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Rancor Erupts In 'LA Times' Newsroom Over Race, Equity And Protest Coverage

Jun 15, 2020
Originally published on June 15, 2020 5:22 pm

The Los Angeles Times' top editor is scrambling to placate journalists of color after years of often-unfulfilled promises by the paper to make grand progress in the diversity of the newsroom's ranks.

Some journalists have used terms such as "internal uprising" to describe their anger over racial inequity at the paper. Scores have participated in intense internal debates over the LA Times' coverage of recent protests and hiring practices, to the point that senior editors have weighed in, promising to listen and learn.

"I would say in the case of black journalists, that we do not have enough journalists in positions where they are able to help us tell stories that really need to be told," LA Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine told NPR. "I've asked myself in hindsight what got us to where we are now."

Related conflicts have toppled leaders at other news outlets in recent weeks. Leaders at The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer stepped down after the publication of an inflammatory op-ed and a provocative headline, respectively, about the civil unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Bon Appétit's chief editor resigned, and a top ABC News executive was put on leave over accusations they mistreated colleagues of color.

In Los Angeles, the inequities sparking today's rancor have existed for years, long before the current owner or editors were involved. But they were brought to a head, journalists throughout the paper say, by Floyd's killing and the protests demanding societal change.

Accusations of 'pandering' to white readers

The LA Times has covered the protest movement aggressively and from a variety of angles. Houston bureau chief Molly Hennessy-Fiske, an experienced police reporter and war correspondent, was among those tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets by police in Minneapolis. On Sunday, the Times published a piece exploring the implications of the evolution of the way black, deaf Angelenos translate "Black Lives Matter" into American Sign Language.

In an internal Slack exchange last week about recent coverage of protests, however, LA Times film reporter Sonaiya Kelley, who is black, said the newspaper had focused too squarely and too often on the question of looting.

"We can't constantly pander to our primarily white audience with stories like this that affirm their biases," she wrote. "One of the responsibilities of the job is to state the facts and tell it true. There's so much implicit bias in those few sentences alone. And it's alienating the viewers we're trying to attract. As well as the [people of color] journalists like me who contribute so much to this paper and then have to read stories like this that oversimplify our struggles and realities."

In response to such objections, Pearlstine, who is white, promised a formal review of the way the paper has covered and characterized the protests. He also pledged new mechanics of writing; From now on, the LA Times will capitalize the "B" in the term "Black Americans," as is done for Latinos and Asian Americans. And Pearlstine has promised to hire a new senior news executive for diversity and that the next hires for the metro desk will be black.

"The conversation taking place at The Los Angeles Times and across the country reflects a necessary and long overdue shift in thinking about racism," Pearlstine wrote last week in an internal memo to staff obtained by NPR. "Without exception The Times is opposed to racism. We must re-evaluate and improve upon our own performance as we commit The Times to documenting and fighting racism whenever and wherever we encounter it."

The memo followed an intense virtual meeting held by editors of the metro news desk with its staffers, attended by some of the most senior news leaders, though not Pearlstine. And the internal Slack messaging boards have been burning up.

Black reporter paid 'shameful' salary as others wooed away

A veteran news executive with national stature who has held the top job for two years in Los Angeles, Pearlstine appears to face increasing skepticism. The population of Los Angeles County is about 9% black. Black journalists made up about 4% of the newspaper's overall newsroom last year. And there is just one black reporter on the metro desk of nearly 90 people covering greater Los Angeles, the largest desk at the paper. There is also a black editor and a newly added black columnist.

"I think if you look at raw numbers, we are as inclusive a newsroom as any I'm aware of in a major media company in the U.S.," Pearlstine told NPR. "But as a reflection of Los Angeles, we are far from where we should be."

Late Sunday, Pearlstine received a vote of public support from a key figure at the paper: its owner and executive chairman, Patrick Soon-Shiong. "I am responding with a heavy heart to those who have questioned that commitment," Soon-Shiong said in a statement to NPR. "I hired Norm Pearlstine not only for his integrity and passion for great journalism, but also because he shared our desire to create a leadership team where women and people of color are ascendant.

