"Internal Uprising" Within LA Times Newsroom Over Racial Inequality, Coverage Of BLM Protests

Journalists at the Los Angeles Times are upset with how the paper has covered the George Floyd protests - with one black reporter suggesting that the paper's focus on rampant looting is 'pandering' to white people.

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." -NPR

The Times' Executive Editor Normal Pearlstine responded to the objections with a series of promises, including to capitalize the "B" in "Black Americans," as is done for Latinos and Asian Americans. Pearlstine also 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," wrote Pearlstine in an internal memo last week 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.

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. -NPR

"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.

Perhaps the LA Times is having difficulty finding black talent given the giant delta between races when it comes to communications degrees.

Times owner and executive chairman, Patrick Soon-Shiong, told NPR of Pearlstine's devotion to the newsroom: "I am responding with a heavy heart to those who have questioned that commitment," adding "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."

Others have accused Pearlstine of ignoring racial disparities in the newsroom long ago.

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. -NPR

"The L.A. Times does not have a good reputation when it comes to black journalists," said Becerra, adding that Angel Jennings is the "only African-American reporter in Metro," and "one of the only ones in the entire L.A. Times."

Pearlstine rejected the requests to boost minority pay - saying that the company's new ownership was beginning negotiations with the newsroom's first union, the Los Angeles Times Guild - which he expected to conclude quickly with 'significant pay bumps for many reporters,' including Jennings - but which have taken over a year.

Read the rest of the report here.