Time to get over Antonio

DANIEL HERNANDEZ is a staff writer at LA Weekly.

An occasional feature in which The Times invites outside critics to box the ears of the paper.

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IS THE Los Angeles Times too easy on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa? Ahhh ... Does the mayor have a crush on himself?*

It's been a year since Villaraigosa took office, and he has clearly enjoyed the afterglow of extraordinarily positive media coverage.

I know because I helped generate it. While a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, I covered Villaraigosa's mayoral campaign and the first few days after his victory. I remember the electricity that seemed to follow the candidate. On election night, I filed a take describing Villaraigosa's party outside Los Angeles Center Studios amid jacaranda trees, a sentimental visual that appeared high up in the newspaper's main front-page story the next day.

You can't blame me -- or The Times, really -- for falling for the Antonio Effect. The magnetic mayor is a force to reckon with, a fact reflected in the paper's predominantly favorable coverage of him in his first year in City Hall.

At times, The Times acts as if it's still gaga-ing over Villaraigosa's election. The most dazzling recent example was a sweetly penned Column One story that ran on Cinco de Mayo. In it, the mayor is depicted barreling across the city, attending a 5K race, an African American church service, a Holocaust memorial, a dinner with the president and a party for pal George Lopez. The story began: "Most of his constituents were fast asleep on a peaceful Sunday morning when Antonio Villaraigosa zoomed full-throttle into another frenzied day."

Hold the presses, folks.

The mayor is energetic, shows up everywhere and likes to "roll up his sleeves." It's a trope that The Times -- and other local media -- have beaten to death.

Compare this treatment with the newspaper's coverage of Villaraigosa's predecessor and campaign opponent, James K. Hahn. Despite being from storied lineage in L.A. politics, the former mayor was generally depicted as a boring, absent and vaguely corrupt technocrat. Late in Hahn's term, news stories were more likely to point out when Hahn was not at some important event than when he attended one.

Or compare The Times' treatment of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor, who can match Villaraigosa's star wattage, is the subject of relentlessly skeptical enterprise reporting, from the infamous groping story on the eve of the 2003 recall election to the expose on Schwarzenegger's multimillion-dollar contract, now ended, with a muscle-magazine publisher.

Villaraigosa, by contrast, is feted with stories on what he wears, what the interior of his house looks like, his jokes and how cute it is that the mayor does jury duty.

There's a possible explanation. Villaraigosa is the very picture of America's growing, sizzlingly ascendant Mexican American middle class. For too many media outlets, it's easy to get caught up in the symbolism and hype so neatly packaged in the mayor.

But, you protest, it's "Antonio!" We want him to succeed. We want him to keep us safe, keep us excited about living in L.A. We want him to snag the Olympics, an NFL team and a bigger subway system. We want synchronized stoplights and racial harmony. We want him to make it to the governor's mansion in one squeaky-clean piece. We believe in the man. I mean, he's from East L.A.! How cool is that?

The reality is that Villaraigosa is a politician, and politicians are, first and foremost, concerned about getting, holding and expanding power. Look at the school-takeover plan.

The Times has reported vigorously and extensively on the plan, a welcome shift. Its stories have come at the issue from many perspectives, and its editorials have questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of the mayor's current plan to make the school district more accountable. Even so, the paper sometimes seems an unwitting cheerleader.

On June 21, for example, The Times published a story on a new study by Education Week on dropout rates in the L.A. Unified School District, leading with Villaraigosa's claim that it bolstered his case for taking over the district. Fifteen paragraphs into the article, however, we learn that mayoral control does not automatically equal improved student performance: "The Education Week study found that New York City has a graduation rate of nearly 39% and put Chicago, the nation's third-largest district, at 52%. Both Chicago and New York have school districts controlled by mayors."

In covering the South Central Urban Farm, no Times story flatly declared that Villaraigosa failed to save the urban garden, as in: "In a defeat for his progressive base and his 'green mayor' credentials, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa couldn't keep the bulldozers from leveling the South Central Urban Farm...."

Instead, the paper focused on the celebrity spectacle at the farm and never fully explained the high-stakes negotiations taking place behind the scenes. When the mayor's office announced that Ralph Horowitz, who owns the land, had rejected a city offer to buy the farm for $16.3 million, The Times simply reported this, going no deeper. In fact, no concrete offer was ever made, as the LA Weekly reported.

After their election, most big-city mayors enjoy a honeymoon from local press criticism. Villaraigosa has received an unusually long one from the most powerful paper in town. But there are other sides to him that need exploring, such as his sustained ties to controversial developer and property owner Richard Meruelo, who waged one of the largest independent campaign on behalf of the mayor's election. There's also his unceremonious dismissal of Margie J. Reese as general manager of the Cultural Affairs Department.

Villaraigosa loves himself enough (see his portraits that line the hallway to his City Hall office) for journalists to keep puckering up too. Instead, we should cast a critical eye on everything that he and his staff say and do. The Times bears the responsibility for setting that tone.

*Answer: Yes, and almost surely -- in case you were wondering.

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