My city isn’t a tawdry reality TV show


Every few years, Salinas grabs national media headlines for the wrong reasons: Police killings of criminal suspects caught on camera. Or maybe a sensational courtroom drama like that of our local convicted murderer Jodi Arias. Each story draws the major corporate media outlets to town, eager to shoehorn some reference to Salinas native John Steinbeck into the narrative.

Maybe we look like a real-life version of a tawdry reality TV show to them.

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve covered the town for more than 20 years, largely as a features writer and columnist. I also served time as an education and city reporter for two local publications, The Monterey County Herald and the Salinas Californian. Other local media outlets covering the town include the Monterey County Weekly, the NBC/ABC affiliate KSBW-TV, CBS affiliate KION-TV, and Univision affiliate KSMS-TV.

Once upon a time the juiciest national story about Salinas might have involved an E. coli outbreak linked to one of our produce giants. The town has changed, as violent crime reports in town have fed the media’s appetite for sensational headlines.

Salinas calls itself the Salad Bowl of the World, which sounds like a healthy thing, but our multibillion-dollar lettuce economy is complicated—maybe more complicated than outsiders care to understand—and our struggles are a window into California’s future.

As Silicon Valley is to software, Salinas is to lettuce: We didn’t invent the salad bar, but we introduced the world to bagged salad. We are the model for modern agricultural technology and production. There’s a 90 percent chance that bagged salad you bought for dinner was produced here. But the innovations in lettuce growing, packing, and shipping that brings you a “healthy” meal also includes a lot of unseen hands. And these hands belong mostly to Mexican migrants who make up about 34 percent of our town’s population, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

What do you think happens when one of California’s richest industries conducts business in, and culls its workforce from, a highly concentrated immigrant community? You get changes of the kind that aren’t sensational – and thus are underreported if they are reported at all: the ripple effects in a community of low academic achievement numbers among English language learner students. Or the problems caused by overcrowding and high population density in certain parts of town. Or stories that get reported as something other than what they really are.

For instance, Forbes recently named Salinas the second-least-educated city in America. Media outlets latched onto the story and the study it was based on, and repurposed them as a list of the dumbest towns in the country. Among several indicators, the list factored in the number of available jobs that require a college education.

But really, how unexpected is this? When so much of your workforce is devoted to manual labor, you can bet that there won’t be a load of workers sitting on college diplomas.

When I read those lists, I saw them as a grand insult to the delicate skill and craft of our local farm laborers. 

The idea that Salinas is a dumb town is pretty inaccurate. Harvesting produce doesn’t require an advanced degree, but it’s no job for dummies. Have you ever attempted to pick a strawberry field? I haven’t, but I understand from growing up here the careful technique required not only to pick the produce gently, but also to do it at a rapid fire pace. Our farm workers move fast and efficiently. You have to be smart and know the land to be successful in the fields. Forbes didn’t have the time or just didn’t bother to report that any of this context. 

Ironically, Forbes did have time to host an agriculture technology summit in town recently. Billed as “Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit,” the conference brought together Silicon Valley and Global Ag leaders, many based here in the Salad Bowl, for breakout sessions on the booming AgTech industry. It was an invitation-only event. I mention that because it shows the contrasting sides of this town’s image. We are uneducated enough to make top 10 lists, but somehow industrially sophisticated enough to host big business think tank sessions.

In this dichotomy and others, Salinas may provide a window into the future of this state. We are a rural community steeped in Old West tradition (we host the biggest and oldest rodeo in the state). At the same time, the town is changing, with its economic and cultural divide widening by the year. And Salinas, according to a recent study, was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. For that study, professors at Brown and Florida State University created a dissimilarity index that identifies the percentage of one group that would have to move into a different neighborhood to eliminate segregation; Salinas had a 60.9 percent white-Latino dissimilarity rate, the 21st highest number in the country. Combine our modern social challenges with our old-school agricultural labor practices and our recent emergence as a Silicon Valley bedroom community, and you have a town that offers a bit of everything that people relate to the California experience – sunshine, soil, and sync.