"Despite the industry's struggles, he and his team continue to build a diverse, inclusive newsroom," Soon-Shiong wrote. "It's an ongoing process, as is providing coverage that reflects and serves our community,"

Others at the paper say Pearlstine was alerted to racial disparities in the newsroom early on in his tenure.

Pearlstine was hired as executive editor in June 2018 after serving as a senior adviser to Soon-Shiong, a billionaire inventor and physician who had just bought the newspaper. A former top news executive at The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc. and Bloomberg News, Pearlstine had initially been expected to counsel Soon-Shiong about who to select to lead the newsroom.

Just a few weeks later, in July 2018, Pearlstine went to a lunch at a Spanish fusion restaurant in downtown Los Angeles with a half-dozen new colleagues, including editors. Several warned him that he needed to find ways to give notable pay increases to black and Latino reporters, according to three veteran Times journalists. A number of prominent black reporters had been poached by the New York Times, ESPN and other outlets over the years. The colleagues told Pearlstine the pay inequities were glaring.

Several weeks later, LA Times city editor Hector Becerra wrote to Pearlstine asking for a raise for several journalists and highlighting one in particular, Angel Jennings, according to an email reviewed by NPR.

"I want to raise a particular moral issue with Angel (I would otherwise argue that all of these cases, at this point, are moral issues): Through no fault of the current leadership, Angel is the only African-American reporter in Metro. In fact, she's one of the only ones in the entire L.A. Times," Becerra wrote.

"The L.A. Times does not have a good reputation when it comes to black journalists," he added. "She should get something. [She receives] a shameful salary for anyone with her experience."

Pearlstine turned him down, saying the company's new ownership was entering into negotiations for the first collective bargaining agreement with Los Angeles Times Guild, the newsroom's first union. He tells NPR that he had expected those negotiations would wrap up quickly, with significant pay bumps for many reporters overdue a raise, including Jennings. Instead, the contract talks lasted more than a year.

"Over the time between that conversation and the ratification of an agreement, there were some efforts to be responsive to her concerns," Pearlstine said, adding that he did not want to be more specific about an individual journalist's situation. "And those have continued since then."

Pearlstine says he and Soon-Shiong were committed to enhancing the racial diversity of the staff. While his senior leadership team is notably diverse, Pearlstine concedes he fell short in representation below the top ranks.

Staffers note that Pearlstine and his new team of news leaders embarked upon a hiring spree that started that year, bringing more than a hundred new journalists on board to reinvigorate a withered staff. And yet the diversity numbers did not noticeably budge. (A corporate spokeswoman says that new statistics about newsroom demographics are expected to be released to the staff later on Monday.)

"A very large part of the hiring that was done, especially in the first 12 months, did not advance the number of black journalists particularly, but Latino journalists as well, to the degree that people wanted or felt they had reason to expect," Pearlstine tells NPR.

New pledges echo past promises that failed to deliver

Pearlstine's memos last week about the need for change at the paper in light of the national protests over racial injustice made many LA Times journalists anguished and angry, according to Slack messages reviewed by NPR.

One reporter said Pearlstine's promises to review processes and set off a greater newsroom discussion simply echo pledges made in 1992, after the Rodney King riots tore through LA for five days. Another asked why the newspaper failed to hire or even interview strong Latino and black job candidates. One Latina reporter, Esmeralda Bermudez, said she had repeatedly offered senior news editors a long list of potential hires.

"Over the past two years, I submitted three memos to management with 40-50 promising Latino candidates (writers, photographers, columnists, mid-level editors, editors with masthead potential)," Bermudez wrote last week on a Slack channel dedicated to questions of diversity (with the bold-faced emphasis hers). "Not a single person has been hired off these lists. From what I know, only one writer was brought in for an interview."

