On most nights here, the most timely, serious and civic-minded local news is not available on the Internet, the radio or any of the half-dozen English-language stations that broadcast nightly shows that purport to be newscasts. At 11 p.m. each night here, the best newscasts in the market appear on two Spanish-language channels, Univision's flagship KMEX and Telemundo affiliate KVEA.
This might come as a surprise to English-speaking Americans, who hear about the Spanish-language TV news only when its on-air personalities engage in soap-opera-style antics, such as the KVEA anchor-reporter who became the mistress of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But I've been watching these two Spanish newscasts and their English competitors on the local ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates, and the content doesn't lie. If immigrants took Schwarzenegger's advice and flipped off Spanish stations in favor of English-language news, they wouldn't have nearly as good an idea of what was happening in their adopted city, state and country.
Take a recent night, after a typical day of Los Angeles news. English-language TV led with the weather (it was raining, which is not as unusual as you might think during an L.A. winter), then moved into splashy reports with dramatic footage of a gang shootout and possible hostage situation in a city neighborhood. Less than eight minutes into the newscast, trivia took over. The CBS affiliate's third piece involved new questions about the death of Marilyn Monroe. The NBC affiliate dwelled on a hepatitis scare at a party for celebrities and swimsuit models, then attempted a brief consumer-oriented investigation about people's need to replace their tires more frequently. The ABC affiliate gave five minutes to movies and entertainment, from an Oscar preview to a sit-down interview with Jon Stewart.
In Spanish, viewers got fewer soft features and more deeply reported, longer pieces. KMEX mentioned the gang shootout but provided far more context, interviewing local residents about recent crime and about how local businesses and schools were affected by an hours-long neighborhood lockdown as police searched for a suspect. KMEX also aired a detailed report on a major beef recall from a local firm, a couple of pieces on local politics (including a roundup of what city and county leaders had done that day) and a four-minute examination of key policy issues in the presidential campaign. The Oscars went unmentioned. KVEA's half-hour newscast, " En Contexto" (which means what it sounds like), was even more substantive. It gave a thorough review of local political and government news, then delved deeply into nearly 20 minutes of explanation of rising home foreclosures and mortgage problems. (Yes, Spanish-language viewers were callously left to figure out that it was raining all by themselves.)
This was no fluke. The next night, KMEX broke the news that the LAPD had more Latino officers than white officers, and KVEA ran a piece on the pay and working conditions of security guards. Meanwhile, their English-language rival KABC was finishing another Oscar preview and beginning a heartwarming story involving dogs.