Thursday, August 6, 2015

The LA Times takes down Ted Rall

Reprinted from the LA Times, under the Fair Use provision.

This is a bizarre story that's been playing out for the last couple weeks. Colleague Ted Rall was sacked by the LA Times, where he has contributed freelance cartoons and blog posts for several years. Not just sacked, but publicly shamed by a reporter and editor for "fabricating" an incident with an LA cop.... 14 years ago. 

Now, Ted gets fired a lot. He's a cartoon provocateur and a relentlessly savage satirist. He's also a passionate leftist radical. None of these traits are welcome in today's emasculated corporate media, especially as newspapers make their final, flailing laps in the tar pit. One of his favorite subjects was the LAPD, one of the nation's worst forces (remember Rodney King?). He made a series of deliciously nasty cartoons about the cops and quickly became Public Enemy #1 in the cop shop.

Fourteen years ago, Ted got hassled for jaywalking by an LA cop with an attitude. Ted wrote he was cuffed and humiliated on the street until onlookers started to yell at the cop for his behavior. The cop eventually released him, tossed Ted’s drivers license into the gutter and left without citing him. Rall filed a complaint with the LAPD and was blown off. He described all this in a blog post  for the LA Times last month in one of his frequent critiques of the LAPD.

An unnamed party at the LAPD then produced a fuzzy audio recording of the incident and passed it to the paper as proof that Ted was lying! WHY was the cop recording this rather (sorry) pedestrian incident? Unknown. This is long before body cameras and the current technology that has documented so many cop abuses. It's an awful recording, probably made with digital cassette, the typical device in 2001, and it’s a dubbed copy to boot. Of the 6:20 minutes total, all but about 20 seconds is inaudible static and noise. Parts of it have nothing audible except the cop bizarrely whistling to himself! The LAPD told the Times editors, laughably, that this tape proves Rall made it all up.  There was no confrontation, there was no crowd of onlookers and Ted was never cuffed. The exchange between Ted and the officer was polite and Ted never protested how he was being treated.

Incredibly, the editors bought it, fired Ted and editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg penned a stunning dismissal letter to Rall that was published on the editorial page. "The Los Angeles Times is a trusted source of news because of the quality and integrity of the work its journalists do. This is a reminder of the need to remain vigilant about what we publish."

Rall is a Pulitzer finalist and has won a Robert F. Kennedy Award and is a former president of the Assoc. of American Editorial Cartoonists.... and the LA Times just labeled him a fabricator, the kiss of death in the newspaper biz. The paper is trying to destroy his career here!

Ted stood his ground. Yeah, he writes, the exchange was polite, because I never argue with a cop! This is not only totally believable, it’s incredibly smart. Sandra Bland was dragged from her car and slammed to the ground for the heinous crime of being “uppity.” Eric Garner was choked to death for talking back to cops. Hell, clamming up is standard operating procedure for anyone of my generation, which Ted is, even white guys. Talk back to a cop and it will go badly for you. We all learned that as teenagers, even in the small Ohio town where I was raised!

A closer examination of the two pieces of  "evidence" the cops supplied to the editors and it all quickly falls apart. It appears  a police phone log was forged (some of the dates are wrong).  As for the damning, fuzzy recording, Ted had it cleaned up and enhanced by a recording engineer, and there WERE onlookers yelling at the cop. The "source" insists there were none, as does the editor. There are parts of the tape where the only thing that can be heard is the cop strangely whistling a tune to himself. When the whistle was stripped away, voices from onlookers are heard. It sounds as if one woman tells the cop to take off the cuffs!  Enough is there to throw suspicion on the whole tape. The evidence now indicates that Ted's account was accurate and, more importantly, that the tape had been doctored, with parts muffled and the whistling added to cover up what really happened!  Isn't this a crime? Unbelievably, the LA Times fell for this horseshit and, even after questions arose, the Times has not changed its decision or apologized for trashing a cartoonist's reputation. What reporter or editor would fall for this clumsy attempt at retribution? Very bad ones. Why didn't they demand the original tape, rather than rely on a poor-quality dupe? Didn't it occur to them that it may have been doctored? Not exactly hard to do with modern technology.

Sorry, any hint of doctoring "evidence" and that invalidates it all. That's how it works, especially when it concerns an RFK winner and  Pulitzer finalist. But, of course, editors don't really think those cartoon awards are anywhere near as important as those same awards given to reporters and columnists. 

