Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Ted Rall Gets His Jaywalking Papers

In an era of Black Lives Matter and Je Suis Charlie, a 14-year-old accusation of rude policing during a jay-walking stop may seem pretty trivial.

In this case, it involves editorial cartoonist Ted Rall, a former president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, about as far left in the political spectrum as it is possible to be and still accept payment for one's work. Until recently, he had been freelancing cartoons and blog posts on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. In May, he described in a blog entry having been stopped by a police officer in 2001 for jaywalking.
I had done everything right. I waited for the green "walking man" signal before stepping off the curb. I walked between the crosswalk lines. I got across the street just as the flashing red signal began.
All of a sudden, a motorcycle officer zoomed over, threw me up against the wall, slapped on the cuffs, roughed me up and wrote me a ticket. It was an ugly scene, and in broad daylight it must have looked like one, because within minutes there were a couple of dozen passersby shouting at the cop.
Another motorcycle officer appeared, asked the colleague what the heck he was thinking and ordered him to let me go, which he did. But not before he threw my driver's license into the sewer.
Apparently, that jaywalking stop is still alive in LAPD's cold case file, because someone in the LAPD provided a taped recording of the encounter to LA Times editors to refute Rall's account. The recording is mostly static, but what little one can hear of the conversation sounds as if Rall and Officer Will Durr were having a calm, professional encounter.

On the basis of this anonymously leaked tape, editor Nick Goldberg terminated The Times's relationship with Rall, explaining it in a Note to Times Readers on July 28:
An audiotape of the encounter recorded by the police officer does not back up Rall's assertions; it gives no indication that there was physical violence of any sort by the policeman or that Rall's license was thrown into the sewer or that he was handcuffed. Nor is there any evidence on the recording of a crowd of shouting onlookers.
In Rall's initial complaint to the LAPD, he describes the incident without mentioning any physical violence or handcuffing but says that the police officer was "belligerent and hostile" and that he threw Rall's license into the "gutter." The tape depicts a polite interaction.
In addition, Rall wrote in his blog post that the LAPD dismissed his complaint without ever contacting him. Department records show that internal affairs investigators made repeated attempts to contact Rall, without success. ...
However, the recording and other evidence provided by the LAPD raise serious questions about the accuracy of Rall's blog post. Based on this, the piece should not have been published.
Rall's future work will not appear in The Times.
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 has paid to have the recording professionally enhanced, and the enhanced version does seem to reveal onlookers berating Officer Durr for handcuffing Rall. You can listen to the recording and read a transcript here. I've listened to it, and without the transcript, you don't learn much. His tech geeks claim that there is evidence of the dubbed tape provided to the Times having stops and splices in it, in which case the tape is not the reliable witness that one would expect it to be.

On the other hand, Rall has walked back "he threw my driver's license into the sewer" to "...into the gutter," and from there to "...on the ground," so my take is that his memory has made the incident more vivid over time. (Exaggeration is, after all, part of the job for us editorial cartoonists. Let's not bring Brian Williams into it, Mr. Gardner.)

Whatever you may think of Rall's role in this story, what is clear to me is that the Times acted in violation of its professional code of ethics (recounted here), in particular:
The new guidelines are quite specific concerning the question of if the Times should and should not rely on anonymous sources, stating:
"An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.”
After a surprisingly long period of discernment, the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists has joined Rall in publicly protesting the Times's actions:
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. 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.
There isn't much profit or career advancement in drawing cartoons protesting timorous newspaper editors, so the first (and perhaps only) cartoonist rushing to his drawing board in Rall's defense is a South African artist, John Curtis. Adopting Rall's style, Curtis pretty much says all there is for a cartoonist to say on the matter:
John G. Curtis cartoon

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