In written comments to NPR, Bermudez added, "It sent a message that in a region that's half Latino and Latinos make up a small percentage of our newsroom, the hiring of Latinos is not a priority." Latinos make up about 14% of the newsroom, as do Asian Americans, according to the latest figures from the American Society of News Editors.

Metpro training program elevates few journalists of color

Much resentment focused on the role of the two-year Metpro training program, intended to identify, cultivate and hire promising journalists of color early in their careers at the Times and its sister papers. Instead, some staffers at the newspaper argue it was used to boost numbers of minority journalists and to plug vacancies inexpensively. NPR spoke to six nonwhite LA Times journalists about Metpro. They said they did not want to be named, fearing it could harm their careers.

Metpro was created under Times-Mirror, the Los Angeles-based parent company of the LA Times until its sale to the Chicago-based Tribune Co. in 2000. Tribune held the paper under various incarnations, until selling it in 2018 to Soon-Shiong.

On the Slack channels and in interviews with NPR, journalists said Metpro served to bring in African Americans and other journalists from underrepresented races at a junior level. As a result, these journalists say, their pay remained lower than that of peers with comparable experience for years.

Some who have been through the program hail it for furthering their career, as Errin Haines and Akilah Johnson did on NPR's On Point last week. Others say it failed to set them up to succeed.

"I wanted to learn from the best — or from some of the best — journalists in the world, and that's what it was billed to me as," says former Metpro fellow Michael Livingston, who is black. "And I didn't get that."

The 31-year-old had previously worked as a crime reporter for small papers in Virginia and South Carolina. He wrapped up his Metpro stint in November 2018, about five months after Soon-Shiong and Pearlstine took control of the paper.

"There is a lack of structure, a lack of guidance, lack of communication for the journalists of color that they bring into this newsroom," says Livingston, who has left journalism. He said he needed further coaching to flourish professionally but was repeatedly denied opportunities to report.

Livingston says he temporarily filled a reporting job at the Times' suburban sister paper in Glendale, Calif., but the publication refused to consider him for a permanent opening.

Pearlstine tells NPR that he believes the LA Times has improved over recent years.

"It's a work in progress," Pearlstine says. "I think the guild feels that it's not where it would like to be. I think Patrick [Soon-Shiong] probably thinks he spent more money than he ever imagined possible."

The newspaper union first won recognition in January 2018, which helped lead to the sale of the LA Times to Soon-Shiong two months later.

In initial rounds of negotiations to create the paper's first union contract, news guild leaders proposed increasing pay for many veteran reporters and broadening initiatives to bring in more female staffers and journalists of color. Soon-Shiong, a South African immigrant of Chinese descent, has spoken passionately of the need for racial pluralism.

In December 2018, internal union emails from a multimedia editor on the negotiating team reflected the company's resistance to proposals that it interview "at least two candidates from traditionally underrepresented groups, including women, when job postings open up," according to correspondence reviewed by NPR. The proposal resembles the NFL's so-called "Rooney Rule," which requires teams to interview a diversity of candidates for head coaching and other top jobs, and is increasingly common in corporate America.

Union negotiators had advocated that the newspaper also adopt a goal of reflecting the demographics of Los Angeles County, which is more than three-quarters nonwhite. But a senior editor serving as a negotiator for management, Colin Crawford, questioned whether mirroring those demographics would help the paper attract or retain paying subscribers, according to the contemporaneous email. And the account said Crawford argued that some beats, including sports and Silicon Valley, would be hard to staff with black or Latino reporters. (Crawford did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.)

The newspaper ultimately agreed to the Rooney Rule clause. Pearlstine says he has embraced the practice throughout his career. But he added a cautionary note:

"It's one thing to say before you'll fill a job, you want to interview at least two people who either on the basis of race or gender or sexual orientation or would make you a more inclusive newsroom," he said. "That's a very different conversation from saying the next two positions in Metro will not be filled unless they're with black journalists."

In his statement to NPR, Soon-Shiong said, "Michele's and my decision to acquire the Los Angeles Times reflected our lifelong commitment to overcoming racial inequality and supporting diversity. We had come to America from South Africa where, under apartheid, we had been born and raised as 'non-whites,' without the right to vote, own property, attend white schools or visit white hospitals."

