Behind the Bombs: How the LA Times Used Secret Recordings to Expose Racism at the Highest Levels of City Government

New York
CNN Business

Last Thursday at exactly 5:29 p.m. Pacific Time, a mysterious Twitter account with the handle @LAunionLaundry posted a secretly recorded audio of the now former head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Ron Herrera. The account tagged two Los Angeles Times reporters, as well as the newspaper’s political account.

The move successfully caught the attention of The LAT. His reporters soon discovered that additional audio recordings, which captured Los Angeles City Council members making racist and bigoted comments at the Federation of Labor headquarters, had been published to Reddit by an anonymous user 14 days earlier.

David Zahniser, one of the reporters who was tagged by the Twitter account, quickly got to work on the story with the help of four colleagues: Julia Wick, Benjamin Oreskes, Dakota Smith and Gustavo Arellano.

The team worked quickly but diligently, guided by their editor Steve Clow. Thursday blended into Friday, which blended into the weekend, and conference calls were held well into Saturday night so the team could discuss their reports. More conference calls were held early Sunday morning until reporters and editors agreed on a final draft.

From there, The LAT’s general counsel, Jeff Glasser, quickly dealt with a legal threat from the Federation of Labor that had warned that the audio could have been the result of “illegal” recordings. Glasser sent a direct response to the union that said, “It is a fundamental principle in the United States that we do not prohibit or penalize the receipt and publication of newsworthy information.”

After that, it was time to put the story live. At approximately 9 a.m. PT on Sunday, The LAT posted its first story: “Racist comments in leaked audio of Los Angeles council members spark outrage, disgust.”

The consequences of the story have been enormous, turning the city into a riot and reverberating throughout the country.

President Joe Biden even stepped in and asked the three council members caught on the tapes, all Democrats, to resign. Nury Martínez stepped down from her position as council president before stepping down from her position on Wednesday. The other two council members have not resigned. Herrera resigned as head of the Labor Federation.

“We knew this was going to be important because the content of the film was so powerful and it touches on so many issues that we think are important: racism, bigotry, backroom dealings, voter representation,” said Shelby, deputy managing editor of LAT news. . Grad told CNN Thursday night, “But it’s always hard to tell when a local story like this will grab national attention.”

Since Sunday, the reporting team has expanded considerably. Grad said there are now more than two dozen journalists at The LAT working on the story. And the paper has been running stories every day, covering the fallout as it tries to determine Who’s behind the filtered audio.

Days later, it is still not known how large the blast radius could ultimately be and if more audio tapes could reach the public square.

“I think the fallout has the potential to last for quite some time,” Metro deputy managing editor Hector Becerra said, “one way or another.”

A version of this article first appeared in the “Trusted Sources” newsletter. Sign up here to receive the daily digest chronicling the evolution of the media landscape.

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