City of Anger
When the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers unleashed brutal riots, the city's news media scrambled to cover a story that was unfolding at a furious pace. Ron LaBrecque went behind the scenes at KNBC television news and the Los Angeles Times to examine how they reported on a city in turmoil.
By Ron LaBrecque
Ron LaBrecque is a freelance writer based near Boston.
It was a story that took the Los Angeles media by complete surprise. News managers at KNBC and the Los Angeles Times thought that at least one of the four police officers on trial for beating Rodney King would be found guilty – and anticipated little trouble on the street.
Times editors had started planning their coverage of the verdict just as the jury began its deliberations. As it turned out, that gave them a week until verdict time. City Editor Leo C. Wolinsky was in charge.
"I wouldn't say it was a riot plan by any means because I don't think any of us really expected what happened," he says. Wolinsky had about 25 reporters, at least one in each police division of the city, whom he planned to alert by beeper when the jury returned. They would then fan out to record community reaction. "It was my belief that depending where people lived, and their circumstances, their view of this thing would be very different," he says.
Wolinsky should know. He grew up in East Los Angeles and joined the Times 15 years ago. He has served as state capital correspondent, government desk editor, early morning assignment editor, California political editor, and since last October, city editor.
His counterpart at KNBC was News Director Nancy Valenta, a former executive producer for the station who had 10 years of experience in L.A. and Miami. In preparation for the verdict reaction, she had nine trucks capable of transmitting live, each dispatched with a crew and a reporter.
Reporters from both organizations were well-placed to watch the chaos that police officers and firefighters couldn't stop. And while pandemonium swirled through the streets, both the Times newsroom and the KNBC studio were calm. Quite different work was being done at each: television focusing on the immediate, print taking stock of the ramifications.
April 29, 3:15 p.m.
Staffers at the Times and KNBC gathered around television sets to watch live coverage from the Simi Valley courtroom. The Ventura County court clerk read the verdict.
"There was stunned silence," Wolinsky recalls. "Everybody looked around. For a moment you just stood there and froze." At KNBC, "You could hear a pin drop," Valenta says.
The news managers, counting on a conviction, were now faced with uncer-
tainty. Switching gears would be more complicated at the newspaper, with its emphasis on explanatory detail, than at the television station, which reacts to the moment.
Wolinsky told Managing Editor George Cotliar that his team would still provide its planned package of eight stories. It would include articles on the jury's reaction, the political fallout from the verdict, and the racial divisions in the city.
"Within a few hours, though," Wolinsky says, "the riots broke out and the question became, 'What does this really mean?' " For starters, it meant covering the riot.
One of the black Times reporters monitoring public reaction was John Mitchell. He would soon face an extraordinary test of a journalist's mettle, but not before being temporarily hobbled by the mundane.
Mitchell talked with a group of men watching the courthouse scene on television in a Crenshaw Boulevard bar, then hurried to his car to pursue the story elsewhere. On the streets around him a flash flood of anger was rising, although he did not yet sense its intensity.
He knew where he wanted to go next: further along on Crenshaw near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to "a barbershop where the political discussion tends to be quite heavy and the television is always on, and a local restaurant owned by a former politician where most of the black power brokers tend to go for breakfast." The reporter turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. The battery was dead. "It's an L.A. reporter's nightmare," says Mitchell.
April 29, 4 p.m.
KNBC viewers were watching the tension mount throughout the city. Reporter Furnell Chatman came on air to announce, "It's been an active and exciting afternoon here." He seemed out of breath as he watched the Simi Valley courtroom empty out off-camera as he spoke.
The station then aired a snippet from the medium's most significant contribution to the Rodney King story, the already famous amateur video of The Beating. As the short segment rolled, Chatman told viewers, "This dramatic video did not convince the jury that the officers used excessive force."
As the shock of the verdict spread, a KNBC camera crew went to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central Los Angeles, where many of the city's black religious leaders had gathered. Tears of anger and frustration streamed down the face of the Rev. Cecil Murray as he listened to the verdict. He criticized the jury for "completely whitewashing something the whole world witnessed. This is brutalization of truth."
