The Role of Media in the Struggling City of Compton

Originally written for independent study “Advanced Newswriting” course at Occidental College with advisors Bob Sipchen and Scott Gold, fall 2010. Also see “Straight Inta Compton” for more writings exploring one of South LA’s most fascinating and troubled cities. 

Leaders have valued independent media since the early days of our country’s history.  Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States, famously said, “Were it up to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The general assumption is that without newspapers to report and comment on a government’s actions, politicians could –and most likely would – abuse their powers.

National and international media have become increasingly crucial forms of keeping the government in check, reaching out to large audiences through mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, nationwide television, radio networks and internet.

But what about the media that serves small cities, communities and neighborhoods?  Especially when those areas struggle with problematic politics, questionable leaders, poor quality of life and a troubled past?

Cities such as Compton, Calif., many say, are especially in need of local media that can address specific city problems and help locals to respond.

An independent voice, according to this idea, can obtain accurate information and publish it in a way that is accessible and understandable for average residents.  With access to information and awareness of the issues of Compton civic life, residents can take steps to improve their lives and their city.   If citizens are educated about their community, they can then become active, informed participants in government.

Many observers of the recent Bell scandal and coverage by the LA Times agree that news media has enormous potential to root out corruption.

In July 2010, LA Times staff writers Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb discovered that the top officials in the Bell were earning exceedingly more than their counterparts elsewhere in the county and the city of Los Angeles. Bell, located 10 miles from downtown in southeast L.A. County, is one of the county’s poorest cities, with a 90% Latino population and 53% of residents foreign-born.

Although general discontent over the perception of government corruption had been longstanding, the Times article initiated an outcry from Bell residents and prompted an investigation by the District Attorney’s office.

James Rainey, media columnist for the LA Times, was encouraged by the success of the Times as an “affirmation of what journalism can do.”  Without newspapers, wrote Rainey, “Places like Bell can blithely go about their business …..without anyone in the news business sniffing around for months, or even years, on end.”

While many look to major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times to act as a “watchdog” for monitoring local governments and community organizations, others say it can’t be expected to consistently cover local governments due to lack of resources.  They point to the importance of a local press instead.

That opinion was expressed in a recent LA Times article called “Casting a Vote for Chaos.”  The piece analyzed voting in southeast L.A. County cities that have a pattern of turbulent elections, low voter turnout and charges of corruption.

One common factor among these cities was the “lack a vibrant local press and civic institutions that can vet candidates and issues.”

The article quoted Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego, as saying, “You have disengagement and apathy … but at the same time, hyperactivity among elites…There is no watchdog function to constrain their behavior.”

Others quoted in a recent AOL News article by Scott Martelle, a former LA Times reporter, voiced similar opinions.

David O. Friedrichs, a University of Scranton professor who has written extensively about corruption and other white collar crimes, said that “corruption has been part of American culture from the beginning. Greater citizen involvement, including formation of oversight committees on such issues as pay levels, could help, he said, by casting more eyes on the process.”  Friedrichs recommended “active, independent citizens groups that can provide truly independent oversight.”

Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, echoed the belief in the importance of a local newspaper.  When describing the chronic problems of corruption-prone cities, Stern said, “There’s just nobody paying attention.  There’s no newspaper.”

California assemblyman Hector de la Torre, who has led the charge to reform local government, offered an explanation for citizen inaction in exposing corruption. Referring to South LA, de la Torre said, “It’s a heavily working-class community in which the people are just trying to survive and trying to live their own lives, and monitoring their local government is not a priority.”

The article suggests that one reason for corruption in local government is a lack of oversight by citizens and the absence of a local newspaper.

Allison Jean Eaton, former editor of the Compton Bulletin, also believes in the importance of local press.  “The press is the only thing to regulate people in power,” she said in an interview.  “We’re the fourth check and balance of the government; that’s our role in society.”  According to Eaton, “power corrupts,” even if politicians have the best intentions at the start of their careers. Concerning the Bell scandal, Eaton said, “Bell reiterates the need for a local press to constantly report on what the officials are doing. If people are uninformed, they wake up one morning and their city manager is making over a million dollars a year.”

Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer-prize winning commentator, journalist and novelist expresses a different attitude.  Pitts recognizes the limitations of the press in keeping citizens informed and able to act.

His concern is that the news provided by modern media in the times of the internet and major TV networks offers an overwhelming range and quantity of attitudes and slants.  People are apt to choose the media venues that most closely align with personal opinions and beliefs, Pitts said in a recent article.  We are no longer “restricted to the same body of verifiable facts upon which to base our arguments and disagreements,” he said.  “In the 21st century, I choose my beliefs first, then am provided with ‘facts’ to support them.”

This is well illustrated in cities like Compton, where there are many media sources putting forth many different representations of the truth.

Popular belief has it that newspapers offer citizens the best resource for understanding local issues and making decisions about the best course of action to support.  Many say a “vibrant local press,” a phrase used in the “Casting a Vote for Chaos” article, can help cities like Compton to overcome its challenges.

