(*Contains new information about a review of the case by the LA Times and Rall’s response.)
Has controversial cartoonist, columnist and author Ted Rall — once a freelance contributor to this newspaper whose edgy and at times offensive offerings angered politicians, police and even political allies on the left — finally gone too far?
Yes, says the Los Angeles Times, which fired Rall late last month over a blog post containing an allegedly fabricated and admittedly convoluted story about being roughed up, handcuffed and cited for jaywalking 14 years ago by a decorated LAPD officer.
Or was Rall, who has marshalled support from the cartooning industry and a handful of friends and colleagues on the Web, really the victim of one of those abusive cops that he often lampoons in his caustic cartoons, which have also appeared in the Village Voice, The New York Times, Fortune, Time magazine, Men’s Health and a host of alternative and mainstream publications around the country?
The Pulitzer Prize finalist and two-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award, known as the poor people’s Pulitzer and handed out each year by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, has threatened to sue over the damage done to his professional reputation, He’s fiercely standing by his story on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms and wants a retraction, an apology and his job back. But while taking legal action remains an option, it appears unlikely the other demands will be met.
“We have reviewed all the available information, and all the material that you reference in your emails,” Jeff Glasser, vice president of the LA Times’ legal department, writes in an Aug. 11 response to Rall’s requests. “We have found nothing that changes our original conclusions, or that would justify a retraction.”
Perhaps no other group or agency has taken more outright glee in Rall’s fate than the LA Police Protective League (LAPPL), which issued a statement about the flap, even gloating that the LAPD provided the evidence — a garbled and mostly inaudible tape recording and other administrative records regarding the incident — to help Times Editorial Page Editor Nicholas Goldberg reach his decision on Rall’s future with the paper.
“So many within the LAPD were pleasantly surprised at the recent firing of Los Angeles Times opinion cartoonist Ted Rall, which we believe was justified based on evidence proving that he lied about his encounter with LAPD officers. We especially appreciate the Times’ reaction, as the media in general often seems eager to publish material portraying law enforcement in a negative light,” reads a statement issued by the LAPPL’s board of directors the day after Goldberg’s decision appeared in the paper on July 28 as a “Note to Readers.”
The LAPPL’s press release is also a not-so-subtle warning to other journalists who might be thinking of writing critical things about the cops.
“This serves as an example of how an accusation and subsequent negative story about the behavior of police officers may well be inaccurate and feed a negative narrative about law enforcement. We hope other news publications will take note of the Times’ willingness to hear and respond to the other side of the story and look at the facts. We believe this process, more often than not, will vindicate law enforcement officers. … We commend the Los Angeles Times for getting this story right, and for doing the right thing when presented with the facts.”
Unfortunately for the LAPD, which is not formally commenting on the situation involving Rall, evidence that the department has allegedly presented to the Times in defense of the officer involved in Rall’s case does not neatly back up the cop’s story. Indeed, new evidence developed from that very same tape seems to throw the officer’s story into question.
“The cops lied then, and all these years later, they are lying again,” Rall told this reporter last week.
As Rall told Chris Moore of massappeal.com, “It was easier for the Los Angeles Times to throw a cartoonist under a bus than it was to stand by him in the face of institutional anger.”
A few months prior to him being stopped in October 2001, Rall and I first met at the indoor pool of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans. I was in N’awlins that summer as part of a Pasadena Weekly delegation vying for acceptance into the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, now Newsmedia, and nursing a whopping headache from the previous night of carousing at what seemed like every bar on Bourbon Street with my new fellow alt journos. Rall was also in the Crescent City on business, trying to get AAN newspapers, in those days numbering some 130 around the country, to pick up his toons, as many already had.
Rall wasn’t hungover. He was simply taking a break from the sweaty mid-July heat outdoors and a hard morning of hawking his work in the convention showroom, and now enjoying a little schadenfreude in my self-inflicted discomfort. I don’t remember very much from our chat. I just liked the guy. I had been introduced to his work earlier at the convention and wanted to use him in PW, which by the time we’d met had been accepted into the exclusive alternative newspaper club.
