A strange project is underway and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
The Entryway is the online journal of two white young women who have moved in with an immigrant family in MacArthur Park. The first eight entries posted on the website seem to be the journal of Devin Browne, a reporter who has produced stories about the MacArthur Park area for local outlets like the LA Weekly. Little is learned about the Mexican family the two girls are living with, other than in the form of short, somewhat poetic outbursts that seem sporadic and disconnected from a bigger picture.
Browne, the diarist, and Kara Mears, who acts as the photographer for the project, are voyeurs. On the front page of the website, although they clearly describe themselves as “reporters,” they also point out that the project itself is “not journalism.” It’s a “personal narrative.”
A couple of weeks ago, former LA Weekly reporter Daniel Hernandez wrote a scathing review of the project’s concept, titling his post “Safari in Los Angeles, in a home in MacArthur Park.” Hernandez claimed that “the authors are wasting an incredible journalistic opportunity, in the service of their own vanity.”
The project is, at best, self-indulgent and full of “self-satisfied gloating”, according to Hernandez and some of his colleagues. Riled up commenters likened the project to a reality TV show, and even called it “straight up racist.”
I consumed the entire Entryway Project site twice before I could come to my own conclusion. The first time, I was immediately struck by the beauty and flow of the layout. The pictures are crisp and the structure changes frequently enough to evoke an urge to see more. I was dazzled, in all honesty, just as I had been the first time I visited Media Storm. I immediately posted it on my Facebook page and noted that it was “pretty amazing” and “an interesting concept.” I was referring, however, to the style — not the content. It seemed closer to creative non-fiction, which is something I have always been fascinated with, especially when it comes to translating that feeling online.
But teacher and South LA Report contributor Jose Lara inspired me to take a second look, this time screening for substance. “Actually, many folks take issue with these reporters and what they are promoting,” wrote Lara. I felt foolish. I had been blinded by the lights and had forgotten to ask the most important questions of all: What is the point of this experiment? And is the fact that it is an “experiment” at all a huge slap in the face of the immigrant community in Los Angeles? Treated like aliens from outer space, or like animals in a zoo, while two prissy white girls get paid to watch them and write about their experiences living out of their own comfort zone?
The Entryway authors say they want to a) learn Spanish (which makes me wonder… are their host families being paid to teach them?) so that they can “better report” on the city and b) find out how the immigrant families view them. “We are more interested in what they think of our country than what we might think of theirs,” writes Browne in Entry 1.
What are they promoting? It definitely warrants a second look. But the answer, it seems, is complicated. On the one hand, this kind of “us versus them” attitude is appalling and a big step backwards for a multicultural city like Los Angeles. On the other hand, I very much doubt that this project is aimed at anyone other than those with faces and backgrounds similar to the reporters themselves. And the unfortunate truth is that for a portion of the white, middle-to-affluent population, this is exactly the kind of project that provokes thought about a race and culture that is otherwise tuned out. No, it may not be perfect. Far from it. But perhaps a white audience would empathize with these two young women in the sense that they are out of their usual sphere of being and facing some very real social situations that force them to contemplate their own race. Perhaps this project is not about providing “insight” into the immigrant community, but providing insight into the awkwardness of race relations, from a white perspective.
Yes, it’s an important point that too much of history has already been composed “from a white perspective.” Long-silenced communities should be encouraged to speak up. But this project obviously is not aiming toward such a goal. This project, I concluded, is about what it means to be a white reporter in a city of color. Unfortunately, Browne and Mears either failed to recognize this, or failed to make it clear from the start, resulting in accusations of racism because the subject of the project was incorrectly labeled as the Mexican immigrant family. The subject is, and has always been, the women themselves. As famed psychologist Beverly Tatum explains in her classic book on racial identity, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?,” white people rarely think about being white, and what it means in terms of privileges and social engagement. Thinking about race and talking about race is the only way to initiate change. “Passive racism,” explains Tatum, can mean “avoiding difficult race-related issues.” And from childhood, white children are taught to avoid, avoid, avoid.
What’s really telling is that following Hernandez’s response, Browne felt it necessary to re-write her introduction to the project. If she had been clear with herself and her audience from the beginning, she wouldn’t have had to do so.
The fact that Browne went back and revised her statement of purpose clearly shows that she was uncomfortable with the accusations of racism, and for good reason. But the fact that she could simply erase her errors brings up another worrying point. The ease of modern technology and the intangibility of the Internet seems to be promoting a kind of “after-thought” journalism. In fact, one of my professors at journalism school responsible for our single class in “online journalism” summed up the attitude neatly when he expressly told us to “post first and fix it later.” There is no time to mull over the full impact of a project, or even a sentence. The world demands NOW.
Consequently, it’s almost as if Browne’s first attempt to explain the project has been erased from history in a manner that recalls George Orwell’s 1984. The pages and their thoughts simply disappear. Browne can cover her tracks and start afresh.
But where I disagree with Hernandez is that this project somehow represents a lapse in journalistic values due to “new media” reporters. Hernandez calls this new breed “new-school-trained” journalists who are “first and foremost “a voice” before a fact-gatherer.” They are lacking in all the skills, from ethics to grammar, forced upon the pre-Internet “legacy” journalists.
I think it’s clear, at least it’s clearer now, that the Entryway project is not a journalistic project. The confusion is that Spot.us has the story included in their story pitches and is seeking funding for it, which, personally, I think was a big mistake. Even if these “reporters” are intending to produce more journalistic pieces, their position as independent fact-gatherers is extremely compromised.
“Our project is long-term and posting helps the young journalists record an emotional experience while the main reporting continues and as they work to produce detailed stories about the people and the community they are living in,” commented Anh Do, the Spot.us Los Angeles editor, on Hernandez’s piece.
Perhaps a reporter’s “beat notes” should remain offline. While transparency is good, pre-emptive emotional blogging (or tweeting, or posting updates on Facebook for that matter) is just plain unprofessional.
I agree that projects like this one, and to some extent Media Storm, have a tendency to attract more attention than the “day-to-day reporters who live off nothing but their bylines,” as Hernandez says. But it is wrong to assume that modern reporters are somehow less hard working than “legacy” journalists. New media definitely does include experimenting with new mediums, but it is not a mindset. These so-called “reporters” who create art rather than journalism by dazzling audiences with online gadgetry are simply lazy. And in every era of journalism throughout history there have always been lazy journalists. The problem is that it is an affront to the hard workers when these Internet artists, diarists and photographers label themselves “reporters.”
If the Entryway is to be considered “journalism,” it is bad journalism. It has an agenda, an interest, and blatantly lacks journalistic ethics. Most reporters, new and old, would agree. But it’s unfair to lay the blame on “new media.” Pitting traditional reporters against reporters today who are dealing with new mediums is unfair and inaccurate. There are plenty of projects which could be included under the new media umbrella that do exactly what Hernandez is claiming should be the purpose of journalism. For example, encouraging people to tell their own stories rather than relying on reporters to act as a middleman. Need an example? Well, I’d like to think that you’re looking at one right now. The South Los Angeles Report publishes stories produced by the community, as well as running journalism workshops to aid citizen journalists in their own storytelling. To see these pieces, which include a variety of mediums, look for pages labeled with “community contributor.”
To find out more about Browne’s perspective on the Entryway project, take a look at Entry 9. This “FAQ” post was no doubt composed following the article by Hernandez and the ensuing reactions.
This piece originally appeared on USC Annenberg’s South Los Angeles Report.