Why Compton?

If news media so influence our cities, it becomes worthwhile to understand the nature and extent of this influence.  For that purpose, we need to narrow our focus to one location, ideally one that represents the characteristics and challenges of the entire area.

Yet, choosing one location is a daunting.  The expanse and sprawl of Los Angeles are legendary and it is easy to become tongue-tied in referring to the East Side, the Westside, downtown and the Valley.  Then there are cities within and surrounding the city of Los Angeles itself – Santa Monica, Culver City and Beverly Hills. Then there’s South LA, often referred to as “South Central,” a patchwork area that includes the city of LA as well as dozens of independent municipalities, unincorporated areas of LA County, and “Census Designated Places.”

Within South LA we find the famous ghettos of Watts and Willowbrook.  The cities of Lakewood, Lynwood and Maywood as well as Bell, Bell Gardens and Bellflower.  We find Habra Heights and Ladera Heights and the City of Industry and the City of Commerce. Compton is surrounded by West Compton and East Compton which is now called East Dominguez Hills.  These locations are somehow similar yet also distinct.  And each is served by a variety of varying media sources.

In this analysis, we have chosen an independent city with a population of 100,000 in the exact geographic center of LA County.  The city of Compton.

Compton represents a microcosm of urban areas that exist throughout the region.  Yet it is unique, colorful, controversial and challenged.  It has been resilient in transforming from open fields to what’s often referred to as a “lily-white” suburb.  For several decades, Compton was a divided city with blacks and whites tolerating, if not accepting, each other.  By the early 70s, Compton transformed once more into a city with a nearly 100% black population and government. At present, the population in Compton is two thirds Latino. Compton has been the home of some of our country’s finest athletes and most innovative entertainers.  As well, it has been home to corruption, crimes and conflicts. Maligned and misunderstood, Compton’s reputation travels throughout the world.

History of an American city

Compton is the legacy of Juan Jose Dominguez (1736 – 1809) a Spanish soldier, explorer and, later, a wealthy rancher. Dominguez acquired Compton along with a 75,000 acre area that included much of the South Bay.  The land was a gift, in the form of a land grant, from Spanish King Carlos III.

Flash-forward to the 21st Century and the advent of industrialization.  In the southern United States, the collapse of the agricultural economy combined with segregation and poverty leading to mass migrations of blacks, first to cities in the Northern States and then, after World War II, to the West.  Many settled in Los Angeles, where the black population became the largest of any urban center in the west.

Until the 50s, racially exclusive housing covenants assured that Compton would remain a “lily-white” suburb.  When those restrictive covenants were lifted, many blacks who had settled in nearby areas such as Watts and Willowbrook, were drawn to Compton by its large residential lots offering enough space to raise a family, have a barn, tend to livestock and grow food, both for their own use and benefit of the community. The neighborhood of Compton known as Richland Farms still maintains this mix of residential and agricultural usage.

By 1965, racial tensions and economic deterioration had reached desperate levels, exploding into riots. Over six days, 34 people died, 1,032 were injured, and 3,438 were arrested.  It was the costliest and most severe uprising in California history, and became symbolic of nation-wide plight of black urban areas.

Despite its proximity to Watts, Compton did not participate in the riots and instead, black and white residents banded together to protect their city and their property.  For a few brief years, Compton existed as a city where blacks and whites lived together and mostly tolerated each other’s presence.  The deterioration brought about by the riots spilled over to Compton  as the surrounding neighborhoods began to transform.  “White Flight” a well known phenomenon whereby white residents leave racially mixed areas for more prosperous communities, is combined with what’s called “Blight Flight,” a similar phenomenon where economically prosperous black residents leave their neighborhoods behind in search of better opportunities for their families.  Established black families deserted Compton for more prosperous and stable areas such as Ladera Heights, Inglewood and Carson.  Only the poorest and most disadvantaged residents remained.  Civic life eroded along with the city’s economic base.

A California Commission formed to identify the origins of the riots, called by then governor Pat Brown, identified high unemployment, poor schools and inferior living conditions as the main factors sparking the riots.  Yet meager efforts were made to address those problems or to rebuild what had been destroyed.

By the late 60s, Compton’s population had become almost exclusively black, giving Compton the distinction of having the largest concentration of black residents in the country.  In a moment of pride for the city, in 1969 Douglas Dollarhide was elected as California’s first African-American mayor of a metropolitan city.

Yet prosperity continued to elude the city.  Escalating financial, housing and educational inequality, the areas loss of its industrial base and escalating unemployment opened the door for the introduction of crack cocaine and other illegal drugs and violent street gangs. Thus the cycle of poverty, unemployment and crime was perpetuated.

