The coverage of Rodney King and unrest in LA, thirty years on

On March 3, 1991, four police officers beat Rodney King, a Black motorist in Los Angeles, nearly to death. A resident of an adjacent apartment building filmed the beating and handed the footage to a local TV station, which broadcast it, sparking global outrage and a media frenzy. The officers were swiftly charged with offenses including assault; they pleaded not guilty, and months later, their trial was relocated from LA to Simi Valley, a heavily white suburb, after defense lawyers argued that the intense media coverage of the case in LA would make any trial there unfair and a court, unusually, agreed. “The defense wanted to try to get the trial into a county where there was a better chance for a predominantly white jury,” Russell Cole, an attorney for one of the officers, admitted in an interview with Slate’s Slow Burn podcast, which revisited the King story across eight episodes last year. “Did anybody ever say that out loud? No, not that I recall.” On April 29, 1992, the jury acquitted the officers of almost all charges. In LA, massive unrest ensued.

At the time, Héctor Tobar, who grew up in LA, was a cub reporter at the LA Times, the paper his father, a Guatemalan immigrant, had delivered when Tobar was a kid. After the video of the King beating became public, editors assigned Tobar to help write the paper’s lead story on the incident. “The most important thing when you write that story is the lede,” Tobar told Slow Burn’s Joel Anderson, “so I started with something like, The brutal beating of a Black man by a group of mostly white police officers set off a national furor.” Tobar’s editor, who was white, had other ideas, stripping any mention of race from the top of the story; the fact that King was Black was first mentioned in the twelfth paragraph. “When I look at that story as the first draft of history,” Tobar said, “I think, Oh my God, we got it so wrong. We missed the essence of the story.”

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Race, Tobar writes in a new account for the New York Times Magazine, “made my editors nervous”—an outgrowth of a media-wide failure to see the subject “as anything other than the looming potential for disorder and violence, a source of division.” In 1992, after the officers who beat King were acquitted and the violence began, Tobar felt that he could help readers situate it in its proper context—of inequality, exploitation, and political denial, but also of a city where “people lived in tense coexistence, but coexistence nonetheless.” Instead, he recalls, “my editors assigned me a humbler task: go find some Latino looters to interview and hand over my notes to a more seasoned writer. It felt to many reporters of color at the time that we had been sent out to report in an urban war zone, while a mostly white staff of editors shaped what actually appeared in the newspaper.” As white reporters avoided dangerous areas, one Black journalist reportedly referred to this division of labor as “the Los Angeles Times busing program.”

Tobar’s reflection on the unrest, and how the media covered it, was one of several published this week to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the violence. It played into a broader process of reappraisal that also followed the anniversary, last year, of the beating itself and has often focused not only on the legacy of police brutality, but the relations between different ethnic communities in LA, and how they have been memorialized. “Latinos,” Gustavo Arellano, a current columnist at the LA Times, writes in another such piece, “played a far bigger role in the riots than we care to remember or admit. Latinos were killers and the killed, assaulters and the assaulted, looters and the looted,” and yet history “has reduced Latino involvement to an afterthought in a master narrative of Black rage against a racist white system, with Koreans in the middle.”

Conflict between Black and Korean Angelenos indeed dominated much media coverage at the time of the unrest. The previous year, in the wake of the King beating, Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American shopkeeper, fatally shot Latasha Harlins, a Black teenager, in the back of the head; after the acquittals in King’s case, NBC’s Hanna Kang writes, “footage of gun-toting Koreans on rooftops transposed with images of Black youth firebombing businesses with Molotov cocktails” hardened into a media portrayal of entrenched conflict, “with Black residents considered lawless and Korean merchants, mercenary.” This, Frank Shyong, also an LA Times columnist, writes, was “a palatable narrative of racial conflict in which white racism was not directly implicated.” Tensions between members of the Black and Korean communities in LA were very real. But the media narrative, Shyong and others argue, cast them as sole players in a zero-sum conflict, with structural forces—not least policing and economic neglect—ignored, and stories of community reconciliation downplayed.

