by Deirdre Edgar | LA Times Readers' Representative Journal: A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards
April 7, 2010 | 7:12 am -- Articles in The Times often point out the historical significance of an event, especially when it is a first. Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win an Oscar for best director. Canada won the first North American gold medal in ice dancing. Even the first baby of the year often gets his or her photo in the paper.
But what happens when something widely reported to be a first actually isn’t?
In an article Feb. 12, Jean Merl wrote about Rep. Diane Watson’s planned retirement from Congress, saying the 76-year-old Democratic congresswoman, who was initially elected to represent her Los Angeles district in 2001, could count many accomplishments in her long political career:
Watson's announcement brought the former teacher and school psychologist accolades from across the political firmament, in which she has been a trailblazing fixture since winning an uphill race for the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1975. She was the first black woman elected to the board, as the district was grappling with school integration.
However, an e-mail a couple of weeks later from Jefferson Crain, executive officer of the LAUSD Board of Education, launched a flurry of research that revealed that Watson was in fact not the first black woman elected to the school board. As it turns out, Fay E. Allen has that distinction, having won a school board race in 1939.
But before there was research, there were questions.
Crain had sent his e-mail to Howard Blume, who covers the LAUSD. It was forwarded to Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who serves as the newsroom’s standards editor, and who began poking around. Merl was surprised to have the statement questioned because it was something The Times and other organizations have reported over the years, and it is included in the biographical information on Watson’s website. Richard Simon had used the same statistic in his story a day earlier, and The Times’ archives show it was cited previously in 1991 and 2001.
Could Crain be right?
Maybe Allen had been appointed back in 1939, not elected. Or, maybe it was a different school board then. Blume and Merl set out to check.
Crain, who was appointed in April 1995 and whose post is nonpartisan, responded to the school board question, saying, "Simply put, there has been just one Board of Education for a really long time."
As Crain explained, the city charter established the board of education as the governing body of the department of education. In 1854, the City Council appointed the mayor as superintendent of schools, and three council members became the board of education.
The board's oversight expanded in 1960 after an election approved a measure stating that "the Los Angeles City School District will become a unified school district for elementary and high school purposes effective as of July 1, 1961." The district's name then became Los Angeles Unified.
And articles in The Times’ archives confirm that Allen was indeed elected. A political column from May 8, 1939, commented on the election results in language that reflected the racial feelings of the period:
Town full of squawks because Mrs. Fay Allen, a Negro music teacher, was elected to the Board of Education. Said squawks should be silenced. No intelligent person should complain because he voted for Mrs. Allen, not knowing her race. … Mrs. Allen is intelligent, traveled and experienced.
A subsequent article on May 19, 1939, reports on a “legal tangle” involving Allen and whether she would still be allowed to hold her teaching position while serving on the Board of Education. While changing her courtesy title from Mrs. to Miss, it states:
Miss Allen was elected to the board May 2 and was invited to sit with the members beginning June 1 instead of July 1, in being offered the seat vacated by resignation of Margarete Clark.
So, Allen was in fact the first, and a correction appears in the For the Record section of The Times. But Watson’s election in 1975 still was noteworthy, coming at a time when the district was polarized over school desegregation.
The research piqued Merl’s interest in Fay Allen. If anyone knew Allen or knew about her, Merl would like to hear from you. “I am really fascinated by this woman who was obviously quite a pioneer and yet somehow missed out on getting recognition of her place in history.”
Contact Jean Merl: Jean.Merl@LATimes.com