Soon the station was airing contrasting images with greater rapidity. Its live coverage returned to Simi Valley and focused on an elated Larry Powell, the policeman who, in the amateur video, had delivered the most baton "power strokes" to King's body. He leaned into a microphone at a post-verdict press conference and with a wide grin announced that he was "very happy. I know I'm innocent." A reporter asked him if there was going to be a celebration. "Yeah," Powell replied. "But I'm not gonna tell you where."
It was 4:39 when someone on KNBC first alluded to the potential for violence. In a live interview, District Attorney Ira Reiner expressed his disappointment over the verdict and asked residents to refrain from violence. "That would be destructive," he said.
After that, there were more and more references to violence in KNBC reports, although for the most part people were pleading with the community to remain calm. Shortly after 5 p.m. Mayor Tom Bradley, venting his own outrage, urged viewers who felt aggrieved to "let words be the form of their expression and not engage in some form of physical violence."
KNBC then interviewed Rodney King's attorney, Steve Lerman, who placed the verdict in a bitter context: "It may be that 12 white jurors aren't going to convict four white cops of beating a black man, and maybe that's as basic as it is."
Some critics have charged that such televised denunciations of the verdict provoked the violence. A review of the chronology, however, indicates that many rioters weren't watching television after the verdict. They headed for the streets.
April 29, After 5 p.m.
By the time Mayor Bradley was speaking to the city live, L.A. Times reporter Mitchell had scrambled to find a rental car and continue his reporting. At one stop he watched a television report about looting, but the station did not reveal the address. "I called the desk to find out where it was taking place and there was no doubt in my mind that that is where I would be heading," he recalls. "They told me Florence and Normandie. I just headed south on Crenshaw."
Mitchell estimates that he arrived at the intersection just before 6 p.m. "As I was heading east on Florence one of the things that stuck out in my mind was that there was a lot of anger," he says. "I could feel it. I could see people looting. Someone ran up and threw a rock through the window of the car in front of mine."
The reporter, who had covered a 1977 Brooklyn riot, says the violence was random. "I was just trying to figure out where to get out of the car and where to begin to report. I didn't feel that with the sense of anger and tension in the air that it was a good time to get out of the car and say, 'I'm a reporter.' "
When Mitchell neared the intersection he was following some fire trucks, but they made a U-turn and headed back.
"I was a block from the intersection when I saw Tan Tram [a rush-hour commuter]. She was kneeling on the sidewalk, bleeding from a cut on the side of her face. Her car had gone up on the sidewalk. The windows were smashed." No one was helping her and there were no police officers present.
In an instant Mitchell made a pivotal decision, one that strained against his journalistic training. "I decided that I had to get out. I realized that if this woman didn't get out of there she could be more seriously injured. She was concerned about her car. I said, 'Don't worry about your car.' I showed her my press pass and figured it was no longer a story at this point, it was just a matter of getting this woman to safety."
Mitchell remembers that a woman from the neighborhood yelled to him, "If you don't get her out of here they'll kill you." The reporter put the injured woman in his car and told her to keep her head down. In a few minutes they were at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital.
Mitchell called his editor, Don Hunt, from a pay phone in the emergency room to explain that he had "blown it" by leaving the story. Hunt requested a first-person piece on Mitchell's heroics, which the reporter dictated from the hospital.
Standing in the emergency room, the journalist-turned-Samaritan watched as other injured people from Florence and Normandie filed in. "A UPI reporter who was hit in the head was brought in," he says. "It was at the hospital that I realized how dangerous it was."
April 29, 5:30 p.m.
While Times readers would not know until the next morning what had happened to Mitchell, KNBC could broadcast the turmoil as it was unfolding. The station had scrapped regular programming at 3 p.m. but still announced its scheduled news shows and switched to new anchors for its 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. programs.
One question that lingered after the riots was whether television's live reports of violence and looting – which showed that the police were nowhere in sight – inspired even more lawlessness.
Jess Marlow doesn't think so. Marlow was co-anchoring the 5 o'clock news with Colleen Williams when his producer told him about an unconfirmed report of looting at Florence and Normandie. "We didn't go [on air] instantly," Marlow recalls. "We could see pictures of people running in, but there was no evidence at that point that it was a lawless gang. In a few minutes we realized what it was and then went on."
