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Our Times, Your times, Hard times

by Robert Scheer Saturday, Sep. 16, 2000 at 1:48 PM

Robert Scheer's farewll column in Our Times, Santa Monica. Referred to by Karen Pomer in her open letter.

OUR TIMES Santa Monica

Thursday, September 14, 2000


Our Times, your times, hard times

The closing of the Our Times newspapers is a terrible loss for the Los Angeles Times and for the communities the local papers have served. I say that without any sense of special pleading, having too many venues for my own work, which will still appear on The Times op-ed page on Tuesdays and in Westside Weekly on Sundays.

As a reader, however, I will miss the Santa Monica/Venice Our Times, which has provided--as many readers have attested--a rare sense of community. What the young reporters and editors brought to this little paper, with limited resources and in such a short time span, was a major contribution to what journalism ought to be.

More important, this experiment has been conducted with Our Times sections throughout Southern California, and in other communities the loss will be even more serious.

This is a literate community. Other newspapers exist and new news sources will spring up on paper and on the Internet. But for most of Southern California, the Our Times experiment represents the first serious effort by the Los Angeles Times to cover the vast mosaic of life in this region with something other than a shocking headline about yet another tragedy.

At least on the Westside, there are people with resources to make their voices heard. They will fill the vacuum of a newspaper's demise. But what about the communities of Crenshaw or Montebello, neglected so completely before the appearance of a local Our Times? Does it not matter when their high school teams win or when their kids are victims of violence?

At one point a couple of years back, Frank Del Olmo, a Los Angeles Times associate editor, came to my class at USC to explain why The Times was going to launch an Our Times in the heavily Hispanic community of Montebello.

He made the point that the valedictorian at Montebello High School has far less of a chance of ever being mentioned in the Los Angeles Times then a gang kid in trouble. One of my students had been the valedictorian at Montebello High School. He sadly agreed and signed up to work with Our Times. He said he owed his community that.

Sometimes printing statistics of prep sports or the goings-on at local school board meetings is more important than much of what runs in a daily newspaper, particularly in this heterogenous and oddly spread-out community.

Our Times sections proliferated throughout Southern California and performed a service in those communities that the parent newspaper, or television, never could, or would, do adequately.

It's a matter of geography: We all know there is no simple Los Angeles that the Los Angeles Times must serve. Not in the sense that it's like New York, Chicago or Pittsburgh, where the centers of power and responsibility--be they in education, policing or commerce--are concentrated and easily covered by journalists, the first step toward holding powers accountable.

The opposite is the case here. Power is divided into fiefdoms, sometimes quite tiny ones, which control most of what people care about in their daily lives. Why can't they get a crosswalk or traffic signal at an intersection where several people already have been run down?

What of the voice for the voiceless, be they blue herons looking for a place to nest in the shrinking Ballona Wetlands or immigrant workers threatened with a firing if they dare exercise their right to speak out and join a union? How else to check the power of a multinational corporation like PacBell or the old GTE when they arrogantly inform you that your area code must be overlaid and there is nothing you can do about it? Showed them, we did.

If there is one thing that I have learned in the 2 1/2 years of writing this column, it's that most of the big decisions that affect people's lives are made not in Washington, D.C., or even Sacramento but much more locally, and those decisions can very often go unobserved except by rich developers and their army of lawyers.

Consider the massive development throughout the Westside and its implications for traffic, air quality and every other aspect of your lives. The developers hire the top local lawyers, highly connected folk, who bill handsomely for showing up at all of those planning and City Council meetings until the wee hours of the morning.

Never have I understood so clearly the compelling maxim of the journalist: to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. For both abound here, and the contest between them is woefully unequal.

If I never write another sentence, I will go to my grave happy for having challenged the Jonathan Club for firing loyal workers and replacing them with contract workers. The club of the rich, steeped in a century of racism and anti-Semitism, had still not developed any sense of shame over disrupting the lives of those less fortunate. Club officials said their action was not in retribution for some fired Jonathan Club workers speaking out before the Santa Monica City Council in support of a living wage initiative. No, they said, this was only a matter of efficiency. Is it efficient for this society to deny its workers stable employment and the minimal benefits needed to sustain life?

What do the rich care about justice or truth in today's freewheeling market economy? They can buy a free conscience with contributions to charity dinners--those weekly coming-out parties for fashion worshipers that are mechanisms for displaying the latest trophy wife.

They can purchase slick campaign brochures trumpeting a phony living wage initiative they put on the ballot in a shameful mockery of the democratic process. An initiative that would prevent any action by the elected officials of Santa Monica, who must daily deal with the fallout of poverty, homelessness and illness, from taking necessary steps to ensure that those who work can eat and live properly.

That money for the campaign came primarily from the owners of four major hotels, who are battling the unions over paltry salaries for their workers. I have been digging into where that money comes from, and I discovered in the instance of Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, the money's origin was misreported in election filings.

Will the metro section of The Times have the time or interest to do that sort of digging on such local turf? No, most likely, and despite the best of intentions the journalists, both print and electronic, who attempt to cover Southern California will rarely get down in the local dirt, where the deals are made and where the public so consistently loses out.

I love Santa Monica and its politics because it is one of the few communities where people still feel they have the right to fight city hall with a reasonable expectation of winning when their cause is just.

Sometimes it seems to take forever--like those neighborhood people trying to get the high-powered electric power lines underground--but they show up at meeting after meeting and finally are heard. The same for the complainers about airport noise, the North of Montana anti-monster mansion campaigners like Doris Sosin and a myriad other supporters of good causes.

A pessimist might say that good folk like Sosin are bound to lose. Just look at the proliferation of franchised coffee houses on Montana Avenue and all of these chi chi boutiques. Not to mention the Bubbas threatening to replace the venerable Boathouse on the pier. But they still haven't been able to replace the old funeral home with yet another glossy strip mall. Here I disagree with Sosin: Instead of turning it into a green space, what this city needs more than anything is a nonalcoholic nightclub for teenagers. What better place, given the nature of current pop music, than a funeral home?

Hey, let's not get too morbid. Life goes on; good battles will be won.

As I used to tell my kids, nighty night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite. But if they bite, put up a good fight, for the end is not yet in sight.

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