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Behind the bombshells: How the LA Times used secret recordings to expose racism at the highest levels of city government


By Oliver Darcy, CNN Business

Last Thursday, at precisely 5:29pm Pacific Time, a mysterious Twitter account with the handle @LAunionLaundry posted secretly taped audio of now-former Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Ron Herrera. The account tagged two reporters at the Los Angeles Times, as well as the newspaper’s politics account.

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

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 swiftly, but diligently, guided by their editor Steve Clow. Thursday blended into Friday, which blended into the weekend, and conference calls were convened late into Saturday night so that the team could discuss their reporting. More conference calls were held early Sunday morning until the 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 which had warned that the audio could have been the result of “illegal” recordings. Glasser dispatched a pointed response to the union that said, “It is a fundamental principle in the United States that we do not prohibit or punish the receipt and publication of newsworthy information.”

After that, it was time to set the story live. At approximately 9am PT on Sunday, The LAT published its first story: “Racist remarks in leaked audio of L.A. council members spark outrage, disgust.”

The fallout from the story has been enormous, throwing the city into tumult and reverberating throughout the country.

President Joe Biden even weighed in, calling on the three council members caught on the tapes, all Democrats, to resign. Nury Martinez relinquished her position as council president before resigning from office Wednesday. The other two council members have not stepped down. Herrera resigned as the Federation of Labor head.

“We knew this was going to be big because the contents of the tape were so shocking and it deals with so many issues we felt were important: racism, bigotry, back-room dealmaking, voter representation,” LAT’s deputy managing editor of news Shelby Grad told CNN Thursday evening, “but it is always hard to know when a local story like this will capture national attention.”

Since Sunday, the reporting team has expanded considerably. Grad said that there are now more than two dozen journalists at The LAT working on the story. And the paper has been publishing stories daily, covering the fallout while still trying to determine who is behind the leaked audio.

Days later, there is still no telling how big the blast radius might ultimately be and whether more audio tapes might find their way into the public square.

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

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

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