Ted Rall, a journalist and cartoonist often critical of police misconduct, was fired by the LA Times after the LAPD claimed he lied about a 2001 encounter with an officer. But an audio recording of the event appears to back up Rall's version of events, leaving everyone to wonder why the Times was so eager to cut him loose.
In his May 11 column, LAPD's crosswalk crackdown: Don't police have something better to do?, Rall recalled the 14-year-old incident where, caught jaywalking by a police officer, he was pushed against a wall and handcuffed in the street while onlookers complained.
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.
The LAPD, however, had a recording of the incident, and provided a transcript to the Times. The column was soon appended with a note from editor Nicholas Goldberg, saying that Rall's description was "inconsistent," insinuating that he had lied about the encounter, and announcing that he had been fired.
… 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. … 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.
Rall's caustic writing and artwork often depict police hypocrisy and brutality, so it's easy to see why the force would want him off the payroll of one of America's highest-circulation city newspapers.
The LA Police Union was ready with a gloating press release praising the Times' decision.
The transcript provided to the Times depicts a calm encounter, but the audiotape that came with it is a murky, noisy mess.
Greg Palast, famous investigative reporter and manager of a nonprofit foundation that backs Rall's work, writes that he was also about to fire him as well, but asked for the tape first to hear it for himself.
"To my surprise–and Rall's glee–the crowd that he had allegedly fantasized about suddenly came alive–with three women shouting, 'Why'd you handcuff him?' and 'Take off his handcuffs!,'" Palast wrote.
Rall hired audio engineers at Post Haste Digital to improve the quality of the audio recording, and published the results on SoundCloud.
Added Palast: "As an investigative reporter, I was astonished that the LA Times did not even bother to do an independent analysis of the tape."
In an interview with Matt Stromberg, Rall says he has "absolutely no idea what Nick Goldberg was thinking" firing him.
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.
With background noise removed and voices sharpened, the tape—though still indistinct—appears to show bystanders mocking the officer for cuffing a jaywalker. Other sounds consistent with Rall's version of events can also be heard, such as a loud zipping noise that could be plastic handcuffs being applied.
Moreover, the Times itself had published a story describing the motorcycle cop in question handcuffing people during traffic stops, refuting suggestions he had never done so.
At The Observer, Ken Kurson writes that the Times set out to destroy Rall's reputation and that the enhanced audio is "very persuasive".
"Publications that fire employees for the slightest perceived infraction are turning journalists into cowering stenographers," Kurson wrote, "which is no better for journalism than if they were liars … I can't help but wonder if this two-month-old column about a 14-year-old jaywalking ticket isn't more about getting rid of a guy who can be a pain in the ass than about inviolable journalistic standards."