Journalists File Bias Complaint Against LA Times, As Editor Promises Change

Journalists File Bias Complaint Against LA Times, As Editor Promises Change

7:45am Jun 25, 2020
A cyclist rides on the sidewalk past a Los Angeles Times advertisement in downtown Los Angeles. The newspaper is being sued by employees alleging pay discrimination.
A cyclist rides on the sidewalk past a Los Angeles Times advertisement in downtown Los Angeles. The newspaper is being sued by employees alleging pay discrimination.
Damian Dovarganes / AP

In the latest action by employees critical of the Los Angeles Times' fraught newsroom history of race and gender, the paper has been hit with a proposed class-action lawsuit contending that the under-representation of people of color at the paper is a result of longstanding discriminatory pay practices against Black, Hispanic and female journalists.

The civil complaint, filed in California Superior Court in San Bernardino County, outside Los Angeles, is dated June 4 but has only just surfaced in public records.

The lead complainants include journalists who have contributed to Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage at the LA Times, such as Greg Braxton, the acting television editor, and Bettina Boxall, a leading environmental writer. Both joined the paper in the 1980s and allege they earn far less than white and male peers with less experience. Braxton is Black; Boxall is female.

On Tuesday, Black journalists at the Los Angeles Times called out their newspaper with the hashtag #BlackatLAT - a social media protest of what they said was a pattern of racist experiences at the paper. Scores of current and former staffers participated.

And yesterday, LA Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine held a marathon online session with hundreds of staffers to talk about race, diversity and the paper's future. It lasted more than four hours.

Pearlstine and his leadership team promised to do more to hire, promote, retain and develop Black journalists and to change the very culture at the paper. Related tensions have surfaced at the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other news outlets.

"I have replayed all our hiring and coverage decisions in my head, and I have been taking a hard look in the mirror," Pearlstine said, according to prepared remarks shared with NPR. "What went wrong? With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that hiring people of color was always a priority, but it was never the priority."

The complaint accuses current and former corporate owners of the paper, plus up to 100 defendants identified as "Does" (as in Jane or John), with discriminatory pay practices illegal under California law. The identities of the unnamed defendants, presumably current and former news executives, will be added to an amended complaint once they become known, according to the document.

"Despite the contributions of the entire newsroom to publish the daily paper, the Company's bias in favor of white (non-Hispanic) and/or male employees has resulted in unlawful pay gaps in the four to five-figure range per year for many female and minority journalists," states the complaint. Longevity for non-whites doesn't seem to help, it adds.

Among the other plaintiffs: Angel Jennings, the sole Black reporter on the paper's 88-person metro desk, its largest news team. (A Black columnist and a Black editor are also on on the metro staff.)

As NPR previously reported, the paper's city editor pleaded with Pearlstine on moral grounds in summer 2018 to raise Jennings' pay, saying she received "a shameful salary." Pearlstine turned down the pleas from the city editor, Hector Becerra, who was also joined by the California editor, Shelby Grad, in advocating for her, according to several people with knowledge of the incident.

Pearlstine told NPR some steps were ultimately taken to supplement Jennings' compensation. In Wednesday's meeting, Pearlstine told staffers, "I was slow to appreciate how hostility toward The Times [from Black Angelenos] burdened her and her work."

An acknowledgement of failure

In the interview, Pearlstine said one of his mistakes in leading the paper for the past two years was not ensuring hiring practices would yield a more diverse newsroom. In that time, under the new ownership of Southern California billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, the Times hired more than 100 additional journalists. Though the paper hired a notably diverse news leadership team, diversity numbers failed to notably budge for the wider newsroom.

"In delegating authority and responsibility, which is something I've always thought I did well, I did not do a good enough job of really thinking about accountability and about result," said Pearlstine, 77, who has previously led the Wall Street Journal, Time Inc. and Bloomberg Media. "And I think that if I'm honest in reflecting on that period, I'd say that our hiring reflected that."

Pearlstine led off Wednesday's Zoom meeting with a formal address that lasted more than 20 minutes.

"We must change the Los Angeles Times by creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace and a culture that celebrates diversity," Pearlstine said, according to the prepared remarks. "We can change Los Angeles, California and America through our coverage. We should change ourselves through honest introspection."

Pearlstine did not comment to NPR about the meeting, other than by sharing his written remarks, and referred questions about the civil complaint to a corporate lawyer, who did not respond before publication of this article.

Pearlstine and the Times released numbers last week that showed, as he contends, the paper has a notably diverse staff - when compared to other major daily newspapers. Compared to the demographics of the region it serves, however, the paper's Black and Hispanic journalists are underrepresented in its newsroom. The population of Los Angeles County is about 9% Black. Black journalists made up about 4% of the newspaper's overall newsroom last year.

The assertions in the proposed class-action lawsuit echo the finding of an LA Times News Guild study from April 2018 that found, on average, women at the newspaper made $14,000 less per year than men in comparable jobs, while non-white journalists made $19,000 less than their white counterparts.

Alleged discrimination transcends changes in ownership

The newly public complaint cites practices that span decades and a series of previous owners. For example, it points to the counter-intuitive legacy of the 36-year-old Metpro training program, intended to identify, hire and cultivate promising women and journalists of color early in their careers at the Times and its sister papers in surrounding suburbs. Instead, according to the complaint, the paper's executives relied on Metpro and similar initiatives "as a source of cheap labor to depress the salaries of women and minority journalists" not just initially, but throughout their careers at the newspaper.

Metpro, originally known as the Minority Editorial Training Program, was created under Times-Mirror, the Los Angeles-based parent company of the LA Times until its sale to the Chicago-based Tribune Co. in 2000. Tribune held the paper under various incarnations, most recently the spun-off Tribune Publishing Co., until 2018, when it was acquired by Soon-Shiong, an entrepreneur and physician.

The court filing alleges a consistent pattern of behavior from newsroom leaders: telling reporters that the Tribune Co. and Tribune Publishing's corporate executives in Chicago wouldn't allow significant raises; claiming possible sales of the company or the newspaper would delay meaningful pay increases; and, more recently, saying that notable raises under new ownership were unlikely, as they would require Soon-Shiong's permission.

Pearlstine more recently has said he and the paper had fallen short, and would seek to do better. It has created a new masthead editor who will oversee talent and culture in the newsroom. He has promised a review of coverage and assignments for news involving racial inequities.

Pearlstine says the recent employment contract struck with the newsroom union - the first in the paper's history - has lifted many salaries that should have been higher, and that he is intent on remedying past wrongs.

One of the key editors supervising the Metpro training program relinquished those responsibilities earlier this month; she had come under fire for a memo in which she warned the current Metpro fellows against tweeting about their employer in regard to contemporary concerns about racial injustice. She soon apologized for the tone of her email, which suggested such social media activity could cut short their time at the paper.

The group of Black journalists issued their own demands of the paper earlier this week, supported by the union. They included, among other items, a boost in their numbers to reflect parity with the percentage of Black Angelenos and an apology to the community for past reporting that promoted racism and injustice in Los Angeles.

Pearlstine has promised to meet with each member of a new Black Caucus at the newspaper.

At the Zoom session with staffers Wednesday, Pearlstine was asked whether he intended to step down. He said no, according to attendees. He replied he had too much left that he wanted to accomplish.

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