Marlow believes that airing the live pictures of violence and destruction actually did more good than harm. Although there may have been more loss of property because the live reports told looters the police weren't stopping anyone, he says the coverage also helped rush-hour commuters avoid trouble spots, "prevent[ing] further human suffering.
"I have no problem that we showed it before there was a police presence and showed it to a large audience."
It was shortly after 6 p.m. when KNBC anchor Keith Morrison made an announcement; its significance would increase mightily as time passed. "We're going to go live now to our Channel 4 telecopter in the area of Normandie and Florence in South-Central Los Angeles where the telecopter has spotted a crowd on the street and the police have gathered there, too," he said.
At the controls was Cliff Welsh, a soft-spoken man who was nearing his 60th birthday. He seemed unfazed by the activity below him. Years before he had flown a National Guard helicopter over the Watts riots and won five air medals and a bronze star for his piloting in Vietnam.
Cameraman Dane Adams, meanwhile, was securely strapped in as he hung partially out the helicopter door zooming in on the action below.
"We've been monitoring this situation for about a half-hour and it looks like a very unruly crowd," Welsh told Morrison and the station's audience. "It looks like looting going on at Tom's Liquor Store. A lot of rocks being thrown at cars. A very ugly scene. The police departed about 10 minutes ago, but I think they're coming back because this is a very ugly situation."
KNBC broadcast overhead shots of Florence and Normandie for only a few minutes before airing reports from other locations, including the First A.M.E. Church and Rodney King's family home.
At 6:30, KNBC broke away for the "NBC Nightly News."
Shortly after 6:45 p.m., Nancy Valenta, working in the routing room where the live feeds from reporters in the field are received, saw a picture that shocked her.
Welsh was circling 300 feet above Florence and Normandie. Adams' camera was trained on Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was on his hands and knees trying to fend off an attack by several black men. Valenta's decision was instantaneous.
Colleen Williams also was watching the pictures on a monitor. Valenta and the station's managing editor motioned to Williams to get to her chair and prepare to go on the air. "They didn't say anything," Williams remembers. "They didn't have to. We were all watching the same pictures. I ran up to the seat. They called for [co-anchor] John Beard, who was only 20 feet away in his office watching the same thing. I heard the director in my ear, as I'm in the process of sitting down, say, 'You're on.' I think they showed 'live special report' and went right to the picture.
"I think once you get over the surprise of seeing pictures like that, you're just describing the facts," Williams continues. "I don't think it crossed my mind not to be inflammatory. I think what was important to get out, and I repeated this several times, was that this was a small group, a very small group making a loud noise."
Los Angeles television stations were criticized harshly for showing the violence at the intersection and elsewhere. In retrospect, Valenta has no problem defending her decision: "When you're having events happening of that caliber..you'd almost be negligent not to go on the air and tell people where there are severe trouble spots... It's news happening, it's a reaction to an action that happened within Los Angeles."
As the anger on the street boiled over, station management did agree to a police department request to stop airing the Rodney King beating tape.
Later, New Republic Senior Editor Fred Barnes criticized Welsh and other television helicopter pilots for not landing and rescuing Denny and others. Welsh says that would have been impossible: "There wasn't any place to land, the whole intersection was full of people and automobiles. Accidents were happening. People were jumping on cars."
April 29, 6:50 p.m
Keeping emotions in check can be a difficult task. As he watched the live shots of motorists being beaten, KNBC's Beard says, "I was as angry as I've ever been on the air. I remember saying the only crime the people being beaten had perpetrated was trying to drive home and they may have had no knowledge of the verdict. I remember questioning why the police didn't respond. I was angered by the Denny beating. A couple of viewers called and said I could have been more objective in that situation.
"For the first couple of hours we had precious little information," Beard adds. "We only knew what we saw. There was high drama with human moments that all of us were affected by."