The problem for me was the Times, where his work was appearing even then, far from not wanting Rall’s work insisted that he was unable to draw for us. It seems Rall had a “non-compete” clause in his contract with Universal Syndicate, from which the Times bought stories and cartoons, among them Rall’s.
A few years passed and Rall’s cartoons were now regularly appearing in the Times, national magazines, as well as other top mainstream and alt newspapers around the country, including our then-newly launched sister publication, LA CityBEAT. For them he created and drew the “Left Coast” cartoon each week. After CityBEAT folded in 2009, Rall finally came over to PW, where he resumed drawing “Left Coast,” only now focusing on Pasadena — infuriating cops, ticking off prosecutors and politicians, and regularly challenging the powers that be at City Hall. He had also been working for the Times since 2009 in a deal the details of which I cared and knew nothing about.
After five years with PW, Rall, who had published several books throughout much of the 1990s and the 2000s and currently has a new book out called “Snowden,” about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, decided to pack it in and turned over the “Left Coast” panel to fellolw cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, an outstanding artist in her own right.
How powerful a simple cartoon can be, because I cannot tell you how happy the local cops were to see Rall leave the paper. Especially during the time when we were publishing stories on the fatal police shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Kendrec McDade in 2012, Rall mercilessly ripped into the department on a weekly basis.
It’s been said Rall’s work is, well, raw; an acquired taste for the average reader, making people laugh and cringe at the same time. I know I winced more than a few times after looking at a given week’s offering. And, remember, I actually had to face the people that he lampooned each week. But we never pulled the panel.
In his latest controversy, Rall suspects police officials told the Times to fire him, which would not be surprising. That same request was made of me many times by Pasadena police and other city officials. If the cops in LA despised Rall half as much as did Pasadena’s Blue Crew, it is certainly believable that they would set him up for some sort of fall, just as it would probably be just a matter of time before some “lucky” LAPD officer would run into him on the street.
I had lost track of my friend over the past year until I read that he had been fired by the Times for allegedly fabricating a portion of a blog post about how an LAPD motorcycle officer, Will, or Willie, Durr, had roughed him up and handcuffed him following an alleged jaywalking incident on Melrose Avenue at Gardner Street in Los Angeles on Oct. 3, 2001 — just more than two months after we first met in the Big Easy and a few short weeks after Sept. 11, a time when law enforcement’s gloves came off in what would become an endless and often questionably legal search for enemies of the state. In fact, Rall had just been interviewed by Bill Maher at nearby CBS Studios about the newly energized war on terror before running into Officer Durr on Melrose.
‘Hates, hates, hates’
The main evidence against Rall appears to be a scratchy recording of the incident secretly taped by Durr, a highly regarded officer with the department. That tape is full of gaps and audio snow, with sounds made by the officer, but few from Rall until the end. The sound of conspicuously crisp tuneless whistling, presumably by Durr, is heard at three separate intervals, a tactic seen by Rall and his supporters as one aimed at masking other unwanted noises.
Officials with the newspaper said they used this, along with the word of the officer who created it, along with inconsistencies in Rall’s story, to banish Rall from the pages of the Times.
Another version of the tape, analyzed by a Los Angeles sound company for $1,200, is much more revealing, and includes the voices of a number of people, presumably two or three women, saying something to the policeman.
According to a written transcript of the tape compiled by Rall and posted at anewdomain.net, along with the two audio recordings, the exchange starts out with the officer asking Rall for identification, then escalates into a scene in which Rall is being detained on the sidewalk. Within the first minute, Durr first whistles, then hums. Halfway through the second minute, a female voice can be heard. Then a man’s voice comes into play. Then a third voice is heard, and they all appear to be conversing from an unknown distance with Durr, who starts whistling again at exactly three minutes into the roughly six-minute and 17-second tape.
So he’s really detaining him?” to which another woman says, “He was just jaywalking … you need to take off … no, take off his handcuffs!”
“No, no, no, no,” Durr is heard saying.
“Then take off …,” a third woman says.
“Stop it!” someone shouts.
“I’m doing the right thing,” Durr says.
