somehow not found its way into the local media throughout that period. (Jane Fritsch, the reporter who broke that story, said she had known about it while working for the Los Angeles Times during much of that period, before joining the New York Times, but could find no appropriate story in which to report it until seeing Bradley earlier this month and confirming it with him.)
Another Page 1 story in the New York Times described street cops as a "dispirited band in blue" after the ridicule they had been subjected to by "political leaders and comedians alike."
Gates has acknowledged that his officers reacted too slowly, but he has placed most of the blame on Lt. Moulin, who ordered the initial retreat from Florence and Normandie avenues (which Gates does not criticize) and then did not quickly redeploy his officers to that intersection (which Gates considers a major error but which Lt. Moulin says was not his decision).
In effect, Gates' reaction to the riots was similar to his reaction to the King beating. Just as he had said he was "sickened" by the King beating--and, subsequently, "shocked" by the not guilty verdicts--he said he "felt absolutely terrible" about the LAPD's failure to rescue truck driver Reginald O. Denny from the beating he suffered at Florence and Normandie. But just as he argued that the King beating had been "an aberration," an isolated failing, not evidence of a systemic breakdown, he argued that the LAPD's failure to respond at Florence and Normandie was a "glitch," an isolated failing, not a systemic breakdown.
Lt. Moulin, however, told the Los Angeles Times in a Page 1 interview published last Thursday--and the New York Times in an interview published last Friday--that the problem was far broader than that. He said he had received no training and saw no plan for dealing with possible violence after the King verdicts, and he said it was his superiors, not he, who made the decision not to return quickly to Florence and Normandie. Gates, he said, had "sold me down the river" in blaming him for the violence.
Gates did admit that the LAPD made several other mistakes in the riots--including one he made himself. He concedes that he was wrong, in the early hours of the riots, to attend a previously scheduled fund-raiser in Brentwood sponsored by opponents of Charter Amendment F, the June 2 ballot measure that would bring massive reform to the LAPD. But overall, Gates defends the preparation and the execution of his department's riot plan. The LAPD, he said, gave a "beautiful" performance during the riots.
Moreover, he has suggested that the department's initial reaction was exactly what he had warned about for months amid all the criticism of the department after the King beating. He said then that criticism in the media was undermining LAPD morale and forcing officers to think twice about acting forcefully on the street, especially in minority communities.
Had the riots not been so murderously destructive, Gates might even have felt vindicated in his warning. But just as he said no one should feel vindicated by the verdict in the King beating trial, he takes no comfort in seeing the city he has served for 43 years blow up in his face.
Gates has complained several times since the riots, however, about the bitter irony of hearing accusations that the LAPD was not aggressive enough during the riots after he had been criticized for an overly aggressive approach to law enforcement throughout his 14-year tenure as chief. The LAPD responded slowly to the riots, Gates said, in part because "we did not want it to appear that we were overreacting." The department, he said, did not want to risk provoking even worse violence, especially since "everything I did or said was suggested as being provocative before this occurred."
"I was fearful of being riot-ready and having everyone say 'Daryl Gates started a riot,' " Gates said in an interview last week.
Indeed, on the morning of the day the riots began, The Times had published a story under the headline "Black Leaders Accuse Gates of Inflaming Racial Tensions." The Daily News published a story the same day in which black community leaders were quoted as urging Gates to "guard against overreacting to public response to verdicts" in the King case.
The riots were "a no-win situation" for Gates and the LAPD, says Harvey Levin, a reporter for KCBS Channel 2. "If they'd gone in strong and killed a couple of blacks early, everyone would have said--we would have said, you know we would--that this just proved that they're brutal, that despite what Gates had said, Rodney King was no aberration."
Several other people, in the news media and in the LAPD, used similar language--"damned if you do, damned if you don't," "between a rock and a hard place"--to describe the position in which Gates and the LAPD found themselves when the riots broke out.
Although Gates has subsequently said he does not think his officers moved slowly because of earlier criticism, a New York Times editorial three days after the riots asked:
"How did Los Angeles police get to a situation where they hesitated to restore order for fear their very presence would make things worse? . . . When Los Angeles needed its police most, it found Chief Gates hesitating, fearful that the combative style he had sold as the only route to law and order would only hasten its collapse."
A Daily News editorial two days later said Gates owed the city and his department "a strong and heartfelt apology . . . for his incompetent response to last week's riot. . . . For all his tough cop talk, Gates dropped the ball last week. He should leave now, while there are still some people left to say some kind words about him."
