LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters
What happens to a leading Marxist writer after he gets a MacArthur genius grant, a Getty Fellowship, and his new book hits number one on the nonfiction bestseller list? If the writer is Mike Davis and the book is Ecology of Fear, what happens is that the New York Times news pages, The Economist, the LA Times and a variety of other publications large and small take tremendous interest in opponents who zero in on a few errors in the footnotes, manufacture other mistakes and denounce the book as "fiction" and the author as a "fraud."
The book got many strong reviews, from the New York Times Book Review to Business Week, which called it "compelling" and "persuasive" [see also John Leonard, "California Screaming," October 5, 1998]. But the attacks, which began in October, have been vicious. On its front page, the LA Times quoted critics who described Davis's book as "self-promoting, city-trashing rot"; the New York Times quoted critics who declared, "There's something pathological" about the way Davis has "twisted the facts"; and the normally staid Economist quoted a columnist calling Davis's work "fake, phoney, made-up, crackpot, bullshit." Salon, the on-line magazine, has published three attacks on Davis; New Times LA, a free weekly, has published four; Suck, the Webzine of Wired magazine, has published two; and it's not over yet.
Beginning with his first book on LA, City of Quartz (1990), Davis has been a passionate historian and analyst of the underside of a city built on PR and mythologized from its inception as a kind of dreamwork in the desert. Although it was widely praised, City of Quartz never made the bestseller list and never aroused much criticism. But now that Ecology of Fear has spent seventeen weeks on that list, the voices of the LA establishment, whose policies Davis has excoriated for years (sometimes in the pages of The Nation) are striking back--with a vengeance. At heart, it's a battle over who gets to define Los Angeles: the downtown boosters and their journalistic friends, deeply invested in selling the city as a sunny paradise, or Davis, who argues that developers have placed the city at risk of social and environmental disaster, a disaster "as avoidable, as unnatural, as the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing explosion in the streets." Davis's critics are not out to refute his arguments; instead, they seek to destroy him.
The attacks began in a small throwaway weekly in Los Angeles, the Downtown News, which published an article by former development executive David Friedman reporting on the work of one Brady Westwater, who had set up a twenty-two-page Web site claiming to document factual errors in Davis's book. The Web site and associated e-mail to journalists provided the starting point for virtually all of Davis's critics. Westwater opens his manifesto with a critique of the biographical information on the back of Ecology of Fear, which says Davis was "born in Los Angeles" when in fact he was born in Fontana. Fontana is an industrial suburb about twelve miles east of the county line and is generally considered to be part of greater LA. Davis has hardly kept his birthplace a secret, devoting the final chapter of City of Quartz to Fontana's socioeconomic decline since his birth. For Westwater, though, the flap copy is "much like the Stalinist era creation of non-persons," transforming Fontana into a "non-place." To "claim he is a native son with specific firsthand knowledge of LA," Westwater concludes, "is...well, fraud." Anywhere else, such a denunciation would be dismissed as loony, but Westwater's "fraud" charge has been repeated over and over, even providing the headline for The Economist's story.
The New York Times devoted three paragraphs to Westwater's charge that Davis is "lying" when he argues that LA's good-weather ideology has led to media amnesia about the existence of tornadoes in the region. The Times story then has Davis replying that all books contain errors and "the thing you have to understand about these books is I'm a socialist." In fact, Davis's documentation of the absence of the word "tornado" in LA Times headlines is systematic and convincing, and Davis denies he ever implied that his being a socialist was an explanation for alleged errors about tornadoes.
Besides regurgitating Westwater, virtually all of the critics have focused on three sentences in an LA Weekly cover story on Davis written by Lewis MacAdams. That piece praised Davis's book as a farsighted analysis probing the links between "social injustice and ecological distress." MacAdams also recounted his first meeting with Davis, ten years ago, when Davis was interviewing him for a story for the Weekly. MacAdams wrote that Davis showed him a draft of the interview, which described the two conversing "at the Fremont Gate entrance to Elysian Park, a place I'd never been," and which attributed quotes to MacAdams that "made me sound like I knew a lot more...than I actually did." MacAdams told me he didn't regard this as a problem, and, as he also wrote in the Weekly, "I told him to go ahead with the piece just the way it was." MacAdams rightly insists that this is not the same thing as making up characters or stories. Sue Horton, editor of LA Weekly, says simply, "What Mike did was wrong. He shouldn't have done it." Davis says the same thing: "Yeah, it was a mistake."
But Horton also points out that "a lot of Ecology of Fear first appeared in Mike's column for LA Weekly in '96 or '97. I edited it for the more than a year that it ran. We fact-checked it every week. There was never anything in that column that didn't check."