“Alrighty, sir, you’ve been cited for 21456(B) of the vehicle code … Here, I’ll take that until we’re done, there ya go …”
Rall asks Durr how much the fine is, but the officer says he doesn’t know. Durr then allegedly throws Rall’s driver’s license into the gutter, as Rall said in his column. Then, out of the blue, Rall asks if Durr could recommend a place to eat, which a noticeably taken aback Durr said he could not do.
“It’s called normalizing behavior when you are under stress,” as Rall explained his attempts to de-escalate a tense situation. “It’s amazing how many people don’t believe that.”
“As an investigative reporter, I was astonished that the LA Times did not even bother to do an independent analysis of the tape,” wrote Rall’s colleague and onetime writing partner investigative reporter Greg Palast at his website, gregpalast.com.
The two men collaborated on 2012’s “Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps,” with an introduction by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., published by Seven Stories Press.
“Rall told me that a Times reporter, Paul Pringle, told him the Times simply accepted the recording transcript as truthful because it came from the LAPD. … And the LAPD hates, hates, hates Rall,” Palast wrote.
Officer of the Year
On Oct. 14, 2001, Rall filed a formal complaint against Durr. Only in that document, he never mentions being roughed up or being cuffed, and he never followed through with the complaint, even though a police log and a tape recording indicates he was called on four separate days in January 2002 to participate in the process that he had started against Durr.
However, in Rall’s initial complaint to the LAPD, he says that the officer was “belligerent and hostile” and that he threw Rall’s license into the gutter. In addition, Rall wrote in his blog post for the Times that the LAPD dismissed his complaint without ever contacting him.
Although he probably isn’t Rall’s favorite cop, and it’s never mentioned in the deluge of stories that’s been flooding the Internet on the artist’s plight, Durr is a highly decorated police veteran, serving 10 years in the Army before joining the LAPD in in 1994. According to the LAPD website, Durr, who is African American, was nominated for the American Legion-24th District Officer of the Year in 2006.
“Durr was unanimously selected for this award not for one single event, but for his never-ending dedication to his profession and the public’s safety. He has been singled out and recognized on numerous occasions for his outstanding work ethic, dedication to duty, quick response, and placing himself in harm’s way in the pursuit of public safety,” according to the site. “During the past year, Officer Durr has received no less than six commendations commenting on such areas as dedication to duty, outstanding work ethics, attention to duty, and embracing the mission of the Los Angeles Police Department and WTD (West Traffic Division).”
A spokesman for the LAPD said the department is aware of the controversy involving Durr and Rall, but is making no statements about it at this time.
Rall maintains that the LAPD never tried to contact him. He said he didn’t report being handcuffed and roughed up because he believed Durr probably had the right to cuff him, as a number of friends had theorized immediately after the incident, and it probably wasn’t that big of a deal. He also didn’t want to make too many waves, given he was working as a program host at KFI AM radio in those days.
“He didn’t abuse me. He didn’t hurt me, certainly. If he had hurt me, I would have put it in the complaint,” Rall said of Durr.
“I never thought he didn’t have the right to cuff me. I said in my blog that he cuffed me and people read into that an implication that he shouldn’t have. I was trying to make more of a broader point; that it was kind of ridiculous that he cuffed me for jaywalkng. But the complaint was about wrongdoing, and what really incensed me was that he gave me a ticket for an offense I did not commit. And it was a serious offense. I was told it was a misdemeanor. For someone to write you up falsely for something that would give you a criminal record for the rest of your life is just appalling. And that’s what really motivated me.
“I was also told that if I laid it on too thick, putting in all the stuff about being pushed around, it would just cause complications,” he said.
A Higher Standard
Before I called the LAPD for an expanded “no comment,” Palast said he had already talked with a police official who couldn’t say whether the LAPD provided the paper with Rall’s records, as the LAPPL said it did. But if not the LAPD, then who would have access to this otherwise non-public information? Rall suspects none other than his arch-nemesis the LAPPL, a onetime major stockholder in the Times’ newly acquired publishing partner, the San Diego Union-Tribune, which was bought by the Times’ parent company in May.
As reported by City News Service in May 2009, then-LAPPL President Paul Weber wrote a letter to Platinum Equity Chief Executive Tom Gores, saying the Los Angeles Police and Fire Pension System was now part owner of the Union-Tribune because of its $30 million investment in Beverly Hills-based Platinum, which had just purchased the paper that month for an undisclosed amount. Virtually the first thing Weber wanted as a new shareholder was to have the editorial writers who criticized public employees and their pensions fired.