But for all the harsh words leveled at Gates in the print media, much of what happened in the early stages of the riots was a visual story, and television's coverage of that contributed significantly to the barrage of unfavorable attention directed at Gates and the LAPD.
KCOP Channel 13 had a helicopter over the Florence and Normandie intersection, broadcasting live, starting about 6:30 p.m. the first day of the riots, and a helicopter from KCAL Channel 9--which had been up briefly before having to land for refueling--returned just before 7 p.m. and resumed its own live broadcast. Virtually every TV station in town broadcast footage that either showed (live, during the riots) the absence of LAPD officers or (later, in a reconstruction of events) the retreat of the LAPD.
A day before the Los Angeles Times--albeit less comprehensively--Linda Douglass, political editor of KNBC Channel 4, gave the first brief chronology of the early hours of the riots, illustrated with a videotape showing that at least 10 LAPD cars had been a block from Florence and Normandie avenues at the onset of the riots. Rocks and bottles are seen hurtling toward the cars, and the cars drive away. The next day, KABC Channel 7 showed a similar video.
The live telecasts had the greatest impact, though, by contributing to the widespread impression--vigorously reinforced by the print media--that Florence and Normandie was the flash point of the riots and that a faster, more forceful police response might have greatly reduced, perhaps prevented the spread of violence, arson and looting.
It was not until two weeks after the riots, when Gates testified before the Police Commission, that the media reported in detail that "other trouble spots were developing simultaneously," as a Los Angeles Times story put it.
That story cited "a tape of police radio broadcasts obtained by The Times" as showing at least eight other areas in South Los Angeles where there was gang activity, shooting, cars being stoned, windows being broken or stores being looted in the first 90 minutes after "trouble first erupted near Florence and Normandie."
But that story was published on Page 18 of The Times. A similar story, published on Page 9 of the Daily News--without benefit of the police tapes--simply attributed the information on the multiple trouble spots to Gates, thus making him seem defensive, he says, whereas the tapes make clear that on this one point at least, he was stating facts, however one wishes to interpret them. Most other newspapers published nothing at all on the multiple trouble spots. Yet newspapers all across the country had published Page 1 stories saying that tardy police response at Florence and Normandie may have triggered the spreading violence.
Gates insists that a quick response at Florence and Normandie, even if effective, would not have curtailed rioting elsewhere, and he is convinced that media criticism of him and his department for early inaction is typical of the media's determination to depict him and his department in the worst possible light--a charge that editors and reporters deny.
The media said often, however, that the riots killed and injured more people and caused more damage than the Watts riots in 1965--and more, for that matter, than any other urban U.S. riot this century. Despite that--and despite the tardy response of the LAPD--the riots were essentially over in three days. That was faster than the LAPD ended the Watts riots--and faster than police ended any other major urban riot in this century--with fewer shooting deaths at the hands of LAPD (six) than in the Watts riots (16).
These facts neither justify LAPD tactics in the early stages of the riot nor mitigate the tragic loss of life, property and human spirit in the riots. Moreover, as victims and television viewers know, looting continued well beyond the first hours of the riots and far beyond the initial flash point, without police intervention. The LAPD alone did not bring the rioting to an end. The presence of the National Guard and the imposition of a curfew by Mayor Bradley played key roles.
Nevertheless, until Gates pointed out the quicker curtailment time and lower death rate in a news conference nine days after the riots, the media either minimized or ignored those facts. Even after the news conference, neither The Times nor the Daily News mentioned the shorter riot curtailment time until the last paragraphs of their stories on the news conference--and the Daily News story that day did not mention the lower number of deaths at the hands of the LAPD in these riots.
In the course of the first two weeks after the riots, there were several other examples of coverage of Gates and the LAPD that were open to second-guessing--especially by Gates and his supporters.
The Los Angeles Times, for example, published a story May 4 quoting remarks Gates made the night the riots began, while he was attending the fund-raiser in Brentwood. The Times story quoted Gates as saying of initial police response to the riot: ". . . There are going to be situations where people are without assistance. That's just the facts of life."
Unlike several other newspapers that reported those remarks, however--the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Daily News among them--the Los Angeles Times did not report the next sentence that Gates uttered: "There are not enough of us to be everywhere." The Times reprinted Gates' remarks six days later and again left out that sentence.
The omission may leave the impression that Gates was callously indifferent to the suffering of those whom the LAPD could not help, but Rich Connell, the reporter who wrote those stories, says the omission was certainly not intentional.
"I don't recall leaving it out or why I would have," he says.