That’s part of what makes covering news in Salinas a tough gig. Everything is sneaky complex. The gang violence that generates so many local headlines isn’t the result of a reckless immigrant population, as Donald Trump would have you believe. It’s a condition that grew out of many decades of cultivating an impoverished and underserved migrant community. Yes, Salinas has poverty, but it’s also a place where rents are so high that sometimes two or three families must pack into a single apartment unit to afford a place to live and survive. During the harvest, these families can work 10-to-12-hour shifts, six days a week to provide for their children. Those children in turn sometimes suffer from the unintentional neglect of busy working parents. This makes them vulnerable to the streets.

Local media does what it can to tell these stories. Investigative journalist Julia Reynolds recently published the book Blood in the Fields: 10 Years inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang, that analyzed the emergence of one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the U.S. It also shed light on efforts from community members and law enforcement in the fight to curb gang violence. 

But for the most part, gang violence is something that is understood only on the surface by locals, and is never portrayed with any complexity by national media. And that leads to a lot of misunderstanding about the town’s image and identity. Largely, that this town is unsafe and people are in danger of violence on every corner. 

It’s tough to recover from the blow of bad media coverage every few years. (It’s certainly not good for economic development). This town is still learning how to adapt to reputational blows. People do their best to shrug it off and carry on. 

I like to keep it positive and remind my neighbors about something John Steinbeck said late in his life, right before he decided he wanted to be buried in his hometown. 

“Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas.”

Marcos Cabrera is the public information officer for the Alisal Union School District. He is a founding member of the theater company Baktun 12. This essay is part of Salinas: California's Richest Poor City, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and the California Wellness Foundation

 

Nightcrawler Nation: Money, news and politics


When I heard my “>Dan Gilroy, the writer-director of their new movie, “Nightcrawler,” to marry me.

To be adequately horrified by the midterm campaign we’ve just endured, all you need to pay attention to is attention itself, and how attention is monetized.

We live in an information age. Every two days, according to Google CEO “>pointed out, “creates a poverty of attention.” We can’t increase the total attention we can pay; despite talk of multi-tasking, attention is a finite resource, a zero-sum game. “>brain. But our attention can be hijacked. The bottom-up part of our brain, which evolved in our primitive past, is wired to pay attention to danger. It’s immediate, instinctive, faster than reason; if fear had depended on thinking, we’d have been eaten.

Television stations are in the business of selling audiences to advertisers. The more people whose attention their programming can grab, the more money they can charge advertisers for 30-second spots. So it makes sense that station owners looking for ratings would air hours of programming dominated by murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, gruesome accidents — anything that will reliably scare viewers into watching.

That’s what the research I did with Seton Hall professor “>since 1998. In 2009, we did an intensive study of a single TV market, Los Angeles. We analyzed more than 11,000 stories aired by eight stations during nearly 1,000 half-hours of news over 14 days. Here’s some of 

  • A typical half-hour of L.A. news contained 2 minutes 50 seconds of crime news.  That’s more than any other category of news except sports and weather.
  • The average time spent on L.A. government news — including budgets, layoffs, education, law enforcement, prisons, lawsuits, ordinances, personnel, voting procedures, health care, transportation and immigration — was 22 seconds.
  • One station — KCOP — ran an average of 5 minutes and 3 seconds of crime per half-hour, and one second of L.A. government news.
  • Stories about local government led the news 2.5 percent of the time. But stories about crime led more than 13 times that: One out of three broadcasts began with crime. If it bleeds, it leads.
  •  

    That’s the research cited “>“dark money.”

