Outright Miracles

It's almost unbelievable that reformers were successful in school board elections, since the mainstream media ignored, downplayed, or misreported their campaigns

By this week, the conventional wisdom agreed upon in the Los Angeles media was that the stunning ouster of entrenched school board members Jeff Horton and George Kiriyama, and the close vote forcing school board member Barbara Boudreaux into a June 8 runoff election, were strong messages that Angelenos are sick of blowhards and do-nothings.

In fact, last week’s election results weren’t messages at all, but outright miracles. And that’s because the very mainstream media that is now trumpeting the wisdom of the voters ignored, downplayed, or misreported the campaigns of the reformers and newcomers who triumphed last week.

It is amusing to watch newspapers and television now scramble to explain how two reform candidates for the school board won nearly landslide victories–Caprice Young and Mike Lansing–and how supposedly invincible board member Boudreaux was beaten by 324 votes and forced into a runoff by Genethia Hayes, and how longtime City Councilman Nate Holden was apparently forced into a runoff by little-known minister Madison Shockley.

Lest one forget the corrosive role played by the media, I would like to note for the record that newspapers and television stations in Los Angeles spent most of their time trying to convince the public that nothing important was at stake on April 13.

For example, rather than explain the roots of the historic attempt by Mayor Richard Riordan to reform the school board by ousting its incompetent core, several members of the media obsessed over the mayor’s Coalition for Kids for raising $2 million for a reform slate that included Genethia Hayes, Caprice Young, Mike Lansing, and incumbent David Tokofsky.

My favorite example of this misbegotten spin was TV reporter John Schwada’s broadcast on Channel 11 just 10 hours before the polls opened, in which he derisively referred to Riordan’s reform effort as a “holy war,” failed to even mention the endless fiascoes created by the school board, implied that Riordan was buying the school district for his rich friends, and then asked the rhetorical question: “Is there resentment? You bet.”

This editorializing was followed by interviews depicting the outrageously out-of-touch incumbents Barbara Boudreaux and Jeff Horton as good people under siege from horrendous outside powers.

But Schwada, to be fair, was one of two TV broadcasters in the city to offer in-depth coverage of the crisis in the schools, and he did present the other side in previous reports. Most noteworthy among broadcasters was Channel 13’s probing and relentless Larry Attaberry, who seems to be the only TV guy in the city who understands that the schools suck.

Moreover, supposedly “all news” radio stations such as KNX barely mentioned the uprising against the school board, and when two reform candidates won huge landslides, KNX’s idiotic news bosses ran as the station’s lead election story a bit about how most of the City Council incumbents had won (this is not news) and gave almost as much time to a restaurateur explaining how to blanch raw beans.

The Los Angeles Times was so uncomfortable facing a hometown crusade for reform–the sort of political upheaval the Times approves of only in unthreateningly far-off places such as Tibet–that in the week leading up to what was the most revolutionary election since the rise of Mayor Tom Bradley in 1973, the paper’s news pages were virtually silent on the school board battle.

The paper’s reporters, Louis Sahagan and Doug Smith, failed to delve into the frightening four- and eight-year records of the sorry incumbents, and ran inexplicably dull stories focusing on fund-raising and boring endorsements that were similar to stories the Times wrote four years ago when the school board election was utterly routine.

Tim Ferguson, a talented reporter for Forbes, was so stunned that the Times’ six in-house columnists wrote not a word about the historic reform effort that he exclaimed to me at a party, “How can the Times even justify its existence?!”

The only diversion from this bizarre decision by the Times to protect the school board’s status quo was an important story by Ralph Frammolino about how Barbara Boudreaux and Jeff Horton had accepted $10,000 checks in sealed envelopes during meetings at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena. Although not illegal, the contributions mysteriously arrived from bilingual education textbook companies that were apparently led to believe that the district, if controlled by Boudreaux and Horton, would attempt to get around Proposition 227 and buy their Spanish-language books.

The Times was hardly alone in acting like nothing unusual was afoot in the elections. The Daily News chose to ignore the school board reform crusade for most of the campaign and completely ignored Frammolino’s story of the unbelievably sleazy conflict of interest on the part of Horton and Boudreaux in accepting the $10,000 checks.

The Daily News, since losing its prodigious digger Terri Hardy, who was reassigned to Sacramento, has backslid badly in coverage of school board shenanigans. Last week, this surprising dereliction of duty by the usually scrappy daily helped cause the near-ouster of reform-minded school board member David Tokofsky, the only incumbent backed by Riordan.

