E-mails were flying between Latino rights activists on March 27 when word got out about the demise of Agustin Gurza's column in the LA Times.
For the past 25 months, every Tuesday in the Times Metro section and Tuesdays and Saturdays in the Orange County edition, Gurza has provided a fresh, intelligent, provocative voice in a publication that has largely become as milquetoast as, well, milk toast. His insights and sharp writing stand up to anything produced by other staffers, but he has more going for him: he's a Latino in a county that's one-third Latino, and his columns often focus on the underserved community from which he sprang.
"I believe Agustin Gurza's column plays an extremely important role in the LA Times Orange County section and would like the LA Times' management to reconsider their decision," wrote Sofia Negron of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Armando de la Libertad stole a page from David Letterman and e-mailed out the "Top 10 Reasons the Los Angeles Times Orange County Edition Should Reconsider Its Decision to Eliminate Agustin Gurza's Semi-Weekly Column." Among them: "Gurza's column helps differentiate the Times from The Orange County Register" and "Gurza's column assures the public that despite the recent, large-scale merger between the Times and the Chicago Tribune, local Times management still has the foresight to meet some LOCAL media needs."
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Negron urged Gurza's readers to contact Times management about the spiked column. But when Cesar Madrid of Orange did just that—and added a threat to cancel his subscription—deputy readers' representative Davilynn Furlow replied, "Although the top editors at the Times are evaluating all columnists, it is my understanding that no decision has yet been made about Gurza's column."
Tell that to Gurza. He confirmed that he has been informed his column is gone, but he did not want to discuss the matter further until hearing what his editors had to say about his new assignment. Times management did not get back to us by press time.
Negron said she has been reading Gurza since the days he was writing a column for the Register. Gurza was hired away by the Times in early '99 as part of the paper's attempt to reconnect with the Latino community. Activists had called for a boycott of the Times for its cozy coverage of ex-congressman Bob Dornan's baseless allegations that Latino voter fraud cost him his congressional seat in 1996.
"I'm particularly disappointed about Gurza's column cancellation because without his work in OC, the Latino community will lose the only voice representing our community responsibly and in a positive manner," Negron said. "He has been one of the only writers who has had the courage to write about sensitive issues, such as education problems, immigration, alcoholism, race and discrimination. Agustin's columns gave us the opportunity to meet and learn about some of the best role models in our community."
March 19. 2 p.m. Channel 9 afternoon newscast. Rolling blackouts hit Southern California. The power goes out in Aliso Viejo and Pasadena—well, it goes out anyplace that's not a hospital, police station or other "essential" electrical user.
Cut to a blond reporter live in the field, standing in front of a building in downtown Pasadena. With steely eyes, she dramatically relays how the deli behind her was particularly hard-hit: the cash register went out, and the meat slicer stopped working.
Cut to taped footage inside a residence where a man was forced to stop vacuuming. He's luckier than his next-door neighbors, who are in the middle of remodeling their house. The camera zooms in on a motionless electric sander.
Cut back to the anchorman, who has a follow-up question about the deli tragedy. With the blonde now next to him thanks to a split-screen shot, he asks the question that's on everyone's mind: Did anyone tell the merchant to expect more blackouts? Indeed, answers the reporter. The deli owner is right now shopping for a generator before summer comes.
"Good advice," chimes in the anchorman, "good advice."
Stop the insanity!
How do you turn a ho-hum press release about an event that's barely news into breaking news in Orange County? Do a lazy press corps' homework for them. Case in point: the California Democratic Party convention in Anaheim Friday through Sunday.
The OC Weekly and, we presume, other media outlets received a press release touting the convention on Jan. 26. We and, we presume, everyone else dutifully shelved the release until the convention dates neared. After all, a non-election-year gathering that provides Democratic delegates from around the state a weekend at Disney's California Adventure doesn't get anyone's juices flowing.
But public-relations types continually bombarded journalists with what was essentially the same press release until someone somewhere took the bite. On March 14, the Associated Press (AP), the Times Orange County and National Public Radio (NPR) bit. Hard.
The state Democrats faxed their recycled press release on March 12, only this time, a large headline announced, "For the First Time Ever: Democrats to Convene in Orange County for State Convention." The text featured a quotation from state party chairman Art Torres about Orange County and the new millennium and blah, blah, blah.
Hardly changing a word—including all of Torres' millennium quote—the AP put the press release out over its wires on March 14. The AP story apparently caught the eye of someone at the Times OC, who immediately ran the AP's barely rewritten press release as "breaking news" at the top of the Times OC website. It was also read nearly word for word on that evening's NPR news broadcast.
In the next day's print edition of the Times OC, political reporter Jean O. Pasco had a bylined story on the convention coming to OC for the first time. Torres' quotation from the state party press release survived verbatim in Pasco's story. Neither the AP nor the press release was cited or credited in the article. It was a curious choice, given that Democratic Party officials called us and, we presume, everyone else, offering to make Torres available for interviews.
It might be time for our comrades in The Orange County Register's newsroom to brace themselves for corporate re-education if their Freedom Communications overlords expand a program now under way in Arizona.
According to an item in the March 15 Phoenix New Times, journalists at the East Valley Tribune in suburban Phoenix were ordered to endure a corporate consultant's presentation on the wonders of libertarianism. Lib-lovin' Freedom is the parent company of the Reg and the East Valley Tribune, among other publications.
"The proselytizer acknowledged that it was odd that the purported espousers of independent thought would impose such a requirement," reports the New Times' Flash column. "But he noted that libertarians believe that the folks who run the company are entitled to make such decisions.
"And he invited any of the grunts who didn't like it to go work somewhere else."
With the Reg having just announced the layoff of 14 newsroom staffers, a packed house for a libertarian orientation at the Grand Avenue plant in Santa Ana would seem a sure bet.
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