Jess Marlow, among others, was disappointed by KNBC's lack of effort to bring in experts to provide substantive commentary on the live coverage. "Television is terrified of the talking head," he says. "We got a school psychologist on. We were worried about the children watching this and the sheer terror some of them must be feeling. That kind of information is very helpful." For the most part, however, station management did not consider calling in academicians or other professionals with expertise on urban social conditions.
Valenta says KNBC anchors offered enough commentary to accompany the visual images the station broadcast around-the-clock for the first two days of rioting. "I think we can always do a better job," she says. "Those first 24 hours we really didn't have time to think about it. The story was breaking at so many spots, [we] were just trying to make sure we were logistically getting everywhere." For Valenta, that meant following the trail of looting and burning instead of "analyzing the last hundred years in Los Angeles."
KNBC reporter David Garcia says it was difficult to assess the threat of reporting on a riot. Like most TV reporters, he is easily recognized on the street. In his case, he is well-known for his environmental series called "Earth Watch" and has been dubbed "Earth Man" by the station's weatherman. "I don't mean this in a frivolous way," Garcia explains, "but [when] one person runs by with a gun, threatening, and then someone runs by with a [stolen] TV and says, 'Hey, Earth Man,' you're really torn in different directions about just how dangerous this is."
There were, however, plenty of truly life-threatening circumstances. Rick Chambers was an experienced reporter who had covered riots in Miami. But when he stood outside the Foothill Division Station of the LAPD, announcing a live shot for KNBC while hunched over to avoid a volley of sniper's bullets, it was only his third day on the job in Los Angeles.
The acquitted officers had worked out of the Foothill Division at the time of the King beating, and the building had been turned into a "fortress" after the verdict, Chambers says. "The rocks and bottles starting flying. That's when somebody opened fire. That caught me completely off-guard. Everybody hit the deck."
Nonetheless, his on-air performance was measured. "You try and keep that calm tone and just tell what you see," he says. "You know when to turn off lights, when to move and not move. You may inflame the situation when [protesters] feel the media has taken one side."
Times reporters were not faring much better. A number of them suffered injuries and many more, says Wolinsky, "got the hell scared out of them.
"Somebody walked up to one of our photographers and pointed a revolver at him, point blank, and started firing – six shots," says Wolinsky. "Somehow [the gunman] tripped – or he was drunk – and he missed."
April 29, 7 p.m.
Times editors, like almost everyone in the city, saw the first violent incidents on television. As they watched, dumbfounded, calls started coming in from the dozens of Times reporters who hours before had fanned out throughout the city to cover community reaction to the verdict.
Although some minority reporters would later criticize Times management for its coverage [see sidebar, page 24], Wolinsky says initial assignments were based solely on the need to cover a quickly developing story. "You need to get people out there," he says. "You don't have a lot of time to philosophize. There was very little consideration given to ethnicity or race of our reporters. We were sending people ."
The paper's 6 p.m. first-edition deadline passed with little fanfare – editors weren't especially concerned because it only reaches a relatively small number of readers outside the city. But when KNBC and other local stations aired the beating of Reginald Denny later that hour, Times editors knew their coverage for the 10 p.m. local edition would have to go well beyond a verdict and reaction package.
In the opening hours of the rioting, the editors could not predict how the story would progress. Wolinsky and others wanted to eliminate confusion and provide blanket coverage of the city, so they set the paper up to work like a newsmagazine. Each story had a rewrite person and a single editor. In some cases, dozens of reporters on the street filed notes for the same story.
Times editors later said that the reporting and writing system worked smoothly. "There wasn't much panic at all about our ability to close the [editions] and get the stories out," says Wolinsky. "If people called in they could be directed to the right people in the office." News meetings were kept to a minimum. "My memory is just a lot of hurried, on-the-run discussion back and forth," says Senior Editor Noel Greenwood, who was shuttling between the city desk, where the flow of information funneled in from the streets, and Managing Editor Cotliar, who was making front-page decisions.
Decisions on what stories to use and where to put them were dictated by events on the street – and therefore easy to make. "It was all flowing together," says Wolinsky.
April 29, 7 p.m.
