By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris
On Friday evening June 8th, I attended a fundraiser for the non-profit online investigative journalism website, Capital & Main. Capital & Main is a relatively new California based operation initiated by union-friendly researchers at Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). It has broken major investigative news stories on immigration, homelessness, politics, and workplace safety.
The fundraiser occurred at a large home on a leafy wide street full of green yards and gardens in the Larchmont area of Los Angeles, an enclave of expansive mansions just west of Koreatown and south of Hollywood—away from the honking and clamor of dense neighborhoods full of restaurants, shops, and apartments. Guests entered through the gate and a winding garden; trees flanked by flowers and green ivy led down a narrow red brick path to a yard covered with white wooden tables and chairs, a stage and speaker on the far side of a narrow, and shallow pool.
Harold Meyerson, one of the night’s awardees, is a widely published journalist, with a long, storied career. A former columnist for the Washington Post, and managing editor of the American Prospect, his work appeared frequently in the LA Times and other national media outlets. A stalwart of the progressive left, Meyerson, like Bernie Sanders, considered himself a Democratic Socialist, anchoring an unapologetically progressive wing of the ideological spectrum.
I met him as soon as I entered. A short, hunched, but stocky man, with round glasses that sat on the tip of his nose, and whisks of brown hair encircling an otherwise bald his head, he did not look like the intellectual powerhouse his reputation suggested. Meyerson stood, engaged in a deep conversation. He began to exclaim in an animated passion; his face lit up, and he offered a wide grin, excited and enthralled at annunciating an idea that would support his broader argument. He seemed overjoyed at the concept, conjured from the ether, formed in thought, and brought to life with words. He was immersed in the latest saga of a decades long debate on the nature of American capitalism and social inequality.
I grabbed a few glasses of seltzer water and finally a gin and orange juice with a hint of mango, and approached a white woman around my age, her straight brown hair ending at the shoulders of a no-nonsense black leather jacket. She introduced herself as the night’s Emcee, Kathleen Miles. Kathleen was managing editor for the World Post, an organization that published investigative articles on world affairs for the Washington Post. Her job was to recruit journalists, commission stories, and edit their work.
A large contingent of union researchers and staff from UNITE-HERE, the hotel workers union, gathered in a corner. Ada Briceno, an elected President of UNITE-HERE Local 11 in Los Angeles, started as a hotel worker herself. She organized a union with her co-workers, and who later elected her to a top position in the union’s leadership team. Hotel workers in Los Angeles faced many challenges; competition from web platform Airbnb, the intervention of hedge funds and big money private equity firms, and rising housing prices that reduced workers’ ability to purchase necessities. They had to organize to survive. A union staffer standing next to her was working to establish a new local in Phoenix; and to give workers tools to win living wages, affordable healthcare, and protections against abusive bosses in Maricopa County, Arizona.
I got in line to get a plate of food before the program started. A young caterer stood next to the various dishes helping guests by handing them plates and utensils. They normally do big events; conventions, lavish parties, weddings, and banquets—usually 700 or more guests. This was a smaller event. I passed through two rooms of the large house and scoped up a large plate of Indian food—chickpeas and chicken masala. The walls and floors of the home covered in a dark painted wood, with a large table carved from what looked like a single red-wood stump, and uncomfortable looking antique chairs placed against the opposite wall. A Hollywood movie producer had opened his home for the night’s event.
Looking for a chair, when I returned outside, I grabbed a seat closer to the shallow pool that divided the courtyard from the stage and speakers set up in the corner under the green foliage of a large tree.
I sat down next to two women. One I learned, was Bernice Yeung, an award-winning journalist who had broken a string of exposes covering the prevalence of sexual assaults on female office custodian and farmworkers. She had recently written a book: In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers. Her investigative exposes had aired on PBS’ frontline; Rape on the Night Shift, and Rape in the fields, which was nominated for an Emmy. Her work has been pivotal in expanding #metoo and #timesup movements from the Hollywood elite to a broader conversation of sexual violence against working women. She lived in the bay area, where she grew up, she told me. Her childhood friend lived in West LA, and they never got to see each other, so she accompanied Bernice to the event.
As we all chatted, award winning journalist Hector Tobar – Bernice mentioned she wanted to write a book about the immigrant experience living in the Bay area and how it has changed over the generations. Hector encouraged her with that idea, and they both described the changing geography and texture of immigrant California. Soon it was time for the program to begin.
Kathleen Miles spoke first, introducing the night’s program. Our purpose here, she explained to the crowd of colleagues and supporters, was to raise funds for investigative journalism, for the organization Capital & Main, and to keep the flame of truth seeking alive. She then introduced the organizations’ publisher, Danny Feingold, who described the organization’s work, mission, and recent accomplishments. Stories that have been first published on its website have been further published in newspapers in Los Angeles, throughout California, and syndicated in the national press.
