Tag Archives: journalism

SYNDICATED COLUMN: The “Thin Grey Line” — The Media’s Conspiracy of Silence on Defamation and Libel

Even the shirt is “fake news.” Look at the text. It’s not actually printed on the fabric. (from LATimes.com)

I am suing for the Los Angeles Times and the $638 million newspaper conglomerate Tronc for the defamation and wrongful termination they carried out as a favor for the chief of Los Angeles Police Department.

I don’t know how things will turn out. But I have learned a lot about the justice system.

            I’ve learned there’s a “Thin Grey Line” — a conspiracy of silence that media outlets use to shield one another from public scrutiny and accountability. It’s not President Trump’s supposed “fake news.”

It’s No News At All.

A black hole.

If media misconduct falls in the woods, whatever sound it makes receives no coverage in “rival” media outlets.

The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 movie describing how police protect one another from allegations of wrongdoing by clamming up about what they know, leading to the railroading of an innocent man. Similarly, media organizations conspire to keep allegations of libel and other wrongdoing out of the public eye. You don’t cover my bad behavior and I won’t cover yours.

Of course, some libel lawsuits are too big to ignore. In those cases the Thin Grey Line slants their coverage to make the victims look like petulant crybabies or greedy pro-censorship fascists.

I learned about the Thin Grey Line when I reached out to media organizations about my situation with the LA Times. Although certain outlets did a good job covering my case — the UK Guardian and the New York Observer stood out — big papers like the New York Times and Washington Post wouldn’t touch it.

“Cartoonist Critical of Police Fired as Favor to LAPD after LAPD Pension Fund Buys Major Interest in LA Times’ Parent Company” has all the components of a major story: big guy crushes little guy, privacy violations, secret police spying on citizens going back decades, ugly conflicts of interest, a police department pension fund that bought newspaper stock so it could leverage it into editorial control of major newspapers, a criminal conspiracy at the highest levels of local government.

If the villain wasn’t a media company, a media outlet would be all over it.

Most U.S. media outlets ignored my story. Most that put out reports were either online-only or based overseas.

Some, like NPR, explained that my story required investigative reporting for which they didn’t have a budget.

Rall v. Los Angeles Times is a natural fit for The Intercept, the news site dedicated to the Snowden revelations and perfidy by government and the press. Indeed, an Intercept reporter worked the story, spending hours talking to me. Then he took it to his editors — who killed it. Was someone higher on the food chain connected to the Times or LAPD? Were they reluctant to take on a fellow media outlet? All I know is, the guy never called me back. That’s unusual to say the least.

Historically, problems at the local daily newspaper have been red meat to an alternative newsweekly, the scrappy underdog in many metro media markets. New York’s late Village Voice used to love taking on the Times, Post and Daily News. But things are different now. Journalists who follow Los Angeles are shocked that LA Weekly won’t cover my two-year-old lawsuit.

Major libel verdicts against media outlets get buried by the Thin Grey Line. A jury dunned the Raleigh News & Observer $9 million for libel in 2016. Two Cal Coast Weekly writers owe their defamation victim $1.1 million as of 2017. You probably didn’t hear about those.

But you probably did hear about Hulk Hogan’s $140 million libel verdict against Gawker, which put the site out of business. Most coverage bemoaned the supposed effect on press freedom, not Gawker’s crazy decision to publish a video of Hogan having sex or to keep it online after Hogan’s lawyer offered to let the whole thing go for zero cash if Gawker took it down.

            Legacy media still hasn’t figured out the Internet. But they’re good at propaganda. Exploiting Trump’s bombastic “fake news” broadsides against the press, they’re casting themselves as party organs of the anti-Trump “Resistance.”

“Democracy dies in darkness,” The Washington Post tells its readers.

“The truth is more important now than ever,” quoth The New York Times.

Hilariously, The Los Angeles Times: “Speaking truth to power.” (But not to the chief of police!)

