BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last Halloween, three white women were surrounded by a mob of black teenagers in Long Beach, California and amid a barrage of racial epithets, viciously beaten. The attack was prosecuted as a hate crime, yet until guilty verdicts were delivered recently, the episode received spotty regional coverage and merited barely a mention, even from the sensation-hungry universe of cable news. Examining the coverage recently in The LA Weekly, reporter Kate Coe concluded that the media were paralyzed by racial politics. She joins me now. Kate, welcome to OTM. KATE COE: Oh thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: You say that the case was under-covered. How do you measure? What's your standard? KATE COE: Well, for example, look at the Duke rape case. In writing in Slate, Jack Shafer had complained that The New York Times had done 20 stories in the first month. It ran a story before there was even an arrest. This, The Long Beach Press-Telegram covered it, the local CBS affiliate did a quick story; The L.A. Times covered it finally with a story on November 7th. And, interestingly enough, no national electronic media picked it up until News and Notes on NPR covered it on November 29th.
There was no national television coverage, partially because it's a story with minors who you can't show, and the victims had not wanted to show themselves at that time. But nobody worked very hard at finding a way to do this story either. BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned The L.A. Times. It was the focus of your piece in The LA Weekly. You said not only did they undercover the story, at least early, but they kept changing the reporters assigned to it, which you believe is evidence that it was a low priority for them. Do you, apart from your own suspicions, you know, have any evidence yourself that they deemed this a low priority? KATE COE: The L.A. Times would not go on the record for my story outside of one email from Doug Frantz, the managing editor. And I did speak with Joe Mozingo, the reporter who ended up covering the majority of the case, at the trial and informally, but he would never go on the record.
Most of the time with a big newspaper, like The L.A. Times, if it's a great story, one reporter's going to want to carve out his or her territory, and they're going to cover it. The Times shuffled it around to ultimately six different bylines before Mozingo got the case. BOB GARFIELD: What do you believe is at the root of this? Why would this big sensational case not receive, you know, banner coverage in the local, regional daily? KATE COE: I've had people say to me, unfortunately off the record, that if The Times had more black people in their newsroom, they might have covered it in different ways. BOB GARFIELD: What does the race of the reporter have to do with it? KATE COE: Maybe the reporter doesn't need to be black, but they should be comfortable with asking different types of questions in that sort of urban teenage world environment. One of the defendants' uncles, a guy named Karl Rowe, was at court every day and was handing out a self-published pamphlet where he was explaining the root of this whole problem was that the white women hadn't understood what the black guys were saying to them, and that, in fact, it was taunting back and forth and it was sort of sexual, but it wasn't intended to be racist.
The Press-Telegram, within, I think, the bounds of whatever their stated editorial policy is, was able to let the reader know exactly what was said to these women, whereas The L.A. Times kept brushing it over. The L.A. Times early on pretty much accepted what the defendants' lawyers said, that these were good kids, scholars, never had a problem. They were all athletes.
As is coming out in the reporting now, after the verdicts and after the sentencing, most of these kids had been in trouble before; they had been suspended. They had prior brushes with school authorities for violence. Most of them had very chaotic home lives, which was completely different than the picture that The Times had painted of good, working class parents; their kids had never been in trouble. And nobody ever questioned that. BOB GARFIELD: Can you divine from the coverage – or under-coverage – of this story something larger about how the media cover any story that so explicitly concerns race? KATE COE: I think for too long the media in America has been very comfortable when they have to cover black people as victims. That's something they know about. That's something that's - it's easy. They aren't going to get angry letters, angry emails, angry phone calls from people for daring to suggest otherwise.
It's very hard to have to look at the actions of individuals as individuals, and it's very easy to lump people in a group. But as long as media insists on covering people in a way that they're comfortable with, I don't think we're necessarily going to get real stories on this. BOB GARFIELD: Kate, thank you very much. KATE COE: Oh, thank you. It was a pleasure to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Kate Coe wrote about the Halloween attacks for The LA Weekly. She also blogs for mediabistro.com.