KNBC reporters were more defenseless than their print colleagues because they had to rely much more on technology. Reporter Laurel Erickson, who won praise from her KNBC colleagues for her poise under pressure, says that "the problems in covering a story that most create the feeling of being out of control are the technical things – somebody doesn't take a feed or equipment breaks. At one point we had lost a live shot and my boss said, 'You, go get a live shot.' I don't know anything about [the technical aspects of] getting a live shot, but I was like a private. I said, 'Yes sir.' By that time I had lost my crew, and when you lose your crew in a riot, it takes a while to get back. I wish I had said to him, 'Talk to the technical people.' "
When a rioting mob at LAPD headquarters began to move, she followed: "It was like running with the bulls, trying to keep up with all this equipment. There was one distraction. Our guy had set up a live truck underneath a palm tree, and when we were coming across the bridge this guy is torching palm trees everywhere. He lit the palm tree right above the KNBC truck. I said, 'Could you please not light that palm tree?'
"I just set aside a lot of the fear," she recalls. "It was in the truck between stories, especially when we were driving down Vermont to 82nd. I said [to my cameraman], 'Lou, if we get killed, I'm going to shoot you.' There were fires everywhere, a corridor of fire for 50 blocks, and there were no people. The burglar alarms were going off on every block. It was total anarchy. The streets were filled with smoke, like fog. That's when you think you are vulnerable."
April 29, 8:30 p.m.
Times editors had the rare opportunity that evening to participate in the news rather than just observe it. Rioters broke through the newspaper's front door.
Unlike KNBC, which is safely ensconced in the NBC complex in Burbank, the Los Angeles Times building stood in the line of fire. It sits downtown in the shadow of City Hall and a block-and-a-half away from Parker Center – LAPD headquarters. By late afternoon, a crowd had gathered; by early evening, it began to stir.
The police department had surrounded Parker Center with officers in riot gear, but it did not move to quell every disturbance in the area. When people in the crowd set fire to a parking-lot guard shack around 8:30 that night – an event that was televised live – the police did not challenge them.
Emboldened, the mob began to move forward. Some threw rocks, smashing windows at City Hall. Next came the Times building. Editors and reporters on the third floor could see the crowd coming. Someone set fire to a coffee shop across the street.
Unarmed Times security guards retreated upstairs. The rioters immediately smashed windows and trashed the entrance and ground floor. "The rocks and bottles were hitting the windows" of the city room, Wolinsky says. "We had no choice but to sit there by the windows and edit and do our work." He says that at times staffers wanted to hide under their desks: "What we saw here was utter chaos."
With no police for protection, Editor Shelby Coffey III found himself manning the barricades – with a pair of scissors. When rioters started to pepper the building with rocks, a copy messenger ran to the second floor to warn Coffey, who went downstairs, scissors in hand, to the first floor. Demonstrators were just outside the building while Coffey surveyed the damage. When one rioter tried to come through a smashed window, Coffey says, "I shouted at him to get out." The rioter retreated.
"The publisher [David Laventhol] came up and was pleading with us, 'Can't we get somebody who knows somebody in the police department to get the cops out here?' " Wolinsky recalls. The city editor asked one of his police reporters to phone the LAPD. "Of course," says Wolinsky, "there was no response."
The editors already knew from their reporters that the police had vacated many of the more dangerous sections of the city that night. But City Hall? The Los Angeles Times?
"That shocked us so much," says Wolinsky. "You could feel the lack of police presence. It made you angry. This was a situation where government had totally broken down. I knew this is how the people out there, sitting in South-Central L.A. and Koreatown and Hollywood and some of these other areas must feel right now: There is nothing they can do and they are completely unprotected."
Police response turned out to be the single most difficult issue Times editors say they faced the first night. All of their riot-related articles implied strongly that the police were not able to cope. But the fact that "police were nowhere to be seen" as anarchy broke out at the intersection of Florence and Normandie was buried deep in the lead story. And rather than directly address the question of police response, the story instead quoted criticism from District Attorney Reiner.
"There was such major confusion over that issue that we really weren't able to start to get our arms around it until Thursday morning," Greenwood says. "Our field reporters were coming back [on Wednesday night] with incredible reports on the lack of police presence. We wanted to go as hard on it as we could except we lacked any explanation. It was just baffling."