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This week also marked the thirtieth anniversary—shortly before that of the acquittals—of a historic peace deal between rival LA gangs, particularly in the predominantly Black Watts projects. (The agreement was explicitly modeled after the armistice that ended the Arab-Israeli war in 1949; Ralph Bunche, the chief architect of the armistice, was Black and had ties to LA.) The Watts deal held through the violence that immediately followed it, and for years thereafter; Aqeela Sherrills, who worked on it, told WNYC’s The Takeaway this week that it “gave birth to what I consider to be one of the most progressive public-safety strategies in the history of this country.” Yet the unrest overshadowed it in the media at the time, and in the eyes of history. “The Watts treaty has largely been forgotten,” the law professor William J. Aceves writes, “perhaps because it provides a counter-narrative to dominant perceptions of Watts.”

Narrative patterns here, and the media’s role in forming them, are not hard to discern. Tobar notes that, when a rebellion broke out in Watts in 1965, the LA Times had no Black reporters and so instead sent Robert Richardson, a Black advertising staffer, to cover it; Richardson was subsequently made a trainee reporter, but he received little support, and soon left the paper. The LA Times included the latter detail in a package apologizing for “failures on race” that it published in the summer of 2020, after a white police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd and staffers of color at the paper spoke out about a lack of newsroom diversity and insufficient support for nonwhite staffers; the package noted that some of the paper’s Watts coverage was “patronizing” and credulous of police narratives, and also acknowledged flaws in its coverage of the 1992 unrest. In a 2004 analysis, William L. Solomon, an academic at Rutgers, assessed how the New York Times and the Washington Post covered the King case between the beating and the acquittals; he found that those papers initially centered a pattern of brutality on the part of the Los Angeles Police Department, but subsequently cast aspersions on King’s character and emphasized that policing is a dangerous job. In 2020, after Floyd’s murder, the media’s use of the police euphemism “officer involved” declined. In 2021, it ticked back up again.

This is not to say that no progress has been made over time. But progress has been slow and nonlinear—and just as the King story retains obvious relevance for American society broadly, its coverage holds ongoing lessons for the press. History is naturally contested terrain that’s constantly being reassessed. When it comes to police brutality and protest, though, US newsrooms still too often repeat avoidable mistakes on the first draft—not least in deciding who gets to write it. We shouldn’t need thirty years of hindsight to see the essence of the story.

Below, more on King, the police, and Slow Burn:

  • Another reflection: On a recent episode of NPR’s Code Switch, Karen Grigsby Bates, who has covered the 1992 unrest and its aftermath for years, also dissected dominant media narratives about it. “It took years for some essential truths to be reflected in the mainstream media, like the fact that the crowds that looted were not just Black. They were multiracial—Black, brown, and white,” she said. “Like the fact that Korean-owned businesses weren’t the only ones that were lost—the headquarters of the West’s largest Black savings and loan institution was burned to the ground. So were a number of small businesses along Crenshaw Boulevard, the spine of the city’s shrinking Black community. Like the fact that some Black and Korean residents who were assumed to be at war with each other were quietly helping each other survive this very hard week.”
  • The police and the press, I: Also for NPR, David Folkenflik recently traced the historical relationship between the LAPD and journalists in the city. Local news outlets long burnished the LAPD’s reputation for “efficiency and incorruptibility,” Folkenflik writes, and while “tensions over law enforcement conduct flared into public view at times,” the press “often missed the key stories due to its own racism and close working ties to police.” The LA Times and other outlets developed a “tougher journalistic stance” in the eighties, before King’s beating teed up “decades of scandal over brutality, racism and corruption.”
  • The police and the press, II: For a 2019 issue of CJR, Alexandria Neason explored how police departments work to plant misinformation in the press. “A police department exists to protect the public and to protect itself, but can it ever really do both?” Neason wrote. “In relaying information about a crime in which an officer may have been at fault, brand management becomes a priority. Victims—who more often than not are Black—have long listened to police with skepticism, expecting misinformation about themselves and their communities. Journalists have struggled to tell the whole story.”
  • Meanwhile, looking forward: After concluding its sixth season on King, Slow Burn this week revealed that its seventh will focus on the origins of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, with Slate bringing the announcement forward after Politico published a leaked draft opinion showing that the court is poised to overturn Roe. The season, which will debut in June, will be hosted by Susan Matthews, Slate’s news director, and will focus on “forgotten stories from the years leading up to Roe, a time when Americans weren’t so bitterly divided on abortion.” On which note…

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Rodney King makes a statement at a Los Angeles press conference, May 1, 1992, pleading for the end to the rioting and looting that has plagued the city following the verdicts in the trial against four Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating him. It was King's first public appearance since last year. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)