End of an Era at the LA Weekly
The key moment in the paper's shift to the right came last October, when the Weekly appeared with a cover story reeking of tabloid sleaze. The article was about Miguel Contreras, a brilliant strategist and a charismatic movement leader who had headed the County Federation of Labor and had died the previous year. According to the Weekly, he collapsed in a South Central botanica (a purveyor of alternative medicine) that was later raided by the LAPD vice squad as a front for prostitution. The Weekly had never run that kind of piece before, but it was exactly the type of story the New Times favored: investigative hit pieces that target local bigwigs.
"I thought the Contreras piece was legit to do," Kevin Roderick told me, "especially the focus on local officials trying to hide what went on." Staff writer David Zahniser argued that it was the same kind of piece as the stories revealing Martin Luther King Jr.'s extramarital affairs. Meyerson, who said the article should have been headlined Labor Boss Croaks in Hooker's Arms, replied in an open letter to the staff that circulated widely on the web, "There's a crucial difference. King's private life had public consequences: the FBI monitored it and threatened King with exposure. But we're not covering Miguel's private life; we're covering his private death, and it's hard for me to see how the circumstances of his death had public consequences."
Will Swaim was editor of the Weekly's sister publication in Orange County, the OC Weekly, before he resigned in January. I asked him whether he would have run the story on Contreras's death. "No," he replied. "Because Miguel Contreras had not made an issue of anybody's sex life. When [former Congressman] Bob Dornan claimed he was a family values guy, and we discovered he beat his wife, that was news--because he made it news." (Swaim is a friend and former student.) Tim Rutten of the LA Times said, "The story had no bounce. There are reasons for that, and they don't have to do with deference toward the power structure. Nobody else thought it was a story."
The "Miguel story," as it's now known, came out the same week Meyerson departed and the week before Jill Stewart was named news editor. She had been a freelance columnist and Schwarzenegger enthusiast whose website makes the unlikely claim that she is "the most influential journalist in Los Angeles." Stewart made her name in the late 1990s at Mike Lacey's New Times LA with an over-the-top attack on Mike Davis for errors in the footnotes to his book Ecology of Fear (see Wiener, "LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters," February 22, 1999). "She's polarizing," Roderick argued. "She has a lot of fans--and a lot of people who see her reporting as not trustworthy and politically biased from the right."
The pattern seemed clear: Kicking out Meyerson and bringing in Stewart indicated the Weekly was taking a sharp turn away from the left. Meyerson was not just a columnist. He had been executive editor for twelve years, starting in 1989, then--after moving to Washington in 2001 to edit The American Prospect--continued at the Weekly as political editor, then editor at large. When I asked Stewart whether her arrival signaled a political change, she replied, "I find that topic utterly boring and backward-looking." Editor in chief Laurie Ochoa told me, "At a time when I was facing large budget cuts and trying to save as many staff jobs as possible, I made the decision to discontinue Harold's column in favor of writers whose first priority was the LA Weekly." But the paper isn't run to save staff jobs; it's run for readers to read, and cutting Meyerson meant cutting the columnist who had done the most to spotlight LA's progressive movements. His writing about the Latino-labor alliance was clearly incompatible with Lacey's agenda.
When I asked Ochoa about the political shifts signaled by hyperlocalism and the end of endorsements of candidates, she did not respond. Neither did Lacey. But he has often said that he wants his seventeen papers to stop running what he regards as politically correct stories about society's victims, to stop what he sees as boring Bush-bashing, and instead feature "hard-hitting investigative reports" that make waves locally.
The paper he bought had an immense amount of talent to do that. The greatness of the LA Weekly before the New Times takeover had been not only in Meyerson's columns blending history and political analysis, not only in Cooper's coverage of national and international politics and not only in John Powers's essays about "Bush World." It also had a great news department, where news editor Alan Mittelstaedt and editor in chief Ochoa brought together some of LA's top investigative reporters. They included City Hall reporter Jeffrey Anderson, who wrote an award-winning exposé of incompetence and cronyism at the Department of Water and Power, and Zahniser, who did a strong cover story on gentrification. Mittelstaedt put together an award-winning special issue on smog. The newsroom buildup culminated with the summer 2006 hiring of the talented Daniel Hernandez away from the LA Times to cover Latino issues. The result was an alternative weekly with origins in the 1960s counterculture that had become a serious journalistic force in America's second-largest city by 2005.
But increasingly since the New Times takeover, the paper seems to be wasting that talent. "There was a time not all that long ago," said Rutten of the LA Times, "when we felt like we had to read the Weekly as soon as it came out, because they were competing with us. I don't think people at the Times feel that way any more. That's a loss to the city." The Weekly's star writers are increasingly turning out New Times-style hit pieces. In February Zahniser blasted away at a school-board member whose offense consisted of remodeling his house without a building permit. That's the kind of "hard-hitting investigative reporting" that few people really care about. (As we go to press, LAObserved.com reports that Zahniser is leaving the Weekly for the LA Times because he "chafed at working with Jill Stewart.")
Mittelstaedt, the news editor fired in November to make room for Stewart, was back a few weeks later with an article about a UCLA cop who repeatedly Tasered a handcuffed Iranian-American student in the library. Video posted on the web showed the kid screaming in pain while dozens of horrified students watched. The video caused a national scandal, especially after the LA Times reported that the cop had also shot a homeless man on campus three years earlier and had been recommended for dismissal after an alleged assault on fraternity row. The old Weekly would have investigated the cop, but Mittelstaedt's piece was headlined Taser 'Em All. It declared that "the Iranian-American punk who provoked--yes, provoked--the Taser attack at UCLA should be expelled for momentarily distracting the entire world from more meaningful thoughts." That's not exactly investigative reporting or a critique of the powerful. But it represents the kind of contrarian, screw-you mentality that fits the New Times worldview now evident at the LA Weekly.