As most readers likely know by now, yesterday, Tuesday April 26, the ever more beleaguered (and beleaguering) Los Angeles County Sheriff held a press conference in which he announced that he was criminally investigating Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian, along with LA County’s inspector general, Max Huntsman, and former LASD Commander turned candidate for sheriff, Eli Vera.
When Villanueva threatened Tchekmedyian at yesterday’s press conference, he mostly accused her of…well… reporting.
Along with Alene’s skilled reporting and writing, and her knack for digging up important stories, the sheriff also appeared to object to the fact that Alene has sources who give her information, which recently included a video of a deputy kneeling on a jail resident’s head in what may or may not turn out to be an illegal act on the part of Deputy Johnson.
The fact that an unknown whistleblower inside the department may have seen fit to give the video to Tchekmedyian, or to someone who then passed it along to her, is something the sheriff appears also to incorrectly believe is a criminal act on the part of the whistleblower source.
Post press conference, news of Villanueva’s threat spread quickly among journalists and others. By yesterday evening, more than two dozen journalism and legal organizations in California alone had condemned the sheriff in the strongest possible terms.
They also gave the sheriff a short course in the applicable law and legal precedents.
“For over 50 years, the Supreme Court has upheld the First Amendment right to publish information of public concern received by members of the press or public,” wrote the LA Press Club and 21 other cosigning organizations. “For the Sheriff to suggest otherwise is an unconscionable attempt to deter the press from exercising its long-established right to report on abuses of power.”
Short form: If you’re going to try to bully and threaten someone, you might want to do your research first.
The response by reporters and First Amendment experts was not limited to California.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and her staff also took note of the sheriff’s on camera threat, which Maddow then reported near the end of her 6 p.m. Pacific/9 p.m. Eastern broadcast.
Maddow, who presented the story with grim fury, also showed the now infamous video of LASD Deputy Douglass Johnson kneeling on the head of jail resident Enzo Escalante, the leakage of which was one of the issues that had so infuriated the sheriff.
Others who commented yesterday included such First Amendment experts as Katie Townsend, deputy executive director and legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who put out a statement that read, “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s announcement that it has launched a criminal investigation into a journalist because of her reporting is appalling.
“This blatantly retaliatory conduct aimed at the Los Angeles Times and its reporter Alene Tchekmedyian is beyond the pale, and violates the First Amendment. Publishing newsworthy information about an alleged law enforcement cover up that sought to block an investigation into the use of excessive force is constitutionally protected activity…”
And there were many other voices that chimed in during the day, such as New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman who tweeted, “Have never seen something like this, no matter how many times officials have tried to drag and/or demonize reporters.”
Evidently the barrage of angry blow-back had its effect.
A little before 7 p.m. yesterday, the sheriff tweeted that he really, really never ever said that “an LA Times reporter was a suspect in a criminal investigation.” As for how such a mistaken view could have arisen, the sheriff credited an “incredible frenzy of misinformation being circulated.”
One more thing.
It’s likely worth mentioning that members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s habit of threatening reporters didn’t begin with Alex Villanueva.
In 2011 when WitnessLA began reporting on the leadership of the LASD, with much of that reporting focused on former undersheriff Paul Tanaka in particular, we began getting threats.
Yet they weren’t public threats.
They came primarily in the form of personal contact, such as threatening phone calls.
It got to the point that several of our department sources became worried for our safety, and advised me, in particular, to buy a gun.
I thanked the source for his genuinely kind concern, but declined the advice.
Instead we kept reporting.
On Thursday, Oct. 28, 2022, that’s exactly what Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian did.