Was The LA Times Right To Fire Ted Rall For Supposedly Lying About A 2001 Encounter With The Police?
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like Ted Rall very much. If you’re a conservative and you don’t know why, you’ve never read Ted Rall or seen his cartoons. Read through a few of them and you won’t have any more questions about that subject.
So with that being said, I can’t say that I was all broken up when Rall was canned by the LA Times for supposedly lying about a police encounter that happened way back in 2001. Right Wing News wrote a couple of fairly matter-of-fact (well, for us anyway) stories about the firing last week and that was that…or so I thought.
Yesterday, Ted Rall wrote me complaining about one of our stories. Since Rall was basically grumbling about our reporting what the LA Times had said about him, I was tempted to tell him to take it up with the Times, but intriguingly, Rall claimed to have new information.
You see, Rall had been branded a liar and fired by the LA Times largely based on poor quality audio of his encounter with a policeman back in 2001 — supplied to the Times by the LAPD. Rall said he had paid a company called Post Haste Digital to enhance the audio and that it cleared his name.
In my opinion, that made it worth doing a follow-up on the story. So, to begin with, I checked out Post Haste Digital. I spoke to Justin Valenzuela, who is the person who handled Rall’s audio at the company. He said that he didn’t know Rall personally and that although he was experienced with audio, he had never been asked to enhance a tape like this before. He concluded by telling me that he didn’t add anything to the tape; he just made it easier to hear what was already there. Without hiring our own audio expert to double check the work, there’s no way to be 100% sure that the enhanced tape was legitimate, but at first glance, it did at least appear to be done by a professional firm that wasn’t looking to save Rall’s bacon.
Of course, I also reached out to the LA Times to see if anyone there had any comment. Perhaps understandably, you’re not going to see any comment from an editor at the Times. No business really wants to get into a he said/she said debate about a personnel matter in the press.
So that brings us to Rall’s original story, the LA Times response and the tape. Here’s how Rall described the incident in a May 11 column in the LA Times.
Just over 10 years ago, I was ticketed – and handcuffed – for an alleged pedestrian violation while crossing Melrose Avenue. Ironically, this was one of the rare times that I was innocent of even jaywalking, something I do every day.
Anyway, 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.
I filed a formal complaint with the Los Angeles Police Department. A few months went by without my hearing anything, so I called to check in. I was told that the complaint was dismissed. They had never notified me.
Now, here’s the LA Times explanation of why it declined to continue publishing Rall’s work.
In a May 11 post on The Times’ OpinionLA blog, Ted Rall — a freelance cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The Times — described an incident in which he was stopped for jaywalking on Melrose Avenue in 2001. Rall said he was thrown up against a wall, handcuffed and roughed up by an LAPD motorcycle policeman who also threw his driver’s license into the sewer. Rall also wrote that dozens of onlookers shouted in protest at the officer’s conduct.
Since then, the Los Angeles Police Department has provided records about the incident, including a complaint Rall filed at the time. 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.
Asked to explain these inconsistencies, Rall said he stands by his blog post.
So, who’s right?
Well, you can listen to the audio here.
The problem with the audio is that even though it’s considerably better than the original, it’s still very difficult to hear what’s being said. Given the poor quality of the original track, that may be the best that anyone can do.
However, it makes it difficult to ascertain who’s right and who’s wrong about certain things.
For example, it sounds like there may be a small crowd gathering around Rall and the officer. Of course, it’s also possible, but probably less likely, that those voices were off in the distance. Additionally, there is a comment that does sound very much like someone saying, “Why’d you handcuff him?” Can we be certain that’s what the person is saying? No, but it certainly seems possible.
Those are two elements of Rall’s claim that the LA Times seemed to believe were false, that MAY BE true.
However, other claims Rall made are more problematic. If you listen to the audio, Rall seemed to be having a fairly cordial conversation with the officer. At the end, he apparently even asked him about places to eat in the area.
That doesn’t fit well with the idea of a police officer who in Rall’s words, “threw me up against the wall, slapped on the cuffs, roughed me up and wrote me a ticket…. before he threw my driver’s license into the sewer.”
Now, could you see that officer pushing Rall against the wall if he handcuffed him? Sure. Could you see him accidentally dropping Rall’s license when he handed it back? Sure.
I did ask Ted Rall about that.
Let me ask you about this….
“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.”
Listening to the audio, I guess I could see the officer pushing you up against a wall after he handcuffed you, but at first listen, it didn’t sound like you got thrown against a wall or roughed up. Do you think maybe that was the Adrenalin talking? If not, can you give a little more detail on that part of things?
What detail do you want?
He didn’t punch me. He shoved me, hard.
I suffered no physical trauma. But it was unprofessional and, considering that I was completely compliant, unnecessary. It was part of the overall scene that drew a group of witnesses.
Can you tell me a little more about the license and the sewer?
The officer indicated to me he was returning my license, but instead of handing it to me, threw into the gutter. (I’ve also said “sewer,” because the terms are interchangeable, but gutter is the better word.)
So you definitely don’t think he dropped it accidentally?
Any idea why he was so hostile to you?
No, I’m sure he did it intentionally.
It was an @sshole move designed to provoke an angry reaction.
I have no idea why he acted like that, or was it something about me, or whether he always acts like that. I was fairly well dressed, having just come from a Bill Maher show taping, but that may be neither here nor there.
The problem with stories like this is we all want everything wrapped up in a neat little bow. We want to look at the video, know exactly who’s right and wrong, and then give someone a pat on the back and someone a kick in the behind.
Given the situation, I don’t really know that it’s easy to do that.
For example, if Ted Rall had said all of this under oath and I were on a jury that had to decide whether he committed perjury or not, I could not say beyond a shadow of a doubt that he lied. I think it’s possible Rall lied, but I can’t tell you for sure that he did. It could even be a combination of issues, where he got some of the story right but certain details were a bit exaggerated 14 years after the fact. I don’t think it would be a big shocker if anyone got a few details wrong in the retelling of a story that old.
On the other hand, if you’re the LA Times and the LAPD comes to you with evidence that one of your employees lied about it in your paper, you have to take that seriously. Should the LA Times have fired Rall? Should it have added an addendum to Rall’s article saying the LAPD said something different? Was there something else it should have done? It’s easy to second guess now, but it’s harder to be the one making those kind of personnel decisions.
So, after 1500 words, I don’t have the answer to the question posed in the title of the article. Was the LA Times right to fire Ted Rall for supposedly lying about a 2001 encounter with the police? I don’t know, but I do know we’ve at least taken the time to do our due diligence on the story.