LOS ANGELES — Last Monday, the Los Angeles Times dropped political cartoonist Ted Rall over questions about the accuracy of a blog post written in May. In that post, Rall described a 2001 incident in which he was cited for jaywalking in West LA, handcuffed, and manhandled. After the post was published, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) released documents, including a poor quality audio tape of the interaction, which they say disprove Rall’s account. Nicholas Goldberg, editor of the Editorial Pages at the Times, posted an note last week stating that, as a result of these discrepancies, the paper would terminate its relationship with Rall.
Hyperallergic spoke with Rall to get his view on his dismissal and on the state of political cartooning in general.
* * *
Matt Stromberg: Why do you think Nicholas Goldberg and the Times were so quick to trust the police tape over your story?
Ted Rall: Honestly, I have absolutely no idea what Nick Goldberg was thinking or what motivated him, or why they decided to go this route and do what they did. I barely know him; I’ve never so much as had a lunch with him. My regular editor, Cherry Gee, is on vacation for three weeks. What I can tell you is what they did. The first call I got was from [LA Times reporter] Paul Pringle. He didn’t even identify himself, he just said he was from the Times — didn’t say he was a reporter and not an editor; I had to get that out of him. He launched into a very hostile form of questioning. I was like, wow, he’s either the best reporter in the world or he’s determined that I’m a lying sack of shit. He just kept asking me the same questions, trying to establish my credibility by asking sort of checking questions. My impression was, this guy doesn’t believe me, he already believes the cops’ narrative. It’s up to me to prove that I’m innocent.
That same evening, I got a call from Nick Goldberg. He asked me what was going on, and I repeated what I had told Pringle. He asked, “Why can’t you hear a drivers’ license hit the ground?” and I was like “Are you serious? How could you hear that?” “Why can’t you hear me being handcuffed?” I asked, “Did you listen to the tape? You can’t hear shit on that tape? It’s a fucking joke!” Anyone who listens to it can hear the original version supplied by the LAPD — that appears to have been tampered with — has about 20 seconds of conversation, really almost all the cop. I’m not even sure that in the original version you could authenticate that I was even there, my voice is so hard to pick up. They said, “This tape doesn’t seem to support your point of view.” I was like, “It doesn’t support any point of view! There’s nothing there!” So, I don’t know why they did what they did. All I know is they took the cop’s word hook, line, and sinker and did not believe me.
MS: Wouldn’t it be normal protocol to involve your regular editor in this process?
TR: You would certainly think so. I talked to Susan Brenneman, the deputy editorial page editor who I work with when Cherry isn’t around. I wanted her to hear from my lips that this was not true. She didn’t know much about it. It didn’t seem that they had pulled her in to talk to her about it, as of last Monday morning. So it doesn’t sound like this was an editorial board decision, and I would think that the editorial cartoonist being fired would be something that the editorial board — who supervises the editorial cartoonist — ought to have something to do with. If I was sitting on that board, even if I thought the cartoonist was guilty as sin, I’d want to look him in the face and I’d have questions for him myself.
MS: Your initial complaint to the LAPD was for an improper citation for jaywalking, not for manhandling. Why was that?
TR: Well, that was my primary concern. I’m not even sure it was improper conduct. There’s a lot of evidence that they routinely handcuff people, and I’ve read they’re within their rights to do it. That wasn’t really my main complaint. They didn’t hurt me, just my pride. The issue was that this asshole was probably trying to fulfill a ticket quota, which has been documented in that division. There’s a lawsuit with 10 West LA traffic cops, where they refused to fulfill the traffic quotas and they were demoted as a result. That’s why I was pissed.The point is with this, it’s a misdemeanor, it creates a criminal record. It’s not just points on your license or a parking ticket.
MS: Another point the Times brought up to question your version of events is that, on the recording, you ask the officer for food recommendations after the interaction. You talk about that being like Stockholm Syndrome.