            As a journalist and satirist who relies on the First Amendment, I am sympathetic to worries that news outlets might self-censor due to the threat of libel suits. But corporate media looks ridiculous when they portray every defamation and libel plaintiff as sinister threats to press freedom. And it’s downright silly to pretend that every libel and defamation case is inherently frivolous.

“The $140 million payout mandated by a Florida court in Hogan’s privacy case against Gawker, which was bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, was a chilling development for media companies that are already battling to keep costs down,” Keith Gessen wrote in Columbia Journalism Review.

Nowhere in Gessen’s piece did he mention that Gawker could have saved every penny of that $140 million by exercising a modicum of editorial judgment. Or that Thiel’s role merely leveled the playing field between an individual and a (then-) deep-pocketed media outlet.

The Hogan verdict is only “chilling” to publications so arrogant and stupid as to fight for the right to gratuitously publish material that can ruin a person’s life — material with zero news value — without a legal leg to stand on.

Based on the coverage of the Gawker-Hogan coverage I’ve read since the 2016 verdict, most media outlets are still pushing the Thin Grey Line narrative that Hogan had no grounds to complain. I say that Hogan has the right not to have his sex acts posted to the Internet without his permission.

Thin Grey Line aside, I bet most people agree with me.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s independent political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Rob Rogers Matters

It seems right to thank Rob Rogers in kind: when the corrupt LA Times fired me, he watched my back with his own thoughtful observations about my plight.

Rob was fired today by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he had worked for the last 25 years. Overall, he has worked as a professional full-time political cartoonist for 33 years. This was not your garden-variety “let’s lay off the cartoonist so we can pay upper middle management even bigger bonuses” dismissal. After a couple of years of serious handwringing on the part of America’s Democratic Party-dominated editorial cartoonist community, Rogers has emerged as one of the first true victims of a Donald Trump-inspired purge.

Determined to move the P-G into a more pro-Trump editorial orientation, the publisher brought in a new editorial director, Keith Burris, whom he charged, among other things, with either bringing Rogers in line — convincing him to either draw pro-Trump cartoons or simply lay off the president entirely — or figure out a way to get rid of him. Anyone who knows Rob Rogers, or for that matter any decent political cartoonist, could guess that the odds of him agreeing to change his political orientation 180° was likely to fail. What the Post-Gazette wanted was a throwback to the political cartooning of over 100 years ago, when publishers dictated the cartoon that appeared in the next day’s paper. Financial pressures have been extraordinary against cartoonists but few have acquiesced to such rollbacks and Rob Rogers was certainly not going to be one of them.

So instead they decided to kill one of his cartoons. And another one. And another one. By the time they showed him the door, well over a dozen cartoons in a row had been drawn but failed to appear in print.

I’m not sure I really understand this tactic. I didn’t go to business school. I would imagine that humiliating and harassing someone into leaving works best when they can easily find another job in their chosen profession. That’s not really true in journalism.

If there’s a class about how to fire people at any decent business school, they should probably use the Rob Rogers firing as an example of exactly what not to do. Look, it’s their paper. They can publish or not publish whoever they want. Maybe it’s crazy for a city like Pittsburgh to have a pro-Trump newspaper but that’s their prerogative if they want to go under. They had the right to fire him.

But why do it that way? Why not simply call him into the office, explain the fact that the editorial orientation of the newspaper had changed, and offer him a generous severance package (I would think two or three years salary would be sufficient) along with full retirement? And send him out with a little bit of glory and dignity, allowing him to say his goodbyes in cartoon form and perhaps showcasing a few pages of his best cartoons over the years? 25 years of loyal service earned him that. More than that, Rob is a fixture in the community. He is always front and present, organizing and hosting cartooning-related panels and shows at art galleries. Disappearing him like a Soviet apparatchik airbrushed out of photos from the top of Lenin’s tomb is a little insane.

Alternatively, why not simply make clear that he could stay on board as a liberal cartoonist even though the editorials would be conservative? My former employer the Los Angeles Times did that with cartoonist Mike Ramirez in the 1990s, but in reverse. The paper had a liberal editorial orientation but Mike was very conservative. Many newspapers with a specific editorial orientation run columns by columnists whose politics disagree with them.