Capital and Main’s reporting has had a major policy impact; its reporting stopped Trump’s Department of Labor nominee Andy Puzdner. The organization reported that as CEO of fast food chain Carl’s Jr, a female executive who worked there sued him for sexual harassment. The company also routinely violated labor, health, and safety laws, including issuing paychecks on pre-paid visa cards that came with exorbitant fees. Capital and Main’s reporting led to the withdraw of the labor secretary’s candidacy, co-publishing in Newsweek, the American Prospect, Fast Company, and the International Business Times.
The organization had investigated brutality and deaths in ICE custody, revealing a world beyond the law in privately run for profit prison camps for undocumented immigrants. Capital and Main also had published investigative articles on the high rate of lead poisoning of Exide battery plant near downtown LA, the health problems of workers and families living near the factory, and a coverup by government regulators.
These stories show Capital and Main as crusading journalism at its finest; the latest in a long tradition of generations of investigative reporters and muckrakers. These writers—Ida B. Wells, Upton Sinclair, Carey McWilliams, Robert Scheer, Gary Webb, and others—meticulously documented abuses that led to meaningful legislative and political change. Ida B. Wells exposes of mob lynchings did much to lead to a curbing of this barbaric practice. Upton Sinclair’s novels with stomach churning descriptions of life working in Chicago’s meatpacking industry led to the Food and Drug Administration. Carey McWilliams detailed reporting on agricultural conditions, Factories in the Fields, exposed the plight of migrant farmworkers, who would organize with Cesar Chavez a generation later. Robert Scheer exposed how the Central Intelligence Agency used the National Student Association for covert operations in the 1960’s. In the Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News, Gary Webb detailed how the Central Intelligence Agency distributed cocaine from Contra guerillas fighting the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua to the Crips and Bloods in South Central Los Angeles.
The decline in the profitability of daily newspapers and the collapse of independent journalism has short circuited national media debates into short sighted false narratives, and a world of the President constantly repeating blatant lies until they become established parlance, where inconvenient truths are “fake news,” and made up numbers are “alternative facts.” Donald Trump’s domination of the 24-hour news cycle has created a cyclone of distress and worry. His ever more outrageous behavior is echoed by a compliant news media, which even in shock and criticism further amplifies his message. Alternative narrative are confined to the self-contained worlds social media. More and more people are realizing that online activism has become an exercise in futility, like sermons preached to the converted. Within this stormy news environment, important lessons are lost. That is why Capital and Main exists; to be that lighthouse, that beacon of truth in a tempest of misinformation and conflicting claims.
Bernice Yeung rose to the podium to receive an award for groundbreaking reporting. She gave a short speech thanking Capital and Main for recognizing her work in detailing sexual assault among both female farmworkers, and the janitors who clean offices of top Silicon Valley tech giants. The audience gave her a rousing applause. In Los Angeles, where actress testimonies toppled movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and other leading entertainment personalities, the work of Bernice Yeung has connected sexual assault in Hollywood to the daily lived experience of ordinary women workers. Bernice thanked the crowd, but especially her parents, first generation immigrants who fought to give her a better life. Before she left the stage, she mentioned that her award was nothing compared to the that thousands of women deserved, the rape victims with the courage to shake off the shackles of guilt and shame, and through their cathartic testimony, restore dignity and obtain justice.
Veteran journalist Hector Tobar also received an award. Hector approached the stage with a clean-shaven head and thick black framed rectangular glasses; he sported a goatee like a Chicano hipster frequenting a gentrifying Los Angeles Arts District brewery. He basked in the crowd and its energy. Before describing his long history as a journalist, he began with his upbringing. His parents were Guatemalan immigrant, their family migrated to the U.S. escaping Guatemala’s civil war. Hector’s father instilled in him a love of books. His dad would read to him, encouraging his son to do well in school. They would take family pictures behind bookshelves; Hector grew up revering books and the search for knowledge. Later in life, he confessed, he would learn that his grandmother had been illiterate. Encouraged by his family, Hector enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, majoring in Engineering. Here, he discovered both leftist politics and marijuana, he chuckled, switching majors to sociology and political science.
Back in Los Angeles, Hector joined the Los Angeles Times as a beat reporter in the 1980’s. It was the heyday for print news. The newspaper had a circulation of 1.5 million, with hundreds of reporters. The Sunday paper was so thick, his colleagues joked, dogs would get hurt trying to fetch the news for their owners, crushed under the sheer weight of the print. As waves of immigrants from Mexico and Central America moved into the city, as a young reporter, he had free reign to roam the streets and cover the changing landscape of Los Angeles. But the newspaper industry changed, and America changed with it.
There were layoffs and rounds of news reporter downsizing—wave after wave of cuts at the times, the floor beat reporters thinned, and the incessant clicking of clacking of fingers pounding keyboards grew quieter. One day an activist pitched a story to him, making her case why he should write about the hundreds of bicyclists who would ride through LA in a “critical mass.” He asked why she approached him. She said it was because he was the only social justice reporter at the LA Times. Things must be getting bad, he remembered thinking. A few weeks later, the newspaper downsized; he lost his job.