Ted had a six-year run at the Times. That's longer than a freelance cartoonist can expect these days. Freelancers get let go all the time. What makes this so unacceptable is that jaw-dropping editor's note, a public tar-and-feathering based on the flimsiest of evidence, which is now highly suspicious. I've never seen anything like it. When Jeff Stahler, the fulltime political cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch was fingered for several instances of plagiarism, as great a journalistic crime as fabrication, he was allowed to quietly resign and the paper issued no explanation whatsoever. Stahler continues to draw a syndicated political cartoon and a syndicated humor panel. Ted gets pillared for, what, exactly?

So what's really going on here?

One must assume city hall was putting big time pressure on the Times to muzzle Ted. In the current sad state of media, especially local media in any given city, corporate newspapers are now toothless watchdogs. Think about all the recent cases of police abuse. Have a single one of them been uncovered by a newspaper? No, they’ve all surfaced because someone recorded it on a cellphone or got ahold of security video and posted it online!  Or a witness posted an account on facebook. Then, when it becomes viral, the newspaper jumps in, and only then, pathetically galloping in the wake of the viral stampede. Newspaper editors are scared to take on the cops. They’re scared of the backlash from readers (or, to be more accurate, from the horde of feces-throwing commenters on the papers’ website). They’re scared of getting in a war with city powers. They’re scared of losing advertisers. Newspapers once monitored the Man. Now they are the Man, servile mouthpieces for corporate powers. Control the press, control the peasants. It's the oldest play in the book. The problem newspapers have, however, is that the peasants aren't reading anymore. Local TV news operations are even more pathetic. Anything beyond the weather is more than their skill set can handle.

There’s an all-too-cozy relationship between the corporate press and the authorities and it's been this way since Reagan took office. That's not a coincidence, since it was Reagan who gutted media ownership rules that limited how many tv-radio-newspaper outlets a corporation could own. By the end of his term, virtually every family-run media had been greedily gobbled up by a giant conglomerate. The era of powerful, muck-raking papers is, sadly, dead and gone. I caught the tail end of it at the beginning of my career. By the end of the Eighties, the daily press was muzzled by the corner office types who had replaced the old press baron families, and by the compliant stooges they hired as editors. For an all-to-brief time, the muckraking spirit lived on in the weekly press, until that genre, too, hit the rocks. Now? We have nothing. I consider the loss of the watchdog press the greatest threat our democracy has faced since the Civil War. 

Rall is a polarizing figure, and I imagine there were editors at the LA Times that hated his stuff. Corporate editors don't want their sleepy days interrupted by angry phone calls from readers and officials about some fucking cartoon, especially a freelance cartoon. There's a reason all the political cartoonists have been laid off. At most, editors want a mild cartoon chuckle of the day to spice up their boring editorial page, nothing more. There were also probably budget pressures. Tribune Inc., the Times parent, is in bankruptcy and has been on a downsizing frenzy. You can imagine the budget discussions in the newsroom. Why are we paying this guy for freelance cartoons when there are reporting jobs that are left unfilled? Political cartoonists, sadly, are an antiquated luxury from a better time.

Ted's made few friends and lots of enemies for his take-no-prisoners bravado. His rather petty takedown of the revered Art Spiegelman in a cover story for the Village Voice continues to generate hard feelings from comix folk, 16 years later. He's had a long-running feud with cartoonist Danny Hellman that wound up in court.

I like Ted. He's loud, sure, and a BIG personality, and that rubs some the wrong way, but when I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2002, he was one of the first to contact me and offer to help keep my strip going as I struggled through chemo. And I respect him as an absolutely fearless political cartoonist. He's paid a price for that. The LA Times incident is, unfortunately, just the latest bill.

Ted has always been an alternative cartoonist who nonetheless stubbornly tried to work in the mainstream. The money was better, and the audience was bigger. It’s never been a good fit. As a result, as mentioned before, he gets fired a lot: for criticizing 9-11 widows, war hero Pat Tillman, on and on.  He pisses off the Right with his unapologetic Marxist leanings, he pisses off the Left with his relentless bashing of Obama. The Daily Kos famously banished him for the latter, using the tired liberal stance that any criticism of Obama must be racist. He never tempers his opinion. I don’t think Ted is capable of tempering! The rest of our ilk stuck to weekly papers, and, even working exclusively for those rags, we’ve all been sacked on ocassion  when cartoons crossed some kind of random line. I always marveled that Ted was someone able to make a go of it the daily press. Obviously that has come to an end. 

