The Front Page
Former L.A. Times Editor Shelby Coffey Looks Back on Covering the 1992 Riots
When the 1992 riots erupted, L.A. Times Editor Shelby Coffey and his team literally jumped into the fray.
ACT I: FIRST NIGHT
The rocks smashed my office windows just after dark--broken glass all over the carpets of the Los Angeles Times’s proud fortress on Spring Street. Down the block, two buildings were on fire. I remember how red the flames looked against the black sky. Chemical fire?, I wondered. Way too close to us, in any case, as were the sirens.
An afternoon of scattered protests around the Southland after the shock of the Rodney King trial verdict had now come right into our house.
The question in the afternoon had been easier: to deploy or not, before the verdict on the four police officers in the videotaped beating of the speeding black motorist. Newsrooms are not typically great on detailed plans and contingencies. We ran on adrenaline and caffeine and competition, and called ourselves, only a little ironically, “The Masters of Disaster.” This time we deployed early, and a damn good thing. Because what came after the astonishing not-guilty verdict that afternoon were three days of intense city-under-siege journalism.
At the end, more than 50 were dead, scores of buildings were burned, looting had become near-epidemic, and the newsroom of the Times had been stretched beyond all previous limits. But the end was, as always, not the end.
History is argument without ceasefire. Whose faults showed most blatantly those April days? Was the legal system stacked against blacks, even after that video? Who was a hero, who a fool, who an avenging angel, who a thief (or worse) and why? Questions still up for debate.
What was not up for debate that opening night was that we at the Times needed police help. As editor, I called Parker Center (police headquarters), hoping the title might get a little notice on what was looking like a bad night for the fabled LAPD. (Worst ever, it turned out.) The phone rang endlessly, without answer.
Next call was to our own uniformed security guards across the street. In the afternoon, the usual couple-of-hundred protestors had marched at Parker Center, two blocks away. By night, the crowd (multihued, it should be noted) had become a broiling mass. More than a few ripped up pavement from a street project unluckily right beside the Times and were hurling away.
“We're pinned in,” said our security guard. An unarguable but disheartening reply.
Then I got a call that looters were inside on the street floor. With one of our bravest newsroom administrators, I headed down to defend our…what? Our computers? Our sense of order? Our flammable mass of paper?
One intruder was coming through the broken windows. I grabbed a pair of scissors and shouted, “Get out!” Luckily for me, he did.
So I went out and walked though the crowds, looking for why they were attacking us. On my tour, this particular crowd was in carnival spirits—though destruction, not sex, was the delight of the evening. It’s catching, as crowd psychologists will tell you.
I called to check on my wife, an emergency-room doctor, on duty that night in comparatively quiet Pasadena. Don’t go out there anymore, she told me—your Brooks Brothers suit won’t fit in. She said that she saw, as patients, a lot of the people who likely were in the streets, and I would be better off editing the copy and letting the newsroom’s Masters of Disaster report from the field.
They did. In fact they later won, for magnificent work sometimes literally under the gun, a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize. But that was a long way away--as was the day, five years later, when I left the Times and was given the pair of scissors that had achieved high status in the retelling.
Today the scissors sit, among my souvenirs, with a window-smashing boulder from the street. My very own Rock, Paper, Scissors from the night Los Angeles exploded.
ACT II: ‘HAS BEVERLY HILLS FALLEN YET?’
What’s most chilling in life arrives when the normal turns lethal. Sweet birds, in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, become killers, a cold becomes pneumonia, the hitchhiker so companionably chatting for 30 minutes turns to face you with a murderer’s smile along a lonely stretch of road…
In Los Angeles, what brought hairs rising on the back of your neck was that the rioting did not stop in the cold light of the day after. Or the next night. Or the next day. The police were overwhelmed, in disarray. The National Guard was delayed (could it be?) because they had too little ammunition.
One aging Angeleno socialite asked a reporter, “Has Beverly Hills fallen yet?” Comic in a way, but who knows what falling cities she may have fled in earlier days. Her question became a mocking slogan for several in the newsroom, always eager for new surprises. That, and “The Riot Diet” some went on: Ice cream by the pint, late at night … Five sleepy hours later, Dunkin Donuts and coffee by the quart … Then back to the coverage.
Rumors were bloody, but reality could be worse. Helicopters hovered over unlucky white trucker Reginald Denny being beaten into the street, with a rock thrown thunderously onto his head. His black assailants did a victory dance.
Photos of Korean merchants, armed and defiant, defending their stores from the torch added to the nightmare mosaic of multiethnic LA.
What had the understandable anguish over the not-guilty verdict turned into? The biggest decision of our coverage was to try to answer that in a series of five special sections, each day the week after the riots.
Our publisher David Laventhol gave us the expensive white space and fine ideas. Even as we continued to cover endless calls for calm from leaders of very many stripes (Rodney King himself: “Can we all get along?” No.), we planned “Understanding the Riots”—building the plane as we flew it.
Looking at the sections today, the Shakespearean range of motives and destinies is still striking.
