LOS ANGELES — Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times terminated its relationship with political cartoonist Ted Rall based on “serious questions about the accuracy” of a May 11 blog post by him. In that post, Rall, an outspoken critic of the LA Police Department, recounted an episode from October 3, 2001, in which he was ticketed for jaywalking in West Hollywood. He alleges police misconduct, stating that “a motorcycle officer zoomed over, threw me up against the wall, slapped on the cuffs, roughed me up and wrote me a ticket,” before throwing Rall’s license in the sewer. The cartoonist also recalled that “a couple of dozen passersby” had gathered and were yelling at the officer, who released Rall only after another motorcycle cop arrived and questioned the initial officer’s actions. Rall filed a formal complaint at the time — only for being falsely charged, not for being manhandled — which he says was dismissed without him ever being contacted by the LAPD.
Audio recording of Ted Rall’s jaywalking stop. Rall’s encounter begins around 6:30.
After Rall’s post went up, the LAPD released an audio recording of the incident apparently made by the officer. (We spoke with Officer Mike Lopez of LAPD Media Relations, who said that even 15 years ago, it was not uncommon for officers to carry their own audio recording devices, especially during traffic stops.) Earlier this week Nicholas Goldberg, editor of the Editorial Pages at the Times, posted an Editor’s Note stating that the “audiotape of the encounter recorded by the police officer does not back up Rall’s assertions.” Goldberg also cited an LAPD call log reportedly showing that police made repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact Rall regarding his complaint. As a result of these discrepancies, Goldberg wrote, “Rall’s future work will not appear in The Times.”
Rall fired back with his own lengthy blog post, accusing the Times of bowing to pressure from the LAPD to fire him. (Sources we spoke to at the Times made it very clear that Rall was not fired, since he was a freelancer, albeit one with a staff page who had been a consistent contributor since 2009.) As Rall notes, the audio quality of the recording is quite poor, and just because you can’t hear him being handcuffed or his license hitting the ground doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Furthermore, since the officer knew he was being recorded, he certainly would not make any breach of proper conduct audibly obvious. As for the lack of crowd noise, it’s quite conceivable that an audio recorder in a shirt or pants pocket wouldn’t pick up sounds outside of the immediate area, especially with all the wind and noise on the tape. Rall says the Times also asked why his original complaint was only for being falsely charged, to which he answered that he was a talk show host at the time and “and certainly didn’t need any public scuffles with the LAPD.” Finally, the paper questioned why he asked the officer for a restaurant recommendation after the encounter, which Rall chalks up to Stockholm Syndrome.
Setting aside the thorny question of whether the LAPD pressured the Times to dismiss Rall, it’s troubling that a lauded (though no doubt controversial) political cartoonist was let go based on “evidence” from a very old and very poor quality audio recording of unverifiable provenance. Another issue this raises is what Rall would have to gain by making the story up. His allegations are not so outrageous that they would tarnish the LAPD any more than recent episodes already have. The Times should by all means “remain vigilant about what we publish,” as Goldberg says, but they also must recognize how it looks to dismiss a vocal police critic, with questionable proof, in light of the current discussions regarding police brutality and misconduct in this country.