Rob deserved better than to be given the bum’s rush. I suspect that much of the national media will focus on the Trump aspect of the story but I think the real issue is the cruel treatment given to a loyal employee who never did anything wrong and wasn’t even accused of doing anything wrong. I don’t know how that publisher or that editor can live with themselves.

They’re both disgusting.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Suicide? No. Society Is Murdering Us. But There Is a Way Out.

Image result for golden gate bridge jumper

They say that 10 million Americans seriously consider committing suicide every year. In 1984, when I was 20, I was one of them.

Most people who kill themselves feel hopeless. They are miserable and distraught and can’t imagine how or if their lives will ever improve. That’s how I felt. Within a few months I got expelled from college, dumped by a girlfriend I foolishly believed I would marry, fired from my job and evicted from my apartment. I was homeless, bereft, broke. I didn’t have enough money for more than a day of cheap food. And I had no prospects.

I tried in vain to summon up the guts to jump off the roof of my dorm. I went down to the subway but couldn’t make myself jump in front of a train. I wanted to. But I couldn’t.

Obviously things got better. I’m writing this.

Things got better because my luck changed. But — why did it have to? Isn’t there something wrong with a society in which life or death turns on luck?

I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self that suicide isn’t necessary, that there is another way, that there will be plenty of time to be dead in the end. I’ve seen those other ways when I’ve traveled overseas.

In Thailand and Central Asia and the Caribbean and all over the world you will find Americans whose American lives ran hard against the shoals of bankruptcy, lost love, addiction or social shame. Rather than off themselves, they gathered their last dollars and headed to the airport and went somewhere else to start over. They showed up at some dusty ex-pat bar in the middle of nowhere with few skills other than speaking English and asked if they could crash in the back room in between washing dishes. Eventually they scraped together enough money to conduct tours for Western tourists, maybe working as a divemaster or taking rich vacationers deep-sea fishing. They weren’t rich themselves; they were OK and that was more than enough.

You really can start over. But maybe not in this uptight, stuck-up, class-stratified country.

I remembered that in 2015 when I suffered another setback. Unbeknownst to me, the Los Angeles Times — where I had worked as a cartoonist since 2009 – had gotten itself into a corrupt business deal with the LAPD, which I routinely criticized in my cartoons. A piece-of-work police chief leveraged his department’s financial influence on the newspaper by demanding that the idiot ingénue publisher, his political ally, fire me as a favor. But mere firing wasn’t enough for these two goons. They published not one, but two articles, lying about me in an outrageous attempt to destroy my journalistic credibility. I’m suing but the court system is slower than molasses in the pre-climate change Arctic.

Suicide crossed my mind many times during those dark weeks and months. Although I had done nothing wrong the Times’ smears made me feel ashamed. I was angry: at the Times editors who should have quit rather than carry out such shameful orders, at the media outlets who refused to cover my story, at the friends and colleagues who didn’t support me. Though many people stood by me, I felt alone. I couldn’t imagine salvaging my reputation — as a journalist, your reputation for truthtelling and integrity are your most valuable asset and essential to do your job and to get new ones.

As my LA Times nightmare unfolded, however, I remembered the Texas-born bartender who had reinvented himself in Belize after his wife left him and a family court judge ordered him to pay 90% of his salary in alimony. I thought about the divemaster in Cozumel running away from legal trouble back in the States that he refused to describe. If my career were to crumble away, I could split.

You can opt out of BS without having to opt out of life.

Up 30% since 1999, suicide has become an accelerating national epidemic — 1.4 million Americans tried to kill themselves in a single year, 2015 — but the only times the media focuses on suicide is when it claims the lives of celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. While the media has made inroads by trying to cover high-profile suicides discreetly so as to minimize suicidal ideation and inspiring others to follow their example, it’s frustrating that no one seems to want to identify societal and political factors so that this trend might be reversed.

Experts believe that roughly half of men who commit suicide suffer from undiagnosed mental illness such as a severe personality disorder or clinical depression. Men commit suicide in substantially higher numbers than women. The healthcare insurance business isn’t much help. One in five Americans is mentally ill but 60% get no treatment at all.

