Donnell Alexander

Here's What It's Like to Live in a $17 Airbnb

My friends had grown tired of my guest room invasions after I moved back from Portland, Oregon to L.A. last year. These friends had homes full of kids, after all. That fall I’d found a foothold onto the city through seasonal work composing tweets and Instagram posts during football games for the Los Angeles Coliseum, but the cost of frequent Motel 6 stays had outstripped my income, leading me to venture into the very cheapest Airbnb rentals, what for most visitors to the site is a no-scroll zone.

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My Time in Motel Hell: Scenes From America’s Housing Crisis

Hard as I tried to shake her, the woman with the rudely removed pinky toe would not depart my thoughts.

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Watching Color TV

This just in: Still hardly any Indians on television.

And Asians have only incrementally better representation. Latinos and people of African descent are doing better, but still looking for more. Never know when those network suits will attempt to roll back progress.

On December 1, representatives of Asian-American, Latino, and Native American media advocacy groups presented their annual "report cards" on minority representation in television. (An NAACP version is due out next month.) Network television, that is. These reports are consistently worth a few column-inches of newspaper space, some cursory web stories, and a "tsk"-flavored 15 seconds of local anchor soundbite time, but their value for effecting real change is still in question.

It would seem that the biggest motivation for change would be the network's own ears to the ground and the cell numbers of producers and agents of color. This year, NBC and Fox declined even to submit numbers for executive and minority-themed project procurements, respectively.

As unduly Caucasian as the television landscape can appear, these reports, staples since the Big Four networks agreed in 1999 to increase diversity, come off more dire and less connected than the television you know and love. They read as though downloading has not yet been invented. This year's reports generally praise ABC for its diversity in casting shows such as "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy" and the overall Latino vibe of its Wednesday night lineup, which features "The George Lopez Show" and Freddie Prinze Jr. in "Freddie."

Beyond that -- Native Americans aside, of course -- idiot box progress is presented as mixed yet hopeful. Again.

In fact, television has never contained a greater percentage of colored faces and programming written and produced by such people. Myrka Dellanos, Sujin Pak and Dave Chappelle are, for small example, television personalities of large influence and heat among certain segments of American culture. Such actors and personalities aren't included in the report cards, which are compiled and presented by the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition.

The reports count primetime network presence and ignore all else, although this year a reality show category has been added. Under those criteria, the partially Spanish-language children's phenomenon that is "Dora The Explorer" goes unrecognized. Likewise, Peter Chung's mid-'90s MTV phenomenon "Aeon Flux," one of the greatest influences in the TV animation movement, would not have been counted.

"Programming and networks that rely on young audiences are more likely to show diversity," said Neal Justin, television critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a member of the Asian American Journalists Association. "Let's give credit where credit is due."

Cable representation isn't monitored "because it takes a helluva lot of time, energy, and resources," said Alex Nogales, CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Limited resources also result in the advocacy groups opting against counting news and sports programming in its diversity studies.

Karen Narasaki, chair of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition, said her organization has had UCLA graduate students count the screentime accrued by Asian talent on cable.

"If you look at MTV, for example, they do a better job than the networks on any given night," Narasaki said. "The same is true of Lifetime."

Most of the channels -- cable or broadcast -- are owned by the same media companies, which means they deserve some blame for keeping the color in cable. If Viacom, for example, thought its Comedy Central and MTV stars would keep their advertisers and audiences satisfied, the corporation would find a place for them on primetime network shows, which play to much larger audiences. Stars, producers, and writers of cable shows are generally paid less than their network counterparts.

"I don't think we should downplay the problems with broadcast networks," Justin said. "They're still doing a crummy-to-mediocre job."

Justin used the example of NBC's "ER" and its depiction of Asians.

"In Chicago [where the drama is set], you can't avoid an Asian doctor," says Justin, yet he estimates that only two have appeared on the show. This, he says, is due to the politicization of television minority representation, as well as black scriptwriters' relative success in breaking Hollywood's color barrier. On the positive side, he cited an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" in which the title character "had a one-night stand with a South Asian, and there was no reference to it. That's just the way it was. You gotta give that props."

The fact that media observers even have to count the odd instance of apparent color-blind casting makes Narasaki, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, chafe. The media monitor said primetime shows about high school fail because network writers lack experience with integrated public school education and sketch portraits that bear little resemblance to actual life. This ignorance filters down to minor characters who aren't incidentally Asian, whether they're walking in airports or working in office buildings.

"I should be able to see myself in any role," she said. "I'm looking forward to the day when Asian-Americans are just like any other people."

The Asian and Latino reports generally give the four major networks B-to-C grades. CBS -- traditionally the lowest scoring, according to the Asian Coalition -- earned a C-, and ABC scored highest with a C+. The Latino media council also gave ABC its highest grade, a B, while CBS, Fox and NBC all earned C+ grades. Native Americans in Television and Film gave all of the networks failing grades. And representatives from the networks said, again, that diversity is important and they will try to increase it.

Despite the impact of cable television, which pioneers more daring shows and is generally more integrated, the monitors of the TV Report Card are going to continue to hammer away at network TV.

"The reality is that the networks have a lot more of the audience," Narasaki said. The monitors take umbrage at the assertion that their approach is dated. They're not going to shift their attention from the single-digit channels on your TV, where network programming is, to the cable channels. And they're not going to stop focusing on prime time.

"It's not in sports. It's not in news. It's not in children's programming," Nogales said. "It's in primetime. You have to go to where the most eyeballs are."

The Way of All Weeklies

Merry Christmas, Los Angeles.

The present's in the mail. Word got out and blew from Phoenix to New York and back out west beginning on Labor Day: The long-rumored corporate takeover of "alternative" news-on-print is indeed on order.