And here's the topper, one that pushes this from a sorry case of a gullible editor into a full-blown conspiracy. The publisher of the LA Times, Austin Beutner, ran for mayor in 2012 and is rumored to be making another attempt in 2016. That's right. The paper that is all about "integrity" is run by a guy who wants to be mayor! This is a HUGE ethical violation in the newspaper world, especially since the guy was publisher, then mayoral candidate, then publisher AGAIN. Maybe that's   ok at shithole infotainment media like FoxNews, but at a major newspaper? I'm not aware of any other case like this.

How's that going to work, exactly? How'd you like to be a reporter covering your boss' campaign? What happens if he wins the job? Will he step down, or order the paper to print glowing editorials and columns about what a great job the new mayor is doing? It is completely plausible that Ted was given the boot on orders from Beutner, who wants to smooth things over with the LAPD to enhance his political ambitions.

Here's another tidbit. A large chunk of the LA Times now belongs to a large investment firm which is tied to the LA police union pension fund. So ownership and the guy running the paper have clear motives for muzzling Rall. This stinks in SO many ways. I call bullshit.

That, friends, is the sad state of the daily press in 2015. 

The LA police union is gloating over Rall's ouster and gleefully states "We hope other media will take note."  Yeah, I'll bet. Criticize the cops and lose your job. Take note, indeed.

So what now? The LA Times has clammed up. The “editor’s note” about Ted is still on its website. I suspect Ted will sue and eventually win some kind of settlement, because it sure appears the Times was in the wrong and got suckered but good. The Times is no doubt hiding behind its lawyers here and will keep the eventual settlement a secret from its readers. 

And this all goes down as another sad episode in the long. slow death of the American press.

UPDATE Aug. 13

Even thought the "evidence" has been proven to be doctored, the LA Times is standing by its decision. There is still an archive of Rall's cartoons and blog posts, but the page leads with this note: "Freelance editorial cartoonist Ted Rall no longer contributes to the LA Times."

The note libeling and shaming Rall is still on the Times' website. Comments are closed and the many comments blasting the Times over this have been removed. Editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg's only comment has been "The Times is not commenting on this topic." Yeah, I'll bet. He left out "...under orders from our legal department." Would Goldberg accept that stance from a government official who was accused of a similar lapse in judgement? Of course not! Said official would be hammered on the Times editorial page.

What's depressing is the scant coverage this incident has received in journalism circles. There's been no mention at all on the main sites like Poynter and Romenesko. In LA, a local tv news operation covered the firing, but then, typically, not the subsequent revelations about evidence doctoring, even though that's a far bigger story. The local "alternative" paper, LA Weekly, hasn't covered it at all as far as I can tell. Weeklies were once the sole watchdogs of corporate daily press, an important role, but now they're all owned by corporations themselves and have been downsized to the point they just cover clubs and beerfests and whoever advertises in their pages. The Times is betting that no one gives a shit about staff drama at newspapers anymore. They're probably right. But the real reason is no one gives a shit about newspapers at all anymore. Bullshit like this has a lot to do with that. 

I suspect this will be unresolved for years or until the LA Times is sold (it's on the block and its bankrupt corporate parent would love to unload it).

UPDATE Aug. 19

The LA Times, under withering criticism from commenters, launched an investigation into whether its actions in the Rall firing were correct and... SURPRISE!!... concluded that the LA Times was right about everything!

Even though its "investigation" turned up several pieces of evidence that corroborated Rall's story, for example whether he had complained to the LAPD that the officer tossed his license into the gutter, the Times somehow spun that. Even though crowd noise can clearly be heard on the restored tape, the Times accusation that Rall made up the crowd stands. Maybe the editors just couldn't hear it over the sound of their lawyers weeping?

Oh. And the Times asked the LAPD to examine the tape and pretty please tell the paper whether it had been altered, and the LAPD.... SURPRISE!!... concluded it had not! The Times couldn't even be bothered to get the tape examined on its own, instead trusting a police department with a long, well-documented history of tampering with and fabricating evidence.

Wow. Really using those journalism muscles there, guys!

UPDATE Sept. 8

A stunner, as LA Times publisher Austin Beutner has been sacked by his corporate overseers in Chicago! Did this have anything to do with the Rall embarrassment? Of course not. It's classic board room head lopping, but the karma of it is nice. The difference, of course, is that Ted was paid a pittance and thrown to the curb. Beutner will float away on a giant golden parachute. These fuckers never lose.