Variety editor-at-large Peter Bart was a correspondent in the Los Angeles bureau of the New York Times in August 1965 when he was called to cover the unfolding urban unrest in Watts.
Fifty years after the riots, Bart talks about his experience, and how some of the misperceptions still linger about what fuels urban violence, including the idea that the media coverage itself somehow fans the flames.
“The most interesting question when thinking back on it was this: The media feels, and critics of the protests sometimes today feel, that there’s a tendency of the protest to act for the camera,” Bart says. “They see the CNN cameras, they see the mobs of reporters, and so the protesters react, they are playing to the cameras in a way. But thinking back on Watts, the protesters, the rioters were behaving exactly the same way then as they do today, and there were very, very few reporters around… The protesters behaved the same way, and said the same things, and were just as irate.”
Bart is joined by Doug Smith, who joined the Los Angeles Times in 1970 and recently wrote a piece on that paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage. To his surprise, the paper’s initial coverage focused on the violence yet little on the root causes, and took at face value the word of such polarizing figures as Police Chief William Parker. It wasn’t until two months later, after some criticism, that the Times did a deeper probe of the factors that led to the riots.
“We weren’t covering that community,” Smith says. “We didn’t know leaders there, and we didn’t know what people were thinking, which was a failure that our editor acknowledged two months later when we launched a massive examination of the issues that led up to the riot, which is a reason I think we did win the Pulitzer Prize because we learned from our mistake and did a much better job.”
Josh Ginsberg of Zignal Labs talks about how some candidates, like Bernie Sanders, have held their own despite the lopsided media focus on Donald Trump. He also challenges perceptions that Trump is the shape of things to come for campaigns — in other words, unfiltered and unscripted wins out over staged and disciplined.
Ian Alberg, political consultant and former Clinton White House adviser, talks about Hillary Clinton’s meeting with activists of Black Lives Matter, and whether such moments are essential to breaking through the noise of political coverage.
Scrutiny of Soft Talk
Brent Roske of the Des Moines Register’s Roske on Politics and Cynthia Littleton of Variety talk about the coming campaign on daytime and late night talk shows, as Hillary Clinton is set to appear on “The Ellen Show” and Jeb Bush is set to be a guest on the premiere of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Ted Johnson, airs Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS.
Photo: New York World Telegram/public domain