The light of the mid-June sky had begun to fade, and the sky glowed a bright and fading orange. I was sitting on in front of a shallow emerald pool. Across the way, speakers delivered riveting speeches to fundraise for the organization and its cause on a makeshift stage. I looked at them soaking it all in, sometimes lowering my head to watch their reflection shimmering in the pool’s translucent waters, its green color reflecting the orange yellow sky as night descended.
David Sirota approached the stage. A progressive radio talk show host in Colorado, he has appeared as a guest commentator on progressive news shows such as the Colbert Report, the Young Turks, and Countdown with Keith Obermann, and has written for The Nation, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among other publications. Sirota had just joined Capital & Main as the organization’s national correspondent – he flew to LA for this event from his home in Denver. Sirota’s reputation proceeded him. He had been praised by both HBO star Bill Moyers, and Progressive Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on his new gig. A tall white man with angular features and distinguished greying hair, he began to speak about the crisis in journalism.
The Denver Post is on the verge of collapse. The prospect that Colorado will have no daily newspaper to report on politics, policy, and corporate corruption, in a state with a rapidly growing population and a power struggle over water rights, fracking, natural resource extraction, and the environment, shows the breadth of the crisis in print news, he continued. He was excited to join Capital and Main, to continue to engage in investigative reporting, and he looked forward to rolling up his sleeves and starting to work.
The final speaker was Harold Meyerson –the outspoken leftist newspaper columnist, who centered progressive values in the maelstrom of national debates. Harold was introduced by his former editor, Kit Rachlis, who started editing Harold at the LA Weekly decades before.
Harold began by telling a story, reminiscing about his time at the LA Weekly. Sometime in the mid-1980’s, the celebrity gossip columns were talking about a decadent mansion being built in the Hollywood Hills, a lavish structure with over 53,000 square feet. At that time, tens of thousands of migrant families from El Salvador had moved to MacArthur Park, escaping the bloodshed of civil war between leftist guerillas and a military dictatorship.
At that time, the population density per square block in MacArthur Park was greater than most neighborhoods in the country, including in New York, Harold narrated. People lived five to ten to a room, taking turns sleeping in shifts huddled together. Harold wrote a story contrasting the massive new mansion with the squalid conditions of recent immigrants. According to his calculations, over 437 people could live in that new home if they used the same amount of space as those who dwelled in MacArthur Park.
Harold Meyerson told another story, after celebrating the fond memories of his youth in LA’s golden age of journalism, covering the cultural renascence that recent migrants brought to California. He pivoted to the current economic and political climate, sounding a more serious tone.
All the jobs created since the great recession are temporary jobs, and in the new gig economy. They are low wage service jobs; independent contractors have low wages and no-benefits, not even social security. Meanwhile the business press touts that the economy has recovered, and we are in the middle of an economic boom. Look how far we’ve come since the dark days of the great recession and government wall street bailout, they say.
He railed against the economic elite and sounded a tone staunchly defending the politics of Corbyn in Britain and Sanders in the United States. Taxing the rich and investing their hoarded wealth would expand economic growth and lead to widespread prosperity for all.
Before the great recession, Harold described, companies paid workers a greater share of their revenue, and they would spend it immediately, creating a multiplier effect that would the compound economic activity. A wage earner would purchase food at a grocery store, which would pay its cashiers and other workers. That cashier would spend money at the nail salon, and the pharmacy; many more would be paid from the first workers’ paycheck.
But since the great recession, income inequality has increased. Workers earn less; and the surplus value from their economic productivity is being hoarded by corporate owners and not invested back into the real economy. Before the recession, a dollar would exchange hands 17 times within a specific timeframe. Now it was only five. Instead of wages fueling consumer spending and economic growth, workers earn less and less. The bulk of new wealth is not spent; trillions of dollars of the ultra-wealthy have been taken out of circulation, sitting in bank accounts and not put to productive use.
The point of the Trump corporate tax cuts was to bring back into the United States the almost $2 trillion dollars stashed in overseas tax havens, Harold continued to explain. This supply side economic theory reasons that lower taxes will drive economic growth as corporations repatriate their overseas capital and invest here at home. The problem with that theory, he continued, is that corporations already have over seven trillion dollars in liquid assets sitting in the United States, stashed away generating interest, but not invested in any productive use. What we need, he implored, polemicizing in a raised voice and somber tone, is to tax the wealthy individuals and corporations that refuse to spend their money, so that government can invest in infrastructure, transportation, green energy, single payer healthcare, free college tuition, and its own people, to revive economic growth.
Harold finished the speech to rousing applause. As the sun set, five sparrows flew overhead, squawking loudly above the canopy of green foliage beneath the violet orange fading sky. I thought I heard them speak, to christen the work that had commenced, and the congregation celebrating below. As guests slowly departed, they set off into the night with renewed purpose, to re-establish truth, and save real journalism from the jaws of a malleable reality.