The Union-Tribune’s editorial page “is one of the most virulently anti-public safety employee pages of any newspapers in California, if not the country,” wrote Weber, whose union represents 9,900 Los Angeles police officers. The paper, he wrote, “was certainly free to express its hatred of public employees when it was under different ownership. However, since the very public employees they continually criticize are now their owners, we strongly believe that those who currently run the editorial pages should be replaced.”
In November 2011, Platinum Equity sold the paper to MLIM Holdings, a company led by Doug Manchester, a San Diego real estate developer. The purchase price was reportedly in excess of $110 million.
The following August, the committed $110 million to eight private equity funds, according to a story appearing at Pensions & Investments, pionline.com, citing a quarterly report on the $15 billion pension fund’s non-discretionary investment program. Opportunities Fund IX was one of those funds, with a $20 million investment from LA police and firefighter pensioners.
Last April, Tribune Publishing’s three largest shareholders — Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management (which offers the low-risk, high-yield Opportunities Fund IX), Angelo, Gordon & Co., and JPMorgan Chase — sought buyers for 25 percent of their combined stake through a secondary offering, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. At the time, the three firms owned about 39 percent of Tribune Publishing’s 94.5 million outstanding shares of Class A stock, according to the Tribune.
A few weeks after that notice appeared, the Times announced that Tribune Publishing paid $85 million in cash and stock for the Union-Tribune, eight community weeklies and related websites. As part of the deal, the two papers are to share content and other resources, according to the story. Times Publisher Austin Beutner was named publisher of the Union-Tribune and chief executive of the newly formed California News Group.
“I hope people see the big picture here. This isn’t about whether you like my comics or if you like my politics. That’s irrelevant. This is about a police state; the nation as a police state,” Rall said. “In a democracy, cops can’t be allowed to hire and fire journalists.”
Goldberg declined to comment on Rall’s dismissal.
Paul Pringle, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2009 and a member of reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2004 and 2011, looked into the evidence presented by police. He also declined to comment.
*On Wednesday, after PW went to press, the Times published a detailed response to Rall’s allegations, reaffirming the paper’s decision to stop using his work. Introduced by Reader Representative Deirdre Edgar, the detailed review of the controversy currently appears on the home page of the paper’s website.
In a nutshell, the paper had the tape analyzed by two audio forensics experts, but only now, not before Rall’s dismissal. The experts concur that there is nothing unusual going on and that Durr did nothing wrong. But it’s striking what’s not mentioned. Neither expert seems to notice Durr’s penchant for whistling loudly and humming while he works. That’s in the police version of the tape, and the whistling is so loud that it’s as if Durr’s tilting his head directly into his pocket. And, as Rall points out in his rebuttal, neither expert disputes the presence of other people at the scene — “only that they can’t hear the word ‘handcuffs,’” as Rall said.
Apparently Pringle did a little Web surfing and found that Rall has told this story several times in the past, each time recounting being handcuffed and roughed up, but adding different elements in some of the renditions. For instance, in his latest column, Rall mentions a crowd gathering, something missing from previous takes. Also new was another motorcycle cop arriving at the scene and telling Durr to not handcuff Rall.
In fact, it states, “the experts engaged by the Times, in separate assessments, said they could not hear any mention of handcuffs. Both also said they found no indication that — as Rall has asserted — the LAPD recording was edited, spliced or otherwise altered to conceal misconduct by the officer.”
The analysis states that the LAPD contacted the paper over the column, which Rall disputes, and provided the tape and other materials for review.
“Durr’s recording, made on a micro-cassette recorder and later transferred to a digital format, runs about six minutes and includes traffic sounds and other background noise. There are extended silences during which Durr said he was checking Rall’s ID and filling out the citation,” states the review. “A conversation between Durr and Rall is audible, and it is civil. Durr is not heard being rude, ‘belligerent,’ ‘hostile’ or ‘ill-tempered,’ as Rall has asserted. The officer is heard calmly answering Rall’s questions.”
