Opinion: How racism at the L.A. Times shaped my journalism career
As a journalist and an academic, I am reluctant to write first-person pieces. However, as I read the mea culpa series concerning the Los Angeles Times’ history of racism in its coverage and hiring practices, I am compelled to tell my experience as someone who grew up reading the newpsaper, and someone who experienced its racism up close.
Journalism is in my blood. My father was the political cartoonist at the Los Angeles Sentinel, which for decades was the largest-circulated African American newspaper west of the Mississippi River. During his more than 40-year career, he was thrice named political cartoonist of the year by the National Newspaper Publishers Assn., the Black press trade group. Over the years, my father and The Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Paul Conrad, became friends.
In high school I edited the campus paper and covered high school sports for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner. I also wrote a weekly general interest column for the Sentinel. In college, I was managing editor of the paper at Los Angeles City College and went on the become a staff writer for the newspaper at Cal State Los Angeles. It was there that Paul Scott, the venerable journalism department chairman, recommended my employment at The Times and other Southern California newspapers. Scott had been highly successful at gaining reporting jobs for his top graduating students.
However, a few days before my graduation, Scott called me into his office to deliver the news that “no one wants a colored reporter.” In particular, the L.A. Times told him they “already had one.”
But my relationship with the L.A. Times didn’t end there: Upon graduation from Cal State L.A. in 1968, I took a public information job with the L.A. County Economic and Youth Opportunities Agency. While there, I took pride knowing that my work was good enough to appear in the L.A. Times, because on several occasions the paper’s journalist covering President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty published my press releases verbatim.
After working for the county I became a professor and eventually the chairman of Pepperdine University’s journalism department. After earning my master’s and doctorate degrees, I become a professor at Cal State L.A.
There, I had my next encounter with the L.A. Times. In 1977 I applied to a summer internship program for journalism professors and was chosen to work on the paper’s National desk. Because I am male, I was privy to sexist comments made about women. A white female staffer once confided to me the racist remarks she overheard about me. That summer convinced me the that the L.A. Times was not a good place to work for a Black man.
In 1979, journalist Felix Gutierrez and I wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review titled “The Demographic Dilemma,” which chronicled the L.A. Times’ poor coverage of the city’s burgeoning Black and Latino populations. It explained reasons for the paper’s revenue and circulation decline despite an overall population increase.
We quoted sources noting publisher Otis Chandler believed inner-city minority residents were not suitable as advertising and consumer targets because The Times was “too complicated” for them to read. This attitude led Chandler to abandon Los Angeles’ urban core in favor of expanding in the whiter suburbs.
It is not difficult to understand how Chandler’s philosophy affected the paper’s overwhelmingly white editorial staff. That very year, in 1979, the paper infamously bungled its reporting on Eula Love, the young Black mother who was gunned down by police in her front yard over a gas bill dispute.
These events led me to co-found, with William Lewis of KNBC and the L.A. Times’ Valerie Shaw, the Black Journalists Assn. of Southern California in 1980. We felt the time had come for African Americans in the news profession to organize. The group continues today as the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Black Journalists.
The same year, I became a journalism professor at USC and received a $250,000 grant from L.A. Times owner Times-Mirror Company to establish the Media Institute for Minorities. The institute offered scholarships, internships, seminars and employment opportunities for students of color at USC and other local colleges. Times-Mirror was incentivized to fund the institute as part of an agreement with the National Black Media Coalition (NBMC), a group that threatened to block the company’s purchase of several broadcast companies with a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission over its dismal track record on minority hiring.
Meanwhile, as the new Black Journalists Assn. of Southern California was recruiting members, developing its organizational plans and beginning incorporation efforts, the “final straw” story appeared in the L.A. Times on July 12, 1981. The newspaper’s apology for the story concerning “marauders” from the inner city “invading” the county’s white suburbs astonished even the most accommodating Black reporters in town.
The Media Institute for Minorities was succeeded in 1984 by The Times’ Metpro program, which still operates today. In 1986 I left USC for Howard University in Washington, where I became associate dean of the School of Communications and chairman of the journalism department.
Racism at the Los Angeles Times has been a source of many experiences in my life, so I applaud the newspaper for its gesture of apology. My father, who died in 2005, would have drawn a memorable cartoon about it.
Clint C. Wilson II is a professor emeritus of journalism and communications at Howard University in Washington.
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