He concluded, "We shall continue to build the L.A. Times to be a beacon of equality and inspiration for civil society."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At the Los Angeles Times, just as in newsrooms around the country, the social unrest over racial inequities has brought long-simmering tensions back to a boil. Many staffers there say past promises on hiring and the paper's coverage have fallen flat. Similar issues have cost several prominent journalists at other news organizations their jobs in recent days. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been following all of this, and he joins us now.

Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I understand that one of your sources at the LA Times calls what's happening there an internal uprising. What is happening there right now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, yeah, that was one source's characterization. She's a fairly senior reporter. But I'd say it captured the sentiment of many of the folks I've talked to in recent days. You saw it online in social media comments - LA Times journalists about their own employer as - and you've seen that at other news organizations, too, as people were talking about, hey, we're struggling with these issues, too - the kinds of things that we're seeing in the streets.

But inside the LA Times on private Slack channels, they blew up. And you saw a lot of journalists of color in particular asking for a kind of soup-to-nuts change. They want promises to diversify its newsroom ranks with real teeth in it. They want promises for top editors to think more acutely about its coverage of race, about who's assigned to various stories. They really want the news leadership of the Los Angeles Times to say not only is this a moment that they're acknowledging, but that this will change the way the Times thinks for the future.

CHANG: One of the details that jumps out from your story is the fact that on the metro news desk, which is the paper's largest desk, there is only one black reporter out of something like - what? - 90 journalists. How does that fact play into what you found in your own reporting?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's pretty searing and pretty emblematic of some of the struggles folks are dealing with. You know, there's one black reporter on that metro desk of - I believe it's 88 journalists. And you know, she feels that she, according to her colleagues, is carrying around an unfair burden for reporting on issues important to black people, black populations, black institutions.

And it's certainly not enough to think about how to assign folks to cover the disproportionately important black figures and institutions that dot, you know, Los Angeles County, Southern California politics, policing, business and entertainment. It's just far too heavy a burden for her to bear. You know, she has told colleagues that she feels responsible at times to help out in scouting at other stories to think through, hey, are we framing this right?

And you know, this means even as - or the executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, Norman Pearlstine, acknowledges that stories are missed, and sensitivities are neglected. I spoke with Pearlstein in an interview just a few days ago.

NORMAN PEARLSTINE: If you look at raw numbers, we are as inclusive a newsroom as any I'm aware of in a major media company in the U.S. But as a reflection of Los Angeles, we are far from where we should be.

FOLKENFLIK: Now, in the broader newsroom, there are problem with demographics, too. The newsroom has - a little over 4% of its journalists are African American. Compare that to 9-, 10% of Los Angeles County. The numbers are, if anything, worse for Latinos.

And Pearlstine and his team have made a bunch of recent promises in response to this uprising. He said he will hire a masthead that is very senior editor - deal with diversity issues. He said that they're going to do a comprehensive review of their coverage of recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. He said that they will start - it seems small but significant - to capitalize the letter B in black. It's an important symbol for a lot of folks, as it's done for Hispanics, Latinos, Asian Americans.

So he's saying, look. In that and a bunch of other ways, he's trying to say, I hear you, and we will make progress.

CHANG: I mean, it sounds like a lot of promises. But given the turnover that we've been seeing at other news organizations, does it seem like Pearlstine's doing enough to keep his job at this point?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look. Pearlstine is a giant in the industry - 77 years old, former top editor at The Wall Street Journal, at Time Inc., at Bloomberg News. But we've seen a lot of leading figures forced out in recent days - at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the executive editor; James Bennet, the editorial page editor of The New York Times; and a few others - Bon Appetit. You know, there's strong dissent within the newsroom, and yet, I had just last night a strong vote of support from a really important figure, the executive chairman and owner of the Los Angeles Times. And that's Patrick Soon-Shiong.

CHANG: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.