In two interviews, the review states, “Rall told Pringle that he stood by his May 11 blog post and that Durr was lying. He verified that the voice heard on the tape was his but asserted that the recording was of such poor quality that it could not be used to challenge his account. He said the tape ‘only captures a part of what’s going on’ and that Durr might have been ‘muffling’ the recorder at key moments to conceal abusive behavior.
“Pringle also asked Rall to explain his apparently friendly exchange with Durr after the citation was issued, in which he asked the officer to recommend a restaurant in the area. Rall said he had been ‘traumatized’ by the incident and likened his behavior to that of “rape victims calling their rapist back, and — you know, like, days later — and wanting to get back together.”
LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Andrew Smith told the Times that audio specialists with the department analyzed the tape to determine whether Durr might have turned the recorder off and then on again to avoid recording parts of the encounter. “They found no indication that he had done so, Smith said,” the review states. “Smith said LAPD experts later enhanced the recording and could not hear anyone complain about handcuffs. They found no indication that the tape was spliced or otherwise altered, he said.”
In his response, posted at anewdomain.net, Rall said the Times piece “reads like lawyers wrote it,” containing a “a blizzard of misdirection, trivialities and distractions meant to convince us, somehow, that: (a) there’s nothing weird about the police still having a secret audiotape of a jaywalking arrest from 14 years ago; (b) it’s totally normal for the police to walk said tape over to a newspaper in an attempt to get a cartoonist known for not liking cops fired; (c) said newspaper has no reason to question the veracity or motivation of the cops against said cop-disliking cartoonist, and ; (d) said newspaper shouldn’t seek an independent review of the inaudible LAPD tape and faulty evidence the Times used against me, especially after backed up my story so well.
“… It reads like you are readying an argument to have the enhanced tape I’ve published prevented from being heard by a jury, in the favor of your static-filled one. And you say those audio engineers enhanced the tape? I posted mine here for all to hear. You posted a lot of audio, including an answering machine where a policeman leaves a message for a guy who doesn’t even sound like me, saying it is me. But you don’t post your enhanced audio,” Rall wrote. “As before, this latest communiqué raises more questions than it answers. Here are some below:
1. Who gave my file and audiotape to the Times: police union?
2. Who it at the Times?
3. Is the version Times editors Dropboxed to me, before they fired me, a dub of something the LAPD gave the Times, or is it the same?
4. We do know that the editorial board, typically the decision-makers in the firing of a cartoonist, was left out of the loop. Why?
5. And who decided to fire me in such a public, humiliating way?
6. they wanted — and what was their true purpose in providing this information?
7. What will a highly qualified independent audio forensics expert say about ?
8. Why is the required ID information from the recording (location, ID of suspect, time, day)? is the tape so short?
9. What does the Times have to say about the angry people on ? The ones you can clearly hear, that they and their experts claim not to hear?
10. Why didn’t the Times investigate the provenance of the tape before it fired me?
11. Why do they still refuse to let me tell my side of the story to the editorial board — and to allow an independent investigation?”
With all the conflicting information generated in the past two weeks, it’s difficult to disagree with the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) board, which is calling for an independent investigation of the LAPD’s interaction with Rall, a former AAEC president.
“Determining the truth in this matter is important to Mr. Rall’s personal and professional reputation, and to the rights of journalists to freely express themselves,” reads a statement issued by the group. “Furthermore, the Los Angeles Times should have demanded a higher standard of proof in this matter, and it is clear that Mr. Rall is owed a full and complete analysis of the 14-year-old tape used to make a judgment about his actions.”
Rall says he will be willing to submit to a polygraph test to prove he’s being truthful. If he’s lying, well, shame on him, although he would not be the first reporter to stretch a story. At least we know through the tape enhanced by Post Haste Digital of Los Angeles that some negative contact not recorded on the police audio occurred between Rall and Durr, and all over perhaps the most piddling, lowest of all low-hanging fruit among all traffic code violations, one that the LAPD vigorously enforces — jaywalking.
On the other hand, if Rall is telling the truth, and the Times really did collude with police to get rid of him, as he and his supporters claim, this struggling major newspaper trying desperately to remain relevant in the Digital Age has bigger problems to worry about than Ted Rall’s bad attitude toward authority.