April 27, 2022

Here is the lede on a story this week written by Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian: “A Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander who was critical of efforts to cover up an incident in which a deputy kneeled on a handcuffed inmate’s head has filed legal papers accusing Sheriff Alex Villanueva of obstructing justice and retaliating against those who blew the whistle.”

This was a follow-up to Tchekmedyian’s story from last month: “Fearing bad publicity, LASD covered up case of deputy who knelt on inmate’s head.”

Then came Tuesday and a news conference held by Villanueva. He had a photo of Tchekmedyian on stage and said she was among those being investigated in connection with a leak of information.

You read that right. The reporter who wrote the story is being investigated by the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. The Los Angeles Times’ Harriet Ryan wrote, “In the wake of the reports on the commander’s claims, Villanueva summoned the media to the Hall of Justice downtown and revealed the criminal probe into how The Times obtained the video of the detention.”

Villanueva said, “This is stolen property that was removed illegally from people who had some intent — criminal intent — and it’ll be subject to investigation.” When asked if Tchekmedyian was under investigation, Villanueva said, “All parties to the act are subjects of the investigation.”

In a statement, Los Angeles Times executive editor Kevin Merida said, “Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s attack on Alene Tchekmedyian’s First Amendment rights for doing newsworthy reporting on a video that showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head is outrageous. His attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law. We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and the Los Angeles Times’ rights in any proceeding in any investigation brought by authorities.”

Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, tweeted, “This is disturbed and unhinged behavior by LA County’s sheriff. @AleneTchek is a talented reporter and does not deserve to be bullied by @LACoSheriff.”

New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted, “Have never seen something like this, no matter how many times officials have tried to drag and/or demonize reporters.”

Katie Townsend, deputy executive director and legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, put out a statement that said, “​​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 is clearly in the public interest. We condemn the Department’s actions in the strongest terms, and urge it to immediately drop this purported investigation.”

And Steven Rich, database editor for investigations at The Washington Post, put it well when he tweeted, “when you’re more worried about a leak than the bad thing leaked, it says a lot.”

He also added something that, perhaps the L.A. sheriff hadn’t considered: “i didn’t see this story but now i definitely have.”

This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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