Trump dominated politics on L.A. TV news. A ‘sobering’ City Hall scandal changed that
Nury Martinez was visibly upbeat as she described how it felt to be making history as the first Latina president of the Los Angeles City Council.
“It feels real good,” Martinez said with a wide smile as she sat at the Tom Brokaw News Center in Universal City. “When I was growing up, little girls who looked like me and spoke like me never thought they would have these types of opportunities. It’s a lot, and I’m excited to lead the council and look forward to a new year.”
Sitting across from Martinez was Conan Nolan, chief political reporter for KNBC-TV Channel 4. It was 2020, and Martinez was Nolan’s first guest of the year on “News Conference,” the Sunday public affairs program he has anchored for 22 years. Martinez told Nolan that she had always held herself “to the highest standards” during her 17 years in public office, and the two continued to discuss some of the challenges she would be facing as council president, including the city’s homelessness crisis.
Nolan was among the veterans in local TV newsrooms who have been rocked by the firestorm at City Hall following the leak of a recorded conversation in which Martinez and two other councilmembers made racist and disparaging remarks in a conversation with Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. As a result of the crisis, Herrera stepped down from his post, Martinez resigned from the council and her fellow Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León were stripped of their committee assignments by acting Council President Mitch O’Farrell. (Late Tuesday, Paul Krekorian was unanimously voted in as the new council president.)
“I don’t know of anything that has been as egregious as that recording was,” Nolan said in an interview late last week. “As bad as things have been, nothing approached that. These were people who would be on the front lines of the protest if any of this had come out against any other council member, particularly any member that they perceived as an enemy.”
Audio of Councilmembers Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo speaking with labor leader Ron Herrera quickly became a new and incendiary issue in the Nov. 8 election.
Phil Shuman, who has covered local and national politics for close to four decades and has been at KTTV Channel 11 for 20 years, compared the furor to the galvanizing impact of the civil unrest that followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King, the uproar over O.J. Simpson’s acquittal in the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, and the massive Black Lives Matter protests that erupted following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.
“This was a volcano that literally shut down City Hall,” Shuman said. “It hasn’t been like anything we’ve ever seen before. I’m fascinated by how the anger has built up so quickly. There was already a lot of tension and animosity all around the city regarding homelessness, inflation and other issues. It is not a happy time in Los Angeles.”
The outcry is prompting local TV news executives to reexamine the coverage of political affairs at City Hall. Newcasts rarely spotlight stories about city and county government, including proceedings in council chambers and decisions in other departments.
“We live in a town where we’re expecting a literal large earthquake at some point, but this was truly earth-shattering,” said KCBS/KCAL-TV Vice President and News Director Mike Dello Stritto. “The coverage of that now requires thought about what we do to cover City Hall down the road. That’s the scary part. This fundamentally rocks the public’s trust in what’s happening at City Hall.”
The relentless turmoil in Washington, D.C., and former President Donald Trump hijacked most of the political headlines on newscasts, said Nolan: “There’s only so much politics you can put in a newscast, and all the attention was on the train wreck in Washington. Trump took up all the oxygen, and there was a de-emphasis on what was happening in Sacramento and City Hall.”
The explosive recording most likely will change that dynamic.
Martinez, De León, Cedillo and Herrera were recorded in October 2021 at a meeting to discuss redistricting, the city’s once-a-decade process of redrawing council district boundaries. Martinez at one point mentioned Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, saying “F— that guy. ... He’s with the Blacks.” De León appeared to compare Councilmember Mike Bonin’s handling of his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag.
Martinez also lashed out at Bonin’s son, describing the youngster as “Parece changuito,” or “like a monkey.”
Said Nolan: “You don’t have to be interested in city politics to be absolutely shocked that the people [whom] voters put in charge of what is, outside of New York, the nation’s most populous city talk that way, and that they are Latinos.”
Latino journalists are reporting on Nury Martinez’s racist comments in nuanced and candid ways.
He added: “That tape told me several things. It told me that they’ve had this kind of conversation before. No one was upset or astonished. This was routine and they were all on the same page. The racism was deep in the heart of the people who claim to be in favor of destroying impediments to a better city when it came to race. That was pretty sobering.”
Racism within the corridors of City Hall is not new. Former mayor of Los Angeles Sam Yorty was often criticized for his racially divisive views, downplaying community complaints from Black residents during the 1965 Watts riots about police brutality. While circling around in his official helicopter during the unrest, he seemed to take pleasure in seeing troops patrolling the area.
“Sam Yorty would not be elected to office today,” Nolan said. “But now it raises the specter that racism has morphed.”
Dello Stritto said the controversy over the tape has led to reconsideration of not only the amount of attention paid to local government, but also how to do so responsibly. “How do we flip the script in the template to create an environment where we can provide deeper coverage?” he said.
Shuman added: “I hope this gets people more involved regarding their city government. This could result in a change in the city charter and the ways in which redistricting is done.”
“To a certain degree, there’s a beneficial aspect to all this,” said Nolan. “Anytime you uncover a rock and see what’s underneath it, you find out what you’re dealing with. It will jolt the public to take a closer look at what’s happening at City Hall.”
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