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Parachute Journalism

The LA Times drops into Richmond and gets it all wrong.

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Richmond, the second largest city in Contra Costa County, has had remarkable success fighting the coronavirus — so much so that it and the county are national models. Officials acted quickly and decisively to mobilize resources, info, and healthcare services while providing economic protections for renters and homeowners.

The aggressive response resulted in some of the lowest infection rates in densely populated Bay Area counties and the nation. Coronavirus hospitalizations are down to 25 from a high of 44 on April 11, and new cases have steadily decreased, despite increased testing. Such results prompted the county and five of its Bay Area peers to jointly announce a new health order this week that will cautiously ease some shelter-in-place restrictions.

It's because of these successes that Richmond residents were dismayed on Friday when the Los Angeles Times ran a story that described the city as isolated, backward, and diseased. "By all accounts amid this pandemic, the city of Richmond should be sitting at the precipice of disaster," reporter Susanne Rust wrote, basing her conclusion on the city's ethnic makeup, homeless population, and proximity to pollution. 

Rust swooped into town last week to report on the pandemic, but apparently didn't speak to any city or county officials, including Richmond Mayor Tom Butt or Supervisor John Gioia, who represents the area that includes Richmond. Instead, Rust appears to have relied on a single local activist with political aspirations as the primary source of her critique. As a result, many of the facts in her story were wrong.

Some of the story's errors included using death statistics from Richmond, Virginia instead of Richmond, California. It grossly exaggerated Richmond's unemployment rate as 15 percent, when it was actually 3 percent prior to the pandemic. It described the city as so failed it could not care for potential coronavirus patients. And it falsely claimed there was little virus testing available.

"So far, however, Richmond hasn't seen the kind of outbreaks documented in other parts of Contra Costa County," the story said. "Community advocates think there is a reason for that. There's been little testing in Richmond and other economically challenged, isolated cities and towns around the state."

Some Hispanic and African-American residents felt stigmatized by the story. Wayne Greene, a 31-year Richmond resident said that as an African American he was offended by Rust's assumption. "People of color in Richmond have been dealing, for decades, with all kinds of environmental and industrial assaults and accidents from Chevron to PG&E," Greene said. "We are fully aware of how to protect ourselves and navigate around shrinking health resources when we need to. Poor doesn't mean stupid."

Some of these misrepresentations were changed in the paper's online version after city and county leaders complained to Times editors. Rust and her editors have not responded to Express requests for comment.

Of the story's many sins, the biggest is its failure to mention all of the actions taken by the county Board of Supervisors. Gioia, a leader in the battle against the virus, said the county has so far spent $100 million of its reserve funds responding to the pandemic, including $11 million for community-based organizations to provide health and human services to county residents. He said the county is prepared to approve another $15 million service-based nonprofits.

The story mentioned Richmond's homeless population to support its dire assessment. But it overlooked the fact that the county's three homeless shelters, including two in Richmond, were emptied out and the 250 residents were placed in individual motel rooms. There were no virus outbreaks in any of the shelters nor in the county's homeless encampments, which were supplied with washing stations and porta potties. 

Rust also ignored that the county has taken over the waterside Craneway Pavilion and had the National Guard outfit it as an emergency medical facility with hospital supplies and 250 beds. However, since virus hospitalizations have begun to flatten, it's likely the overflow space won't be needed.

The story claimed that renters and homeowners were at risk of losing their homes, which is true, but failed to include the extent of the county's protections again eviction. Sheriff David O. Livingston is not a popular figure around Richmond on immigration issues, but he nonetheless immediately enacted a moratorium on evictions prior to the state order to do so. Livingston's quick action gave the Board of Supervisors time to include protections against eviction during the crisis and for up to four months afterward. The protections shield renters and homeowners from late fees and back payment penalties. In Richmond, residents are protected for six months after the crisis ends.

"I'm proud that in Contra Costa County we stepped up to protect residents from this health and economic crisis," Supervisor Gioia said.

David Sharple, the director of the Richmond housing nonprofit ACCE, worked with Gioia and other supervisors to craft the eviction protections. Sharple reservedly praised the supervisors for their quick actions though he would rather that protections went further. "I would have liked to see a longer grace period after the pandemic is over," Sharples said. "For example, back-rents should be forgiven like it was in Alameda County in order to prevent an explosion of evictions after the crisis is over."

There are some lingering mysteries about the story. For example, why did the paper rely only on a single primary source — activist Claudia Jimenez — for its dubious information?

Jimenez is a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and has announced that she is running for a city council seat. That was not mentioned in Rust's story, which described Jimenez and her husband Eli Moore working at home and the couple's two children doing their homework in the living room. Rust did not respond to questions regarding why she selected Jimenez as her primary source of criticism, or whether she previously knew the couple. Jimenez denied that she knew the reporter before the story, but would not say whether her husband knew Rust.

Mayor Butt is frustrated with out-of-town reporters who parachute into town with preconceived ideas, intent on portraying a city teaming with crime, poverty, pollution and now contagious disease. "I'm tired of journalists coming to Richmond and looking for reasons to trash the city," said Butt who has served on the city council for 25 years. "These journalist hits on the city keep businesses and jobs away and there's no attempt at balance or objectivity anymore"

Butt said he invited Rust and the Times to return to Richmond for a more accurate story, but he doesn't expect them to accept. 

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