LA Story: Backlash of the Boosters
After New Times LA published its first attack, Horton said, "We fact-checked a couple of the 'errors' they cited, just for sport. We took Mike's statement that the '94 Northridge earthquake was the most expensive disaster in American history and had a fact-checker start cold on that. He talked to a disaster research center in Colorado. They said yes, indisputably, the most expensive disaster in American history was the '94 Northridge earthquake."
As with any 484-page book with 831 footnotes, Ecology of Fear contains some mistakes. This is an inescapable pitfall of publishing. No one accuses the New York Times, America's newspaper of record, of "fraud" because every day it runs a "Corrections" column. In 1998 the Times ran 2,130 corrections, an average of six per day. As it turns out, the errors in Ecology of Fear that are so exciting Davis's opponents are either trivial or based on misunderstanding. For example, Veronique de Turenne complained in Salon that, while Davis said there are 2,000 gangs in LA, there are actually only 1,850. When I asked Davis about the discrepancy, he said, "The missing gangs are in Orange County. She's talking about LA County, while I was talking about the Census Bureau's Los Angeles Standard Metropolitan Statistical District, which includes Orange County." But even if de Turenne were right, should Angelenos feel better about the social health of their city because it has a mere 1,850 gangs?
Who are these people, and why are they saying these terrible things about Mike Davis?
Until recently, David Friedman, who wrote the first story attacking Davis, was president of Catellus Resources Group, part of the Catellus Development Corporation, a billion-dollar real estate company that operates or leases 20.9 million square feet of income-producing buildings, mostly in California. Friedman resigned in 1998 to "pursue personal print and broadcast media opportunities," he said in a press release at the time. The company assured its stockholders that, although Friedman had been "named a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Opinion section and a contributor to Inc. Magazine," he would continue to work "as a consultant following his departure."
Joel Kotkin, often cited as "an urban policy expert" in articles about Davis's footnotes, described himself to the New York Times as "a person who was trained as a Marxist" angry that Davis has "bastardize[d] Marxist theory." He is now a research fellow at the Reason Foundation, a right-wing libertarian think tank, as well as a senior fellow at the conservative Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. Kotkin recently argued in American Enterprise magazine that "an increasingly left-wing AFL-CIO" was "bringing class-warfare politics" to Los Angeles. President John Sweeney, he wrote, "has opened the AFL-CIO to participation by delegates openly linked to the Communist Party, which enthusiastically backed his ascent." The heirs of "the totalitarian left," he concluded, are threatening the city of LA. Among the leaders of this menacing camp:Mike Davis. Kotkin is a frequent co-author with Friedman; their pieces on the "new LA economy," extolling sweatshops as examples of immigrant entrepreneurialism, have appeared on Op-Ed pages in the Washington Post and LA Times.
Brady Westwater, upon whose efforts as a "fact checker" both Kotkin and Friedman have relied, is a pseudonym for Ross Ernest Shockley, a Malibu realtor who no doubt was troubled by Davis's chapter "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn." It is a compelling indictment of the systematic neglect of fire dangers faced by poor inner-city Angelenos, contrasted with the waste of public resources providing fire protection for scattered mansions in remote areas of Malibu, where brush fires in the dry season are inevitable. The New York Times did not mention Westwater's interest here and promoted him to the rank of "amateur local historian." Until Friedman publicized the efforts of Westwater, none of the dozens of journalists who received the latter's nutty report would go near it.
The LA Times occupies a special place among Davis's critics. As Davis detailed in City of Quartz, in the first part of the twentieth century the paper's owners were major players in creating Los Angeles, joining in "syndicates to monopolize the subdivision of Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and much of northeastern LA."The Times has never wavered from its commitment to regional development and boosterism. A few years ago, Davis contributed some opinion pieces to the paper, and Ecology of Fear got a mixed review in the book section. But the paper's recent article had a revealing subtext: Davis is too "gloomy" to be "the pre-eminent analyst of Los Angeles' soul." It objected in particular to his description of LA as a place "where the future has turned rancid." The Economist made a similar argument: Davis's success "lies in the fact that the New York publishing establishment has a weakness for books that portray the upstart city of the West, its chief cultural rival, in the worst possible light."