A day before that story, the Daily News published a story, based on internal LAPD reports, saying that as a field commander in the Watts riots in 1965, Gates had "ordered officers in the 77th Street Division to pull back in the face of attacks on white bystanders and officers by a rock- and bottle-throwing mob."
The Daily News said this decision was "similar" to the decision Gates "publicly criticized" Lt. Moulin for making in the recent riots.
But what Gates criticized Lt. Moulin for was his failure to quickly redeploy his men in the area. As the Daily News itself had quoted Gates saying one day earlier: "He pulled out of that area and I am not quarreling with that decision. That was good judgment."
Moreover, Gates told a second Daily News reporter who called him at home on the day the paper published the "Gates Ordered Retreat in '65" story, that the retreat had been ordered not by him but by William H. Parker, then chief of police.
"Down on the field," Gates said, "I and other officers complained privately." (In his new book, "Chief: My Life in the LAPD," written before the riots, Gates also says he was "ordered . . . to retreat" in Watts, and he says he thought that "an unwise decision" at the time.)
The Daily News says it stands by its original story, but it did report Gates' comments on Parker's orders the next day.
Gates insists the first Daily News story is just another example of how the media are out to get him.
But Gates has also taken his share of potshots at the media--and especially at The Times. The day after rioters threw rocks at the Times Building, breaking windows and causing an estimated $500,000 damage, Gates was answering questions from several reporters about the inability of a small group of LAPD officers to keep up with such roving bands of rioters.
"The only place that we were delighted that they moved to was the Los Angeles Times, and we encouraged that" he said. Then, after a pause, he added "Joke, joke, joke."
Gates is a political conservative who has delighted in criticizing the media. Most journalists are liberals who are remarkably sensitive to criticism, despite the enthusiasm with which they often write it themselves. It would be difficult to deny that in the 14 months between the King beating and the riots, the overwhelmingly negative media coverage of the LAPD in general and of Gates in particular may have created an atmosphere in which many journalists were increasingly predisposed to think the worst of Gates. The sense of personal outrage that many journalists felt over the not guilty verdicts in the trial of the officers involved in the beating inevitably exacerbated that predisposition.
When Gates called a news conference May 8 to defend himself and his department, the hostility and skepticism of some reporters was evident in the tone of their questions.
Kenneth Reich, longtime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, says he has noticed a "mind-set" at The Times and other media since the King beating that has resulted in Gates receiving "less than a fair shake.
"It's not all his fault," Reich says.
But editors at The Times and elsewhere deny that there was any conscious effort, individual or collective, to make Gates or the LAPD look bad. Journalists, like most other people, often have strong personal feelings on controversial issues, they acknowledge, but they are trained to set those feelings aside and to cover stories as fairly and impartially as they can.
In covering the performance of Gates and the LAPD in the riots, they say, most errors of either commission or omission were the inadvertent product of deadline journalism under trying conditions, not bias--either conscious or unconscious. In the rush to cover a shocking, fast-breaking news story with enormous political and sociological implications, mistakes are inevitable. The real wonder of such coverage is that more mistakes aren't made--especially in a volatile, violent, emotionally charged situation like a riot, in which finger-pointing and self-justification vie for Page 1 headlines with grim statistics on death and destruction.
Did the LAPD go through "extensive training and preparation" for a possible violent reaction to the King verdicts, as Gates says? (He has post-riot reports and evaluations from his various area commanders that suggest there was at least some preparation.) Or was the LAPD largely unprepared, disorganized and paralyzed, as the media have reported, based on interviews with many in the LAPD. (Deputy Chief Matthew Hunt told The Times: "We were just not prepared to deal with something with this magnitude in a very, very short time.")
Did the failure of the police to respond quickly to the "flash point" of the riot at Florence and Normandie trigger the ensuing violence, as the media have reported? Or was the violence already so widespread and fast-moving that police could not have contained it quickly, no matter how they initially reacted, as Gates maintains?
Was there a complete breakdown of the command leadership in the LAPD, as several in the LAPD told the media? Or were the early LAPD mistakes isolated "glitches" that marred an otherwise excellent performance, as Gates says?
Certainly, the prevailing impression is that the LAPD screwed up badly and that Gates' defense has been inconsistent and self-serving. A Times Poll earlier this month showed that 81% of the people in the city disapprove of the way Gates is handling his job.
As The Times said in a Page 1 news analysis May 10:
"When all is said and done, when the investigations are over and the reports are written, it is unlikely that Police Chief Daryl F. Gates' analysis of how his department responded to the recent riots will survive the scrutiny."
