A black journalist’s journey

Cynthia Gomez

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Erin Aubry Kaplan, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, discussed the local media and her experiences as a black journalist in the first series of lectures presented by the Center for Southern California Studies at CSUN.

“Erin’s someone who has written very eloquently about the transformation of South L.A., particularly in the last decade and as a community that’s intimately connected to ours, yet very unfamiliar to a lot of people,” said Josh Sides, Whitsett professor of California history in the history department and the director of CSCS. “I felt like it was essential to have a voice from that world speaking to us.”

About 50 students, professors and other members of the public came together in the Whitsett Room last Thursday to hear about Kaplan’s experiences growing up to become a journalist and becoming the first African-American opinion columnist for the L.A. Times in its 125-year history. Kaplan is now the contributing editor of the opinion page for the newspaper and has also written for Essence magazine.

“For me as a black journalist, it’s not just the matter of telling a story that nobody’s heard or people rarely see, (but) it’s also about reframing the story, kind of shifting the priority so that your point of view is the dominant point of view that will tell a different story and that sort of reframing the story,” said Kaplan. “It’s been a struggle for me and I imagine it will always be a struggle.”

Kaplan said blacks and the media have “always been in a fight” because blacks have “always had a very suspicious relationship with the media” since the post-slavery era. She added that images and stories were used against black people that contradicted reality.

Kaplan said it is her job as a journalist to find a balance in telling a story that also includes a point of view.

“It doesn’t mean that I am telling stories about how wonderful black people are or telling these overwhelmingly positive stories,” Kaplan said. “I get into debates all the time. There are a lot of black people who…think it’s my job to tell a positive story, and I don’t get into positives and negatives.”

“I think I just want to make the pictures (as) complex as possible because I think, ultimately, that’s what is interesting, that’s what’s real and that’s what we need,” she said.

Kaplan said she grew up in what used to be called L.A. and is now called South Central. She added that she grew up in a mostly black neighborhood and attended a local “all black” school.

“Suddenly in fifth grade, I had to be bussed to a predominately white school in order to continue to be a gifted person or go to the gifted program,” Kaplan said.

The writer recounted an incident in which a white friend told her she was not allowed into her house because she was black. Kaplan said she felt embarrassed, but not angry, because she was “too young and unpolitical to be mad.” She added that she started to get a sense of “a real dangerous force out there” that she could not control.

Kaplan said she encountered another situation in graduate school at UCLA.

“One day near the end of a semester, the professor calls me and says, ‘I have your paper Miss Aubry, but I have to talk to you about it,'” Kaplan said. “‘I’m afraid we have a real problem,'” she said the professor told her.

The professor said Kaplan was not eloquent enough to write a well-written paper and that she must have plagiarized. Kaplan said she felt embarrassed again, but was not angry.

She said she didn’t want to believe that the accusation stemmed from her race. She couldn’t believe that people of this generation still thought like that, especially in L.A.

Kaplan talked about the publications she had written for before she became an opinion columnist. She said she had a mentor named Ed Boyer, a former L.A. Times staff writer, who started a new magazine called Accent L.A. Kaplan said Boyer felt that the Times “did not cover black L.A. at all.”

Boyer asked her to write for the publication and she accepted. “I was a creative writer,” Kaplan said, “I did poetry, you know, stuff like that. And journalism is something very specific.”

Kaplan added that Accent L.A. ran from 1987 to 1992 and was published monthly. She said she learned how to be a reporter in those five years but never quite mastered the art of asking questions.

“I’m not a good reporter. I’ll tell you that right now, because reporting involves asking a lot of questions, right?” Kaplan said. “I don’t like asking questions. I don’t like calling up strangers and asking them, ‘Talk to me.’ It’s kind of like being solicitors.”

After leaving Accent L.A., Kaplan worked at the L.A. Times for about three years before starting a 9-year stint at L.A. Weekly.

“There was a lively attitude at the Weekly that really benefited me and that really allowed me to develop this?voice that I think people responded to,” Kaplan said. “They never responded to it positively all the time, but I started to get over my thin skin.”

After New Times L.A. bought L.A. Weekly, Kaplan said it was time for her to leave.

She became a columnist for the opinion section of the L.A. Times when the newspaper invited her to write a weekly column.