“The Path to Fury” was the first, recalling the Watts riots of 1965. Antagonism between the police and the black communities echoed down the decades (and would again soon, and famously, with the O.J. Simpson trial).
We took a Studs Terkel approach in another section—short interviews of Angelenos from all walks about the impact of the riots. Studs himself grinned and grabbed reflected glory when he visited later.
“Seeing Ourselves” was a collection of datelines from our then-large foreign and national staffs about how Los Angeles looked from afar—from other capitals, like then-apartheid Johannesburg and then-booming Tokyo (that one titled “Sympathy, Tinged with Contempt.”)
In Afghanistan, our correspondent reported that the unrest in Los Angeles was used at press conferences by contending warlords to show that recent killings in Kabul were, comparatively, not so bad.
I wonder how many of those warlords are still alive? Our correspondent is not. The brilliant Mark Fineman, a newsroom combination of Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, dead in Baghdad, heart attack, 2003, age 51. His name is on the smoked glass wall of the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington D.C. where I work today, and it never fails to bring the sharp pang of nostalgia and loss and admiration—which is my enduring feeling for the men and women of the Los Angeles Times and their coverage of the Days of Rage in 1992.
ACT III: AFTERMATH—THE BIG IF
A letter concerning our coverage came a few days later from a longtime journalistic hero, Gay Talese, author of The Kingdom and the Power, an epic about The New York Times. “I guess that great newspapers are at their greatest when the challenge demands it,” he wrote, “and thus the Los Angeles Times these last several days has set rare standards in reporting—to which I (along with many thousands of others) would like to offer my congratulations.
“I myself was particularly impressed by the two personal accounts on yesterday’s front page by Elaine Woo and Patt Morrison. Here their personal voices and backgrounds lent a dimension to the on-going developments that was unique and so appropriate: and it was admirable too, that the editors put these well-written essays on the front page.”
Indeed, what stands out most, reading the coverage 20 years later, are the individual voices—often from hearts torn by their city in flames and by the cruelty, often racial, revealed and remembered.
No surprise, Gay Talese did not have the last word on our coverage. We were attacked on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal for not sufficiently condemning the rioters in enough places--an acid, highly selective piece that prefigured the polarized debates of today. Luckily, the author missed a couple of key points, so I struck back in a Letter to the Editor the next day and landed hard left hooks.
During the riots, one of our able editors had said in a meeting that we were using black journalists as “cannon fodder.” She had not realized the comment would go public (we’ve all been there). But that jibe made the press when least needed. So we later painstakingly went back and recounted, by ethnicity, each assignment, to each area, during the riots.
We found we had done pretty well fielding a balanced team in areas of higher and lower risk. The Catch-22 here was that an enduring blemish of the Times’s coverage of the Watts riots of 1965 had been the dearth of black reporters; a black advertising staffer helped fill the breach and reported from Watts, where he did an admirable job. After the report on the reporters was made public, the complaint became that we had mostly white editors making the key decisions.
Another one of the Big Ifs of the L.A. riots (the term comes from the risk-analysis profession to provoke counterfactual analysis: “If Hitler had won the Battle of Britain, then..?”): If only a print reporter, not a video camera, had recorded the King beating, then...? If the video had been edited to show King’s earlier provocative actions, then...?
If the jury had explained their reasoning in a public and forthright manner, then...?
If Rodney King’s Hyundai, clocked at 100 mph (?!?), had outrun the police, then...?
The lesson of counterfactuals is that destiny often teeters on a narrow ledge. The inevitable in hindsight is the unimaginable a second before.
I have my own Big If from the first night. My teenage son and I were scheduled to go the Greek Theatre to see singer Lou Reed (“Walk on the Wild Side”). As the demonstrations got uglier, I decided not to go. He called to appeal—yet another disappointment from journalist dad—I wavered, then firmed.
I might have wound up like LAPD Chief Daryl Gates that night—out of position on the West Side, when most needed.
My son wound up barely making it home from the Greek through the burning city to his highly anxious mother. At 2 a.m. the last edition of the paper was “put to bed,” so I set off through Chinatown (“Forget it, Jake”), to my home near the Rose Bowl.
I was driving a Corvette in those California days, a gift from my wife, with a booming sound system. I put on N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” to keep me awake. I pulled into the driveway with the “F--k tha Police” anthem roaring. (Even now, with several police officers as personal friends, I feel compelled to add I was listening as a sleep-deprived journalist, not as an advocate,)
As I opened the door to my house, a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street started to explode. A baseball bat was rising toward my head.
My son, the strong protector of his home and sleeping mother, stopped just in time.
What would you have thought the night of the riots if a car pulled in your driveway at 2:30 a.m., booming Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E? Still, if the bat had sent me to the next world, then this journalistic immortality of a sort might have been mine:
Headline: “Los Angeles Times Editor Killed on Own Front Porch During Riots—Loud Gangsta Rap Music Blamed.”
Years later, I might have become a Jeopardy question—likely in one of the lower-priced categories.