After the holidays, Phoenix-based NT Media takes control of The Village Voice, which in 1994 bought L.A. Weekly. NT Media - or, more familiarly, New Times - would assume the Voice name and take over not so long after one of the most shameful chapters in domestic alternative print press history: the 2003 Department of Justice antitrust lawsuit against the L.A. Weekly and New Times ownership. Now they're no longer merely in bed together. They're hitched up like a stateside Charles and Camilla, and valued at $400 million.

The L.A. Times is also in some flux, with a new editor in local news- hound Dean Baquet and rumors of suitors sniffing about. Take into account the emerging cultural relevance of this publication, and you've got on tap a Goliath vs. Goliath (vs. David) newspaper fight unlike anything this town has seen. An old-fashioned journalism war. In lieu of pro football.

At stake is the future of progressive journalism. The unofficial truth has seemingly been forever under attack by major multinationals and short attention spans. Its politics are heavier than big media allow, and its formal freedom queers pollsters and consultants. Like its nephew the Internet, the best of the nation's weeklies (The Stranger, Willamette Week, The Boston Phoenix) are charged ions. Now a group of libertarians disguised as Men Without Politics are preparing to set the tone.

Full disclosure: I was a former staff writer and union local president at the L.A. Weekly. The publisher of CityBeat once toiled for the New Times chain. And a whole mess of the editors used to be at the Los Angeles Reader when it was bought and summarily flushed by New Times. The 2003 Department of Justice Consent Decree that ended the antitrust suit literally refers to this paper as an "Interested Party." And this writer hates to lose.

It happens, once every 3,000 blue moons. Sometimes the arrival of a chain is good. And, as objectively as can be stated under the present circumstances, New Voice Times will be good for journalism in Los Angeles.

Journalism backwater

Unless you're hauling your telephoto lens around stars' back fences, Los Angeles is an absolute journalism backwater, an amorphous, misunderstood collection of municipalities with as much day-to-day reporting buzz as, say, Tampa. New York is royalty; on a second tier are the Phillys, Chicagos, and San Franciscos. But our town has no competition at the daily print level, and Hollywood owns TV. That's why L.A. Weekly, established back in 1978, is iconic among hip people of a certain age. Some of the most important reporting and criticism in alternative-press history has come across its pages.

At the same time, it's important to know that parts of this article were composed on New Times computers. CityBeat was, in part, built out of that 2003 Dept. of Justice decision mentioned above. Village Voice LLC, owner of six papers, and New Times, which has 12, were made to sell off some of their assets more than two years ago, after the media companies shut down competing operations here and in Cleveland. Actual competitive journalism was happening in the two cities. And, as actual competitive journalism is something like a war, it costs money.

"Rather than letting the marketplace decide the winner," Acting Assistant Attorney General H.R. Hewitt Pate said, in the 2003 federal consent agreement, "these companies chose to corrupt the competitive process by swapping markets, thereby guaranteeing each other a monopoly and denying consumers in Los Angeles and Cleveland the continued benefits of competition."

If one listened closely enough that day, audible was I.F. Stone doing a half-gainer in his crypt. Could there be a bigger fuck-you to the ideals of a free and independent press than to conspire against alternative voices in two of the nation's greatest cities? And to commiserate this way during the run-up to war in Iraq?

There's a luxuriant romance to how we regard these weeklies. Truth is, Michael Ventura and Norman Mailer don't come 'round much anymore. The Weekly and the Voice have long been run by investors who contribute to Bush, who sell pet food, not to mention having been run by Rupert Murdoch. Voice Media greed is not unexpected. That brand sells as culture product for Manhattan and Hollywood, and it's not completely absurd to speculate that, if the hot publishing trend became Boiled Negroes Monthly, they'd at least explore the option.

A pioneering newsweekly

New Times is supposed to be different, though: It's the ultimate college newspaper story. Back in 1971, Lacey, an ace reporter and peripheral Arizona State student, and his business-minded partner Larkin started a newspaper in large part to provide honest reporting in Phoenix about Vietnam. Arizona State's New Times was a slap in the face for disenchanted Arizona Republic readers. Over the course of years, this endeavor developed into a pioneering newsweekly - Larkin and Lacey played with their newspaper category as they found the word "alternative" to be too tied to leftism. New Times papers have generally been happily tin-eared in their culture section, but in that the papers sounded specifically like Larkin and Lacey and racked up national ad revenue.

"They never bought the 'alternative' thing," said Lisa Davis, a former staff writer at NT Media's Phoenix and San Francisco papers. "In that way, they were alternative."

Lacey and Larkin, both in their 50s, purchased the Denver paper, Westword, in 1983, further establishing the company. Engagements with investors began by the '70s. A decade later, this sort of activity stepped up a level with an early effort to buy the Voice, which was followed by a purchase of the SF Weekly. This meant that such purchases and investments (such as its ad juggernaut The Ruxton Group, which sells to 26 "newsweeklies") had to be extremely streamlined. NT Media's business model was at the time the envy of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

The chain blew into Los Angeles in 1996 and bought up the Reader and Village View for a total of nearly $4 million. In putting together a competitor to the Weekly, whose politics Lacey and Larkin openly abhorred, they paid twice what the properties were worth. But that was Lacey. As a journalist, he'd throw thousands of dollars and hours at stories. Here was a passionate man who wanted Los Angeles. And he evidently didn't care who he stepped on to get it. According to eyewitness reports, Lacey marched into the office of the Village View and simply announced in person that nearly everyone was fired.

Former L.A. Reader managing editor Erik Himmelsbach wrote about Lacey's grand entrance there in a piece published in the L.A. Alternative Press in 2002:

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