Then there’s stress. Journalistic outlets and politicians don’t target the issue of stress in any meaningful way other than to foolishly, insipidly advise people to avoid it. If you subject millions of people to inordinate stress, some of them, the fragile ones, will take their own lives. We should be working to create a society that minimizes rather than increases stress.

It doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting to come up with major sources of stress in American society. People are working longer hours but earning lower pay. Even people with jobs are terrified of getting laid off without a second’s notice. The American healthcare system, designed to fatten for-profit healthcare corporations, is a sick joke. When you lose your job or get sick, that shouldn’t be your problem alone. We’re social creatures. We must help each other personally, locally and through strong safety-net social programs.

Loneliness and isolation are likely leading causes of suicide; technology is alienating us from one another even from those who live in our own homes. This is a national emergency. We have to discuss it, then act.

Life in the United States has become vicious and brutal, too much to take even for this nation founded upon the individualistic principles of rugged libertarian pioneers. Children are pressured to exhibit fake joy and success on social media. Young adults are burdened with gigantic student loans they strongly suspect they will never be able to repay. The middle-aged are divorced, outsourced, downsized and repeatedly told they are no longer relevant. And the elderly are thrown away or warehoused, discarded and forgotten by the children they raised.

We don’t have to live this way. It’s a choice. Like the American ex-pats I run into overseas, American society can opt out of crazy-making capitalism without having to opt out.

Former Print Journalists Lost Their Jobs to TV and the Internet. Guess Where They’re Talking (But For Free?)

When you watch cable news TV, you can’t help notice all the formers among the guests. Former editor of the former whatever. They’re still the smartest journalists in the room, but they’re unemployed.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Media Companies Are Abusing Anti-SLAPP Laws to Publish Fake News with Impunity

Image result for national enquirer richard simmons

The National Enquirer and Radar Online published a series of news stories that reported that Richard Simmons, the fitness instructor and TV personality, was transitioning to become a woman. “Richard Simmons: He’s Now a Woman,” read an Enquirer headline.

He’s not.

The Enquirer lied about Simmons. So he sued.

Seems like a straightforward case of libel. Yet, insanely, thanks to California’s constitutionally dubious, nonsensical “anti-SLAPP” statute, a judge has ordered him — a bona fide victim of “fake news” — to pay the Enquirer $122,000. The miscarriage of justice in Simmons’ case is worth thinking about as well-intentioned progressives try to defend the Fourth Estate from toxic smears by President Trump.

Proposals like a federal “shield” law to protect journalists and their sources could help shore up the First Amendment. But the current push for a national anti-SLAPP law like the one that slammed Simmons is woefully misguided and would only bolster Trump’s argument that the media publishes lies with impunity.

Simmons, a gay icon who calls himself “an avid supporter of the LGBTQ community,” sued the media outlets for libel in Los Angeles. Simmons presented key evidence, an Enquirer document indicating that the newspaper could not rely on its source for the Simmons transgender story, his former assistant.

The landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case Sullivan v. New York Times established a standard that, in order to prove libel, a public figure such as Simmons must show that the defendants either knew a story was false at the time of publication, or that they had reckless disregard for the truth. Simmons seems to have the makings of a successful case on both counts.

Simmons says he sued because the stories violated his privacy and falsely portrayed him as someone he’s not. Also, given that as many as one out of four Americans are uncomfortable with and/or actually despise transgender people, it would not be unreasonable for Simmons to worry that he might lose business as a result.

Twenty-eight states have anti-SLAPP (“strategic lawsuit against public participation”) laws. They’re presented as a way for a poor individual or whistleblower to defend themselves from deep-pocketed corporations. The reality is a classic case study in unforeseen consequences: poorly-written, confusing anti-SLAPP laws are routinely abused by giant media outlets so they can avoid being held accountable for reckless smears and to send a chilling message to victims who seek redress in the courts.