At last count, Tokofsky had beaten Yolie Aguilar by 310 votes in his heavily Latino Valley and Eastside district–about four times better than the teensy 70-vote margin Tokofsky had against another Latina candidate four years ago. (The outcome will not be final until absentee ballots and a write-in candidate’s votes are fully counted next week.)

“People in the Valley were just not hearing about my record or my race,” Tokofsky complains.

Had the Daily News bothered to lift a finger, Valley residents would have learned, for example, that Aguilar is a zealous backer of both whole-language teaching of reading and bilingual education for Mexican-American children–the two most disastrous curriculum fads of the past decade.

It wasn’t just the two big dailies that pretended the huge struggles for power on the school board and the surprisingly rough battle over Holden’s council seat were only about fund-raising, endorsements, and other routine crap that L.A. residents don’t give a damn about.

For example, most of the media gave only passing coverage to an incredible incident on April 8, in which school board incumbent George Kiriyama finally appeared at a candidates’ forum after ducking every other debate with his challenger, longtime private-school educator Mike Lansing.

As the Times recounted in a short article buried inside the Metro section, Kiriyama, rather than participate in a forum with Lansing, gave an unscheduled 15-minute speech about how great he was, then petulantly marched out of the forum with a gaggle of 20 hapless supporters.

The South Bay Daily Breeze was the only paper professional enough to tell voters what really happened that night. Columnist Mary Moore wrote that Kiriyama walked out of the debate with the excuse that he had another commitment. “I wonder if voters will say the same thing when it’s time to cast their ballots,” Moore observed at the time.

The sad truth is, had L.A. voters been forced to rely on their major sources for citywide political news–also including local TV channels 2, 4, 5, 7, and 9–Kiriyama, Horton, and Boudreaux would have been duly returned to office.

Luckily, Riordan’s campaign czar, seasoned consultant Bill Carrick, realized the usurpers would be ignored by the lazy and apathetic local press and made a radical decision to spend scads of campaign money promoting Caprice Young and Mike Lansing in extremely costly cable-television advertising spots. The result was that Kiriyama and Horton were trounced on election night (by 54 to 46 percent and 57 to 43 percent, respectively).

The unprecedented decision to use cable advertising was criticized in the mainstream media. Former school board member Leticia Quezada, on a cable talk show with me recently, said, “What good does it do Caprice Young to reach a voter…not in her district? If I’d had $400,000 to spend, I would have won this race twice already.”

Ironic, isn’t it, that the media fails to cover the races, then gives space and time to people who bitch and moan when the campaigners get around that problem by buying media time instead?

Another outrageous failure by the media was seen in the influential Los Angeles Sentinel. The Sentinel, which pretends to speak for the black community, did not grasp the depth of disgust toward Barbara Boudreaux among its readership. Status quo leaders such as multimillionaire Danny Bakewell and Congresswoman Maxine Waters were given tremendous latitude to viciously attack Riordan. Phrases like “plantation owner” (for Riordan) and “house slave” (for Hayes) were liberally thrown around.

The Sentinel continually implied that Boudreaux was unbeatable. But challenger Hayes, local director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, got more votes and forced Boudreaux into the June runoff.

I attended Hayes’ victory party late on election night–a crowded and upbeat event, even at 11 p.m. People there almost smothered me with thanks for providing the “only coverage” of what was going on in Boudreaux’s District 1, where school test scores are the worst in the city. I was lauded for writing about the “Dance of the Lemons” (where the worst principals in L.A. are transferred into District 1’s poor inner-city schools rather than fired), a practice that Boudreaux allows.

“I guess the Sentinel and the Los Angeles Times are not terribly worried about the schools,” Hayes told me. “I felt like it was a huge victory if my plans for reforming the school district were mentioned, even with five or six words, in the newspapers. The editors of those papers don’t send their children to L.A. Unified.”

Barbara Osborne, a local media critic and public radio show host on KPFK, says, “Only the fact that Riordan pumped so much money into these campaigns forced the media to finally begin to see them as real horse races.” Embarrassed into 11th-hour coverage, Osborne notes, the major media never gave the issues the attention granted by public radio and smaller newspapers.

So in the end, the reformers upended political life as we know it in L.A. And although it’s not supposed to be this way, they did it without the involvement of the supposed “watchdogs” for the people–the mainstream media.

Jill Stewart can be heard discussing her NT columns on Thursdays at 4 p.m. on AirTalk, KPCC public radio, 89.3 FM.

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