The mainstream media were unprepared for the May riots in Los Angeles and were unable to explain the violence except in superficial -- often ignorant and inaccurate -- terms, according to those who testified at a special legislative hearing in California on one of the largest urban disturbances in American history.
Members of community groups, the minority media and academia criticized the mainstream Los Angeles news media in one of six California state Assembly hearings convened to examine the causes of the riots and the ongoing efforts to rebuild Los Angeles.
Representatives from the leading television and print news organizations were invited to explain what they covered and why at the July 31 hearing in Los Angeles but only news directors from KCOP Channel 13 participated.
Though the special committee has subpoena powers, it never intended to force the media to participate, said committee chairman Curtis R. Tucker Jr. (D-Inglewood).
"The hearings are to expose the problems," Tucker said. "The media are as much to blame as every other group people are pointing fingers at. The fact that they didn't even show up -- what can you do?"
Local newspapers and television reporters were accused of being.so out of touch with the community that all were unprepared for the verdict in the Rodney King trial. The trial exonerated Los Angeles police officers of brutality, despite a widely viewed videotape showing officers repeatedly beating and kicking King.
When riots followed the verdict, television and print reporters documented the violence from the streets, but failed to put the upheaval in the context of the social and economic problems of the city's disadvantaged, several people testified.
Especially among television reporters, those testifying charged, the lack of sources in communities hardest hit by rioting led to the worst sorts of racial stereotyping.
Mark Schubb, director of the Los Angeles chapter of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, studied television footage from the riots and recited some glaring mistakes. One exchange, Schubb told the committee, went like this:
"Tell me, Linda, do these people look like illegal aliens?" local anchorman Paul Moyer asked reporter Linda Mour about a group of looters. "Yes they do, Paul," Mour replied on the air. "During the riots, when anchors attempted analysis, it was often specious," Schubb said, "as when Jess Marlow explained on KNBC that the uprising was especially tragic because now, 25 years after the Watts riots, we were just getting to a point where companies were willing to reinvest in South Central Los Angeles and this will set that back another decade."
"In fact, in the last decade alone, [more than] 70,000 South Central manufacturing jobs moved overseas or to Mexico," Schubb said.
"One KABC report claimed that '40% to 50% of those arrested during the disturbances had extensive criminal rap sheets,'" Schubb said. "In fact, police said that as many as 40% had some prior arrest, a statistic that included people with' even a single past traffic arrest."
Schubb gave example after example, from blatant stereotyping to incorrect geographical locations. He blamed news directors and station owners for chasing profits while .allowing journalistic standards to erode.
"The infrastructure of local broadcast journalism has collapsed in the last decade," he said. "Newsrooms are no longer a public service provided by commercial broadcasters in exchange for their use of the airwaves, but are now seen simply as profit centers by a new style of corporate owners," he said.
Newspapers, too, are changing, becoming more concerned with money than with the press's traditional role of exposing injustice and informing the citizenry, said William Drummond, a 25-year news veteran and professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. …