    The total cost of the 2014 elections is expected to reach almost “>studies of an “>or more political ads, providing those stations with more than half a million dollars of ad revenue, but those same 30 minutes have included zero minutes of actual reporting on those campaigns. Demand for air time for political ads during the news led station WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, to add an extra 4 p.m. hour of local news to cash in. A “>Walter Cronkite Award for excellence in TV coverage of politics, and the winners, from markets small and large across the country, do heroic work against long odds, and their stations’ ratings haven’t suffered because of it. I wish they were the rule, not the exception. I wish that getting money out of politics were a hot button issue, instead of polling “>The Distinguished Gentleman,” which Eddie Murphy starred in and Disney released. I fantasized that that movie could make a difference, too. But today’s political corruption makes the legal con job that congressmen and lobbyists pulled on America a generation ago seem quaint.  On the other hand, if Gyllenhaal ever wants to run for office on a reform platform, I’ll be first in line to volunteer as a speechwriter.


    Marty Kaplan, who has been a political speechwriter, a screenwriter and a studio executive, holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

    Jews and baseball: An American news media love story


    For those of us who follow the careers of Jewish ballplayers — a small, eccentric niche of fandom — checking the ” target=”_blank”>jewishsportsreview.com), edited by Ephraim Moxson, who lives in Pico-Robertson, and Shel Wallman of Manhattan’s West Side. 

    Moxson and Wallman collect the names of Jewish athletes in sports ranging from football, basketball and baseball to table tennis. It is the national go-to spot for information on Jewish athletes, and Wallman and Moxson were willing to share with Jewish Baseball News. “They are the gold standard,” Barancik said.  

    I called Moxson. “We go through the rosters of all major sports,” he told me. “We review every roster of every college, men’s and women’s, including small Christian schools in the South. You never know.”

    Tips come from many places. A woman called Moxson and complained that her major league ballplayer son, Jason Marquis, hadn’t been mentioned in the Jewish Sports Review. “He’s not Jewish,” Moxson said. The woman replied that he was. “Our name was Marcus,” she said.

    As he began Jewish Baseball News, Barancik had to struggle with a question that has long troubled our religion and probably never will be settled: Who is Jewish? Rather than consulting the rabbis, he accepted the criteria established by Moxson and Wallman in the Jewish Sports Review several years before: An athlete needs one Jewish parent, is not practicing any other religion and is willing to be identified as Jewish in public. Interestingly, their broad definition was not much different than that of the Pew Research Center in its recent public opinion survey of Jews: Those who “say their religion is Jewish (and who do not profess any other religion)” or “people who describe themselves … as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular, but who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and who still consider themselves Jewish in some way.”

    As I pursued this column, I felt I was learning something important about Jewish life in the United States.

    I wondered why the number of Jewish ballplayers in the major and minor leagues is increasing. “In the ’50s and ’60s, there were five or six [in the majors]; now there are 15,” professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College, an intense scholar of the game, told me. “All but three [of the major leaguers] came from mixed marriages. To the extent there is a Jewish gene in baseball, it’s an intermarriage gene.”

    Barancik and Dreier also attribute the growing number of Jewish baseball players to Jews becoming part of suburban life and being affluent enough to afford the expenses of youth sports — the expensive equipment, private coaching and travel.  

    In addition, Dreier said, the major leagues are increasingly looking to colleges for players, and the schools with the best programs happen to be in areas with large Jewish populations — Florida and California.

    We fanatics focus on numbers, but actually what we are witnessing is how Jewish life is changing.


    Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

    Marty Kaplan: No news is bad news


    If you think the widening chasm between the rich and the rest spells trouble for American democracy, have a look at the growing gulf between the information-rich and -poor.

    Earlier this year, a Harvard economist’s jaw-dropping study of American’s beliefs about the distribution of American wealth became a “>new Pew study of the distribution of American news consumption is just as flabbergasting. 

    According to the Harvard study, most people believe that the top 20 percent of the country owns about half the nation’s wealth, and that the lower 60 percent combined, including the 20 percent in the middle, have only about 20 percent of the wealth.  A whopping 92 percent of Americans think this is out of whack; in the ideal distribution, they said, the lower 60 percent would have about half of the wealth, with the middle 20 percent of the people owning 20 percent of the wealth.