But definitive answers to these questions--and many others--won't be available until completion of the study to be directed by William H. Webster, former chief of the FBI, who was appointed by the Police Commission to examine the performance of the LAPD in the riots.
Indeed, coverage of the riots--and especially coverage of the LAPD's performance in the riots--could become a case study of how the media try to come to grips with a fast-breaking story of enormous significance, a story that elicited all the media's strengths, weaknesses, quirks, ironies and tales of individual initiative and institutional lapses.
To take but one interesting example:
The New York Times and the Daily News gave the first prominent attention to Gates' attendance at the Brentwood fund-raiser the night the riots began. Both papers mentioned that in the second paragraph of Page 1 stories two days after the riots began; the Daily News also put a large, six-column headline--"Gates Attended Fund-Raiser as Riots Grew"--on the continuation of the story across the top of Page 4.
The L.A. Times did not mention the fund-raiser until the 16th paragraph of a similar (but more complete) story on LAPD's slow response to the riots; that story began on Page 1 but the reference to the fund-raiser appeared in the continuation of the story on Page 11.
Why did The Times give such short shrift to what soon became a major controversy?
"Given the salient question of the moment--where were the police?--I think the reference to the chief being at a fund-raiser was used in proper context," says David Freed, the reporter who wrote the story.
Gates' absence from Parker Center was "more symbolically important than operationally important," says Leo Wolinsky, city editor of The Times. The LAPD should have been ready and able to respond to the rioting, regardless of where Gates was, Wolinsky and other Times editors say.
It is often difficult, of course, for reporters and editors to decide just how various components of a complex story fit together in a short time--and it's easy to second-guess those decisions later.
"You're writing on deadline," Freed says. "You're getting a lot of people feeding you information. You're doing reporting yourself. The city's on fire."
Ironically, however, it was another Times reporter--Connell--who first questioned Gates about the fund-raiser and provided the information that Freed used.
Connell says that shortly before 6 p.m. on the first night of the riots he decided "someone should stay with Gates through this," and he hotfooted it from The Times to police headquarters two blocks away. He stationed himself in the hallway outside Gates' office and, aware of the fund-raiser, questioned Gates as he left for the event, then drove there himself.
Connell was refused admittance but stayed until Gates left, when he questioned the chief again. Then--at a news conference the next morning--Connell asked Gates if he thought the fund-raiser had been "an appropriate place for the chief of police to be and did that in any way inhibit the response, the mobilization?"
Connell may have been the only reporter at the news conference who knew about the fund-raiser and recognized its significance, and Douglass of KNBC says his reporting on it--"staying with Gates, getting the information, asking the questions . . . was the single best piece of reporting in the whole riot, politically speaking."
Although Connell did not write the first story in which that information appeared, he wrote a story three days later challenging Gates' contention that he had only spent "five minutes or so" at the fund-raiser. The story said that a tape of his remarks showed he "spoke with opponents of the ballot measure, Charter Amendment F, for about 20 minutes . . . left . . . about 30 minutes after arriving and was back at the city's Emergency Operations Center between 8:30 and 9 p.m."--meaning that he was gone from the center for an hour and a half to two hours, maybe longer.
Purely symbolic or not, that information became a major factor in the controversy that quickly swirled anew around Gates.
It was that same story, however, that first omitted Gates' comment, "There are not enough of us to be everywhere," from his remarks that ". . . There are going to be situations where people are without assistance. That's just the facts of life."
In the newspaper business, errors of omission and commission are also "the facts of life." But what most people are likely to remember about media coverage of the LAPD throughout the Rodney G. King affair and the ensuing riots are not the errors the media made. After all, The Times, in particular, provided what Edwin Diamond, in this week's New York magazine, called "without a doubt, the best, calmest, most informed" coverage of the riots. The impact the media had--the effect they will have--on the LAPD and on the city is what will endure, long beyond any specific errors or individual stories.
In the course of all that coverage, the media changed the image of the LAPD as dramatically as Jack Webb and Bill Parker did 40 years earlier. That probably wouldn't make Sgt. Joe Friday happy. But then he probably wouldn't be happy that reporters no longer wear badges either.
Peter Johnson of the Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
A Chief Under Fire
In the days after the outbreak of the riots, the media focused on the theme that--thanks largely to Police Chief Daryl F. Gates--the Los Angeles Police Department was confused, tardy and indecisive in the first stages of the unrest. Gates has said the LAPD "did not want it to appear that we were overreacting," did not want to risk provoking even worse violence. Gates has conceded the department made some errors in the riot but says its performance overall was "beautiful" and he criticizes media for its negative portrayal of him and the LAPD.