The editors did consider the most damning explanation: that embattled Police Chief Daryl Gates had made a conscious decision to let the city burn. "That was the first thought of some reporters who know [Gates] very well," says Greenwood. "We all looked at each other and thought, 'This is crazy. No police chief would do this.' We bounced the question around, not just with reporters, but with people in the city who are credible people who said we can't just dismiss [the idea]... We wrestled with that notion. You'll never resolve it."
That night Times editors decided to avoid the question and did not offer any explanations in the next day's paper for the poor police performance. On Friday, however, the paper did cite speculation that Gates may have ordered his force to hold back. Gates emphatically dismissed the charge as "nonsense." In late May, Times media critic David Shaw backed Gates in a lengthy assessment of the media's coverage of the LAPD. He said there was no evidence that Gates had "deliberately" put the city's residents in danger.
Overall, the Times' coverage of the riots "was one of the finest journalistic performances I've ever seen or heard of," says Coffey, editor of the Times for three-and-a-half years and a former editor at the Washington Post. "It mobilized hundreds of people. It's a time I will certainly remember with pride... I'm sure that somebody could nit-pick or fly-speck something, but I don't think that takes away from an amazingly fine performance."
April 30, After 12 a.m.
By early morning Thursday, the stream of live pictures of fire after fire had a numbing sameness about them. KNBC anchor John Beard recalls, "It really began to run together. You lose a sense of proportion, but you have to be careful not to do so on the air."
While TV crews were fighting to get their live reports in, Los Angeles Times delivery drivers also had to travel those mean streets. "There were some [circulation] problems," Wolinsky says. "I think the second day we got 93 percent of our papers through. There were some heroic stories down there. Pressmen getting off their shift and getting on the trucks with the drivers to get those papers out, to give them a little security."
Persistence was Times reporter Rick Serrano's key to obtaining the only interview Rodney King has given. "I was just pestering the people who surround him," says Serrano. "I gained a promise that I would get the first interview after the verdict."
On Friday afternoon, with the National Guard rolling out and the city still a tinderbox, officials were apprehensive about King's public announcement, which was scheduled to be held outside his lawyer's office in Beverly Hills. Mayor Bradley was concerned that King might say something injudicious. Some close to King worried about whether he could hold up emotionally in his first public appearance since shortly after the March 1991 beating. And Serrano was afraid that a pack of aggressive reporters from all over the country would ruin his exclusive, even though he had been assured that King would only deliver a short statement and take no questions.
Serrano had spent about an hour-and-a-half with King before his press appearance. During that time, King told Serrano, "When I think about what happened, it puts me way back, maybe 150 years even. I can tell you now what it feels like to live on someone's plantation."
When King finally emerged from the building, Serrano and his photographer went around another way. "It would look obvious that I had had the interview," says Serrano. "I was really nervous; I thought people were going to start yelling questions at him. Going back in I was like a bodyguard, saying, 'Go back,' to the reporters. I was trying to protect my exclusive. Fortunately for me he got inside."
Los Angeles Times reporters Jerry Cohen and William S. Murphy may have provided the most provocative and instructive lesson of the riots. They analyzed the root causes of the anger felt by the city's black community, despite claims from some quarters that great strides had been made in civil rights and economic opportunity. They also pinpointed the deficiencies of the police force's response, particularly what they termed "the major decisive move of the night: a repetition of the earlier tactic of withdrawal, a strategem that had been markedly unsuccessful..."
Cohen and Murphy were writing in 1965 about the Watts riots.
There were, of course, promises then as now from the news media that they would do a better job covering issues of race and class. Time will be the judge of their sincerity.
One could consider the moment of 6:24 p.m. on Tuesday, May 5, six days after the verdict, as the time when the Los Angeles media returned to their routine. It was then that KNBC anchor Kelly Lange, preparing the segue from local news to Tom Brokaw and the "NBC Nightly News," announced, "Tonight at 11 we're going to run a story that we pre-empted last week for riot coverage and a lot of people have called in asking about. It's about people who say they've seen UFOs." l