The LA Podcast

Some Good News / Some Personal News

by Hayes Davenport
November 11, 2020

For the last sixteen months, I’ve been volunteering full-time to help my friend Nithya Raman run for LA City Council, the most powerful city legislative body in America. I quit my job to do it. It was the most fulfilling experience of my life, except for the many times it sucked.

On Friday — and I don’t know how this happened — we won. It feels awesome. The days since then have been a euphoria, exactly how I imagined soaking up this moment: rocking back and forth in my office chair and clapping at the computer.

But I do need to take a second to talk about what happened here. Because what this campaign achieved is ridiculous. It’s from cartoons, for babies.

Nithya showed up to this race with no political experience whatsoever. She ran against an astonishingly well-funded incumbent in a city where incumbents never lose. She hired no consultants. She accepted no corporate, PAC, or special interest money. The entire institutional power structure of LA — and outside of LA! —  assembled to defeat her like the video where Ruth Bader Ginsberg is War Machine.

Nithya overcame all of it and won. That has never happened before! But her campaign had been doing truly unprecedented shit for a long time.

Nobody has generated genuine citywide enthusiasm around an LA municipal election like she and her team, led by co-campaign managers Meghan Choi and Jessica Salans, managed to do. Actual millennials, even the inscrutable zoomers, were excited to vote for a City Council candidate. They cried when they saw her in person. They handwrote tens of thousands of postcards. They storied her policies on Instagram. No local candidate has ever moved anyone to do any of this before — let alone people under sixty, let alone thousands of them.

Her campaign didn’t pull this off by themselves, obviously. They drew from the work of Black Lives Matter LA and other local orgs that did way more to capture people’s attention locally, and have been working for a lot longer. But Nithya’s team oriented that attention toward the power of city government, and they turned it into the LA progressive movement’s first electoral win.

At some point we’ll get into what it means that this city is about to have (for the first time ever?) a totally unbought elected official. But today I want to **relitigate the election** — specifically how the city commentariat responded to everything that was unique about this race.

You might think the overwhelming municipal enthusiasm that Nithya turned up would be celebrated by LA’s journalists, editorial writers, and the ten people who get quoted in every article about local politics — all of whom have been moaning about low civic engagement and scolding young people for not voting enough since forever. What her campaign built was exactly what these people have been claiming has been so absent here: authentic grassroots engagement.

Most shocking of all: she outraised her opponent in the general election. This was the same guy who raised the most money of any LA City Council candidate ever in the primary, and she beat him on the strength of a massive haul of small-dollar donations. LA races do not attract small-dollar donors. Please understand that none of this has happened before.

But legacy media did not, ultimately, celebrate any of it. Instead, they chose to dismiss, misogynistically patronize, tone police, and fearmonger around the passionate investment that Nithya’s campaign stirred up — the same investment in local government they used to scold Angelenos for not demonstrating to their satisfaction.

The essential relationship of local media flipped upside down: now it was young people’s turn to be engaged, and the media’s to be totally disinterested. Listen to these CBS2 newscasters announcing that, for the first time ever, a total political outsider unseated an incumbent to take an incredibly powerful local position: they don’t even know how to say her name. KPCC’s Larry Mantle, moderating a debate a couple weeks before the election, called her Na-thee-ya. (It’s Nith-ya. It looks like it sounds. It’s not hard.)

If you wanted in-depth and honest coverage of this race, you mostly had to go to (this phrase sucks but don’t have a better one) alternative media: KNOCK.LA, Streetsblog, and TheLAnd. Some reporters at mainstream outlets also did very good work: Matt Tinoco wrote a clear breakdown of the primary results at LAist, and Emily Alpert Reyes from the LA Times broke a significant campaign finance story in the primary, then wrote this piece with a truly brutal headline that captured the race’s basic dynamic. But then Alpert Reyes went on maternity leave, and her replacement handed narrative control over to the incumbent to do some simultaneous red-and-racebaiting.

Why would the majority of LA media look at an unprecedented political movement like Nithya’s and decide to either A) ignore it or B) work very hard to make people scared of it?

One reason: LA’s local TV networks, radio stations, and newspapers (including the Times but especially the little neighborhood ones) cater to a disproportionately older, whiter, richer customer base — the same base that got Nithya’s opponent elected the first time he ran and to whom he was primarily beholden while in office. Consciously or not, the political alignment of that base informs their reporting, and roots their perspective in the racially-inflected fear of change that haunts LA’s white minority. That’s how you get LAT reporting that credulously repeated the incumbent’s lie that Nithya wanted to cut 98% of the LAPD budget and was supported by “extremist groups that promote hate and violence.”

Some print outlets have been “reckoning” with their deference to white fear for a couple months now, but nothing has significantly changed about how they cover local news (or who covers it), despite the fact that these publications are hemorrhaging digital subscribers and alienating young, nonwhite, lower-income Angelenos as their core audience literally dies away. Local TV news, meanwhile, just does not give a shit about meaningfully covering city government because they won’t spend more than 150 seconds on a story and think their viewers are too stupid to understand it anyway. (The one exception is Spectrum News, sometimes).

Another reason: both-sidesiding is an even bigger issue in local media than it is in presidential coverage. That list of Nithya’s campaign achievements above? When you put it next to the basic facts of her opponent’s campaign — the sources of its funding and the dishonesty of its messaging — those facts tell a story that risks making one candidate look better than the other. And the serious journalist simply mustn’t be biased! So rather than potentially give one candidate a boost by reporting what made her run so special, pretty much every traditional media outlet in LA made a collective decision to just not report that stuff at all. They report on local politics like a high school newspaper covering the spring musical: everyone did a good job and tried their best.

LA media’s obsession with objectivity, just like at the national level, inevitably results in coverage that favors incumbents and bad actors — usually at the same time. It lets powerful electeds take donations from whoever they want, lie without consequences, and coast to reelection like they did in every race before this one.

I got extremely goth about this at times during the campaign. There are a year’s worth of emails to reporters about this in my drafts folder, unsent because they were deemed to be “not productive.” But ultimately, the joy of working with Nithya and everyone else on the team drowned out all the resentment and frustration. This is stupid but it really was a movement of pure vibes. And the time I got to spend working on it, along with the crusted-over media response, has clarified for me what I want to be doing “going forward.”

We really, really need this new enthusiasm for local coverage to keep growing. We need coverage that offers a perspective and asks you to care, instead of trying to dodge accusations of bias and missing the story entirely. We need places like KNOCK.LA, LA Pays Attention, LA Taco, Streetsblog, and The LAnd to get stronger and better-resourced, and we need more of them.

I want to contribute more to that work, pulling from some of the things I learned working on the campaign. So I’m going to start posting here a lot more often.

I’ll do my best to put something up two to five times a week from today on. I remember how nice it was to read Alex Pareene every day when he was at Salon, and I want to try and offer a local version of that experience, with writing that is not as good. “Your big announcement is you’re starting to blog? In 2020?” Look… shut up.

I’ll mostly post about LA news and how it’s being covered. I’ll try to look up answers to questions if anyone has them. Future posts will not be this long. More of other people’s work will also be showing up here soon. Scott Frazier will continue serving up the brilliant content he has been for months.

Good job voting, local politics freaks! See you tomorrow.