There is a press conference scene in the Michael Douglas – as President of the USA – film The American President in which he admonishes the press for asking him questions about his girlfriend during the time of a national crisis. “Let’s keep our eyes on the ball,” he tells a chastened press corps. Oh, if only life could imitate the movies. To be more specific, if only our Los Angeles press could keep their priorities in some sort of sane and responsible balance.
On Monday, July l9, 2007, our Mayor appeared at a news conference in which my friend Steve Barr was poised to announce receiving a $7.8 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for his Green Dot Public Schools. The grant is to open 10 high schools in Watts! Yes, 10 new schools – an extraordinary grant and project. Great news for Los Angeles and for the future education of under-served children and youth in Watts.
Mayor Villaraigosa came to the conference to lend his congratulations to Steve and to Green Dot. Unfortunately, the press saw this as an opportunity to grill the Mayor about his personal life. Consequently, the great educational news was lost amidst a piranha-like feeding frenzy by a bunch of reporters whose sense of propriety and whose ability to keep in focus the truly important story went right out the window. Steve Barr stood there, ignored, while the press shouted out at the Mayor insulting and inappropriate questions. It was the media at its worst.
Then to top things off, the Los Angeles Times (Tuesday morning, July 10) reports the whole fiasco and in doing so, buries the Green Dot story in a virtual replay of the press conference by repeating all the inappropriate questions and by again neglecting the Gates grant for 10 new schools in Watts. The Times called the press conference “a near-National Enquirer moment,” yet the article voyeuristically repeated much of the Salinas stuff and totally ignored the real educational story.
“We are just giving the people what they want”… “We are doing what we must to sell newspapers”… “We are just reporting this or that story”… Hogwash to all three media rationalizations for offering what they offer. One, the people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. The press can even shape taste and can lift people’s sights and standards by what they publish. Two, you don’t have to offer crap in order to sell – quality sells, too. The L.A. Times unfortunately chooses frequently to set the bar lower than it needs to. Three, there are more stories to report than can possibly be treated. So the media selects what it reports on. Reporting on Anna Nicole Smith day after day rather than the successes of an inner-city teacher or a social worker in Skid Row now is a choice. Reporting on stupid questions at a National Enquirer-type press conference rather than the Gates grant is a choice.
So, perhaps some of our press corps may have the chance to watch the Michael Douglas conference on a TV rerun of the movie and may decide next time to keep their eyes on the ball. Until then, congratulations to Steve Barr and Green Dot for their Gates grant and their plans and dreams.