In the 1980′s, rural Latinos from Mexico and Central America began to migrate to Los Angeles in earnest and found Compton an attractive location to settle.  As the black migrants had done before them, Mexicans and other Latinos see Compton as a city where they can pursue the American dream. Today, Compton’s population is two thirds Latino and the city now strives for harmony between its black history and Latino majority.  The city seeks to reclaim its once proud reputation that is expressed by Compton’s 2007 PR campaign to counter its reputation for notoriety.  The PR campaign’s slogan is “Birthing a New Compton.”

Challenges of today

Poverty, gangs, drugs and political corruption aren’t the only challenges facing Compton. According to Compton Bulletin editor Allison Jean Eaton, the city offers fertile grounds for an array of misdeeds, many of which Eaton exposed in the Compton Bulletin during her five years as editor. In a post on community forum website Hub City Livin’, Eaton detailed the more serious crimes with which residents must contend.

“Murders, drug-running, gun-slinging, false arrests and false prosecutions, innocent people being framed and put behind bars, cover-ups, 3 o’clock gang members serving as police officers and elected officials, the truth behind Death Row Records, illegal surveillance of citizens, fraudulent acquisitions of land and resources, money laundering, misappropriation of millions in taxpayer dollars and bond funds … I could go on.”

Other issues include a disreputably unresponsive government.  In October 2009, for example, the Eyewitness News television show attempted to schedule an appointment with Mayor Eric Perrodin, but was repeatedly denied requests.  Eyewitness News concluded in an article on its website, “So as the sign announces on the way into town, the city of Compton welcomes you, but Compton City Hall doesn’t. It appears that public officials are unavailable to speak to the public or to the media about these issues.”

Similarly, the local government often squelches discontent from its own residents.  Eaton has noted that residents have frequently been silenced at City Council meetings, accused of voicing personal attacks when they were presenting professional criticism.  Eaton has also noted that some people are scared of speaking out.  She said, “A lot of people in the community are not happy with what’s going on in the city…But a lot of people have somewhat of a fear.  They see that people who do speak out are humiliated in public, are targeted, they remember the former days of the Compton Police Department.”  (The infamously corrupt and mismanaged Police Department was disbanded in 2000 by then-mayor Omar Bradley.)

At present, there are easily a dozen critical issues facing Compton’s government, any one of which would challenge the most well-functioning, resourceful city.   One issue is the imbalance between the population’s ethnic mix and the local government representation.  The City Council, Mayor’s Office and School District and School Board are almost entirely African American although the city’s population is two thirds Latino.  Latino’s seek a greater voice in the city and have recently taken legal action to modify the city’s voting provisions to allow for Latino representation.  These same Latino residents face other, numerous obstacles that prohibit them from having a voice in the community such as lack of education, poor English skills, heavy workloads, fear of deportation, and limited internet access.

Media sources serving Compton

Where can concerned citizens find their news about Compton?

Compton affairs are often of national interest and are covered in the New York Times, Newsweek and Time Magazines and the Wall Street Journal as well as online news services such as AOL and Yahoo.

The Los Angeles Times is a reliable source of information about Compton and the Compton Bulletin has a reputation for more in-depth coverage of community events. A closer examination of news media outlets covering Compton reveals a broad array of sources that include websites, blogs, and community forums. And not only is Compton covered by professional regional and local journalists, but also hyper-local and citizen journalism are carving out a place in the array of voices commenting on Compton.

Click here for a directory of media sources providing coverage of Compton.

Clearly, abundant information is available concerning the affairs of Compton – local, hyper-local, regional, opinion-based and journalistic, and from a variety of perspectives.

Still, the value of so much news coverage is unclear.

One problem is that the various news sources often simply state findings and observations without any analysis.  For example, a recent report and accompanying article in the LA Times reported that “crime is decreasing in Compton.”  A number of articles in other national and various local publications have also repeated that finding.  Yet there has been no attempt to analyze the cause of the crime decline, allowing readers to form their own, uniformed conclusions. Some are concluding that crime has fallen because of the effectiveness of the Sheriff’s Department. Others speculate that crime has simply being relocated to other areas, the Inland Empire. Yet others cite the aging population, the economy and relationships to national trends. Will the media play a role in addressing these questions and provide answers? Will newspapers play a role?

Another problem is that the abundance of information about Compton’s problems doesn’t necessarily translate into effective solutions.

An equally serious problem is the failure to provide news in languages other than English.  While La Opinion, Hoy and other papers cover Compton’s ethnic communities, the news to these communities is necessarily limited.

A final observation is that a social media site in Compton has become the source of a large share of community news.  While this provides the opportunity for discussion and commentary, this kind of citizen reporting also breeds rumor, misinformation and spreads unfounded opinions as fact.

These are only a few of the questions that merit further serious discussion.

The answers seem to lie in fostering communication between Compton and the larger community.  By informing greater Los Angeles and the world beyond about Compton and by bringing Compton residents more in touch with the world around them, it will be possible to create a foundation for common understanding and workable solutions.


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