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Commentary | READERS' REPRESENTATIVE

Demonstration Should Have Been Covered

There are reasons--insufficient ones--that there was no Times' story on the event staged by Iranian Americans.

July 25, 1999|NARDA ZACCHINO

Imagine more than 6,000 people demonstrating for hours at the Federal Building in Westwood, bullhorns blaring, helicopters swirling overhead, traffic jamming Wilshire Boulevard--and no story the next day in the Los Angeles Times.

That's what happened July 15, infuriating scores of Iranian Americans when they looked for coverage of the event, which was staged to show support for student protesters in Iran. Those protests, reported in The Times, began July 8 in Tehran and spread to 18 other Iranian cities in six days. A number of students were killed or injured, and hundreds of arrested protesters face death if convicted of charges.

With a Southern California Iranian population estimated at more than 600,000, the largest in the world outside of Iran, there is a lot of interest here in this issue. And when thousands demonstrate in support of students in Iran, they expect to read about it in their local newspaper.

The reason there wasn't coverage in The Times was simple: We didn't know about it in time. We should have. One organizer said he called The Times the day before the demonstration, got transferred three times and was finally told to send a fax. He said he sent three. The city desk apparently only received one, at 4:38 p.m. the day of the event, saying 30,000 to 50,000 demonstrators were expected at the Federal Building in Westwood at 5 p.m. to protest the recent events in Iran.

City Editor Bill Boyarsky said a decision not to send a reporter was based in part on timing--it was rush hour, so a reporter would not arrive, be able to park and start reporting until well after 6 p.m., "and we didn't know how long it would last." No reporter from The Times' Westside office was available.

A check of the daily "budget" listing news events published by City News Service didn't list the protest. CNS became aware of the event by monitoring television. A CNS reporter was sent to the scene, and filed a wire story at 8:14 p.m. The protest also was covered by several local TV and radio stations; no local non-Iranian print media carried a story.

The Times should have covered the protest. The Iranian students were front page news, the Iranian community here is huge and thousands of drivers on Wilshire Boulevard whose trips were disrupted deserved to know what the ruckus was about.

In a program broadcast Wednesday over Radio Voice of Iran, a closed-circuit system with nearly 1 million subscribers in Canada and the U.S., Boyarsky apologized to the Iranian community for The Times' not covering the protest.

Missing this story led Iranian readers to criticize other coverage of Iran, which is, of course, of geopolitical importance to America's interests. For example, a story about student rioting in Iran did not make The Times front page until July 14 in a story datelined Washington, D.C., written by Times global affairs correspondent Robin Wright, author of several books on Iran and an acknowledged expert on that country. Readers noted, however, that the New York Times has a reporter filing stories from Tehran. (The government of Iran has denied visa requests for Los Angeles Times reporters to enter Iran.)

A July 16 demonstration of an estimated 12,000 people in Washington, D.C.--although small by D.C. standards--was reported by the Orange County Register in a four-paragraph story. It was not carrried at all by the Los Angeles Times. Also, on the day of the Westwood protest, The Times ran a front-page photo and a story on Page A8 of a rally in Tehran staged by the Iranian government, leading some readers to charge that the front-page play of a "pro-Iran" story combined with no coverage of the local rally showed bias in favor of the Iranian government. That certainly was not The Times' intention.

Missing the Iranian protest story points out how difficult it can be to let us know when something of merit is happening. Boyarsky, who gets at least 25 requests a day for coverage, doesn't want to miss another meritorious story. He suggests that if normal channels don't work, make a call directly to the city desk (213/237-7847) or send a fax (213/237-4712) with a follow-up call. You can also e-mail Boyarsky at bill.boyarsky@latimes.com.

This incident offers a striking example of why our newsrooms need to be diverse. With a burgeoning Iranian population in Southern California, a reporter of Iranian descent who speaks Farsi and who knows what is happening in that community would be a huge asset.

The Times does have one Iranian reporter, a Metro intern who said she knew about the demonstration "from my mom." But the intern thought surely the city desk would know about it. Now she is on high alert, but she leaves at summer's end.

This situation brings back memories of 1965, when rioting broke out in Watts, and the virtually all-white city room reporters broke out their Thomas Bros. map books. No reporter at that time knew the black community, let alone had any sources there.

As we learned then, that's no way to run a newspaper.

To reach the readers' representative, call (877) 554-4000; fax: (213) 237-3535; e-mail: readers.rep@latimes.com; mail: Times Mirror Square, L.A. 90053.

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