The assumption behind anti-SLAPP appears to have originated during the Reagan-era “tort reform” movement. Courts, conservatives claimed, were clogged by frivolous lawsuits filed by giant companies. In 1996, for example, Texas cattlemen sued talk host Oprah Winfrey under the state’s “veggie libel” law for saying that she’d stop eating burgers. But there is no statistical evidence that the problem, if it exists at all, is widespread or can’t typically be disposed of by the standard litigation tactic of filing a motion for summary judgment.

In states like California, a libel or defamation defendant like the National Enquirer can file an anti-SLAPP motion as soon as it receives a lawsuit. Discovery stops. Plaintiffs aren’t allowed to subpoena documents or depose witnesses. A judge reads the legal complaint, assumes everything the plaintiff says is true and everything the defendant says is false and, based on those assumptions, assesses whether the case has minimal merit. If so, the anti-SLAPP motion is denied and the case moves forward.

If not, the case is thrown out of court and the plaintiff is ordered to pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees. (The supreme courts of Minnesota and Washington have declared anti-SLAPP laws unconstitutional because they violate plaintiff’s right to a jury trial.)

That’s what happened to Richard Simmons. He is appealing.

Anti-SLAPP laws rely on a flawed theory. In reality, deep-pocketed interest groups like the cattlemen who sued Oprah aren’t deterred by the potential expense of having to pay the defendant’s legal fees. Moreover, the statutes are extremely confusing, featuring more exceptions to exceptions than French grammar. Moreover, anti-SLAPP asks judges to act against their very nature; for example, judges are not supposed to assess the evidence, but simply take everything the plaintiff says at face value. In case after case, judges simply can’t help themselves.

Judges are gonna judge.

Which is how Simmons, the gay icon, wound up on the hook for $122,000, forced to pay a newspaper that lied about him, that oppressed him, that common sense says owes him an apology and a retraction, as a martyr to transgender rights. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory Keosian ruled that Simmons falsely being declared a woman did not expose him to “hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy,” so no more defamation occurred than if they had falsely described the color of his clothes.

“While, as a practical matter, the characteristic may be held in contempt by a portion of the population, the court will not validate those prejudices by legally recognizing them,” Keosian ruled.

If Simmons loses his appeal, California’s Court of Appeals will order him to pay the publications even more money.

To most people, Simmons’ case is a mere judicial curio. Not for me. I’ve taken an interest in anti-SLAPP laws since 2016. That was when the Los Angeles Times, defended by the same lawyers as the National Enquirer, filed a California anti-SLAPP motion against me. I had sued the Times for defaming me in a pair of articles they ran as a favor to the Los Angeles Police Department, which I had criticized as the paper’s editorial cartoonist, by falsely accusing me of lying and fabulism.

Like the judge in Simmons’ case, Judge Joseph Kalin failed to follow the letter of the anti-SLAPP statute. He ignored the minimal-merit standard. In his decision, he stated that the facts in the case were in my favor, not the Times. Nevertheless, he ruled against me using logic counter to the anti-SLAPP law and awarded the Times and their lawyers — the party that victimized me — $350,000. I am appealing too.

In both these cases and countless others, wealthy media conglomerates are shaking off cases that deserve their day in court before a jury, and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time from plaintiffs victimized by brazen journalistic malfeasance. Media companies might be winning in courthouses — but they’re getting clobbered in the court of public opinion.

(Ted Rall, the editorial cartoonist and columnist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.”)

Today We Are Challenging the LA Times’ anti-SLAPP Motion in California’s Court of Appeals

California anti-SLAPP rulings are automatically appealable “de novo” ( which means the higher court looks at it with “fresh eyes”) to the Court of Appeals. Therefore, today my attorneys Jeff Lewis and Roger Lowenstein are filing our appellate brief in Ted Rall vs Los Angeles Times et al. We are asking the justices to overturn the lower court ruling issued last summer, which found that the Times has an absolute privilege under the First Amendment to publish anything it wants about anyone, even it’s false and libelous. The lower court acknowledged in its ruling that the enhanced audio showed that I wrote the truth in my May 2015 blog post about