How city council audio rocked KCAL, other LA news stations

Nury Martinez was visibly upbeat as she described what it feels like to make history as the first Latina woman on the Los Angeles City Council.

“It feels really good,” Martinez said with a big smile as she sat inside the Tom Brokaw News Center in Universal City. “Growing up, little girls who looked like me and talked like me never thought they’d have these kinds of opportunities. It’s a lot and I look forward to leading the council and looking forward to a new year.”

Across from Martinez sat Conan Nolan, NBC4’s chief political reporter. It was 2020 and Martinez was Nolan’s first guest of the year on “Press Conference,” the Sunday public affairs program he’s hosted for 22 years. Martinez told Nolan that throughout her 17 years in public office she had always “held to the highest standards,” and the two went on to discuss some of the challenges she would face as council president, including the city’s homelessness crisis.

Nolan was among veterans on local television newsrooms rocked by the firestorm at City Hall after a leaked recorded conversation in which Martinez and two other council members, in a conversation with Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron, expressed racist and Herrera made disparaging remarks. As a result of the crisis, Herrera resigned from his post, Martinez resigned from the council, and fellow councilors Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León were stripped of their committee duties by incumbent Council President Mitch O’Farrell. (Late Tuesday, Paul Krekorian was unanimously elected as the new Council President.)

“I don’t know of anything that was as egregious as that shot,” Nolan said in an interview late last week. “As bad as things were, nothing came close. These were people who would be at the forefront of the protest if any of this had gone against another council member, particularly a member they perceived as an enemy.”

Phil Shuman, who has covered local and national politics for nearly four decades and has been with Fox 11 for 20 years, compared the uproar to the electrifying impact of the civil unrest that followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King, the uproar over the acquittal of OJ Simpson in the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, and the massive Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

“This was a volcano that literally brought down City Hall,” Shuman said. “We’ve never seen anything like it before. I’m amazed at how the anger built up so quickly. There was already a lot of tension and animosity across the city over homelessness, inflation, and other issues. It’s not a happy time in Los Angeles.”

The outcry is prompting local TV news executives to reconsider coverage of political affairs at City Hall. News programs rarely spotlight stories about city and county governments, including proceedings in council chambers and decisions in other departments.

“We live in a city where we’re expecting a literal big earthquake at some point, but this was really earth shattering,” said KCBS/KCAL vice president and news director Mike Dello Stritto. “Coverage of this now requires consideration of what we are doing to cover City Hall further down. That’s the scary part. This fundamentally shakes public confidence in what is happening at City Hall.”

With the relentless turmoil in Washington, DC, and former President Donald Trump hijacking most of the political headlines on the newscasts, Nolan said, “You can only pack so much politics into one newscast, and all the attention was on the Washington train wreck. Trump took all the oxygen and there was less emphasis on what was going on in Sacramento and at City Hall.”

NBC4's Conan Nolan.

NBC4’s Conan Nolan.

(Courtesy of NBC)

The explosive recording will most likely change that dynamic.

Martinez, De León, Cedillo and Herrera were inducted at a meeting in October 2021 to discuss redistribution, the city’s decennial process of redefining council borough boundaries. Martinez once mentioned Los Angeles County Dist. atty George Gascón and said: “F – this guy. … He’s with the black people.” De León seemed to compare councilman Mike Bonin’s handling of his child to Martinez holding a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Martinez also lashed out at Bonin’s son, describing the boy as “parece changuito,” or “like a monkey.”

Nolan said, “You don’t have to be interested in city politics to be absolutely shocked by people [whom] Voters who are being put in charge of the nation’s most populous city outside of New York are speaking like this and saying they are Latino.”

He added, “This tape told me several things. It told me they had this type of conversation before. No one was upset or surprised. This was routine and they all agreed. Racism ran deep in the hearts of the people who claim to be removing barriers to a better city when it comes to race. That was pretty sobering.”

Racism in the hallways of City Hall is not new. Former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty was often criticized for his racially divisive views, in which he downplayed complaints of black residents about police brutality during the Watts riots of 1965. As he circled in his service helicopter during the riots, he seemed delighted to see troops patrolling the area.

“Sam Yorty would not be elected to office today,” Nolan said. “But now it raises the specter that racism has changed.”

Dello Stritto said the controversy over the tape has prompted a reconsideration not only of the attention given to local government, but also how to use it responsibly. “How can 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 with their city government. This could lead to a change in the city charter and the way the redistribution is done.”

“There’s a positive aspect to all of this to some extent,” Nolan said. “Anytime you uncover a rock and see what’s underneath, you figure out what you’re dealing with. It will rouse the public to take a closer look at what is happening at City Hall.” How city council audio rocked KCAL, other LA news stations

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