TR: People ridiculed me after I said that. It’s Stockholm Syndrome-y. A psychiatrist wrote me about this whole thing, and she said it’s called “normalization.” It’s a really standard tactic that people do. It’s the reason, after a traffic stop, many people will say, ‘thank you, officer,’ even though no one’s happy to get a ticket. It’s why you say good morning to your captors.
MS: Sources we spoke with at the Times made it very clear that they couldn’t have fired you since you weren’t an employee there.
TR: You can fire your landscaper; it doesn’t mean he works for you full time. Firing means, ‘I was paying you money to do something, and now I’m not.’ I think we all know the meaning of “fired.” I never said I was receiving full benefits. The fact is they were too cheap to pay me a decent salary, so that’s why I was freelance. I never said I wasn’t freelance, but was I the cartoonist at the LA Times? Sure I was. I had my own section on the opinion page, which they just memory-holed by the way.
MS: Since this happened, discrepancies have been discovered in the detaining officer’s story about never handcuffing people.
TR: Pringle told me, “He’s never used his handcuffs,” and I said, “Never? Well, he used them on me.” And he said, “Are you saying he’s lying?” I was like “Yeah, I’m saying he’s fucking lying.”
MS: And now there’s an article that describes him handcuffing someone else?
TR: Yeah, and of all places, it came out in the Times in May. [The cop is] part of an anti–aggressive driving task force. The reporter describes the same guy, smirking and making fun of this guy they have detained for aggressive driving. The guy’s handcuffed there. Aggressive driving in LA is a traffic stop, and jaywalking is a misdemeanor.
MS: You also got the audio tape enhanced.
TR: Yeah, I crowdsourced it. I want someone who can go on the record. The problem is, these versions I just had done are both from people in the LA metro area, and they’re afraid to step forward because they’re both terrified of the LAPD.
In this cleaned-up recording of Rall’s stop, a woman’s voice can be heard beginning at 3:30.
MS: And the enhanced tape shows a woman there …
TR: It proves the two points that they most aggressively said I was lying about. Paul Pringle calls and says, “The LAPD says this never happened.” I asked, “What never happened, I was never there?” “No they said you were there, but it was a polite interaction; you were never handcuffed, there was no ruffing up, there was never an angry crowd.” So this shows there was an angry crowd and there was handcuffing.
MS: Is there more on the tape that you can get out?
TR: I hope so — the tape’s shitty, it’s third generation at least. If we get the original tape, the tech people say it will be better, but we’re talking about probably a micro cassette recorder. One of the things that would be interesting is — he whistled as a technique to cover sounds of people protesting his actions, but apparently if it’s possible to separate these channels, it may be possible to hear what people are saying underneath his whistling.
MS: Pulling back from your specific situation, what do you think this says about the state of political cartooning right now?
TR: I tweeted recently: “In Paris, editors died alongside their cartoonists. In Los Angeles, editors assassinate their cartoonists’ characters.” Look, if the LAPD asked the LA Times as a favor to fire me, they should have just said, ‘There’s a budget cut.’ But running an editor’s note that smears my reputation, putting it in the print edition as well as the online edition, having this get picked up by right-wing blogs and Fox News wire service! I’ve been slimed by these assholes. It tells me these guys didn’t do any due diligence, they mishandled me, they didn’t even bother to get a techie to authenticate the tape. Pringle told me the way he knew the tape was authentic was that the LAPD certified that it was authentic. I laughed at him.
The positive thing is, it really does show that cartooning is powerful. All those cartoons I did about the incompetence and violence of the LAPD, all those years of cartoons that I thought were just falling into a well and no one paying attention to them — it got to them. They paid attention. They didn’t draw the proper lessons, like stop shooting black people, stop handcuffing people for no reason, stop pulling your gun out for no reason, stop killing unarmed people, stop overcrowding your jails, stop mistreating people, you work for the citizens, they don’t work for you. Those are the messages I was trying to send. Maybe if I was a better cartoonist they would have received those messages, but the message they got was they were under attack as an institution, they needed to defend themselves, and this is how they went about it. The LAPD did go after me — they used their own departmental resources to dig up 14-year-old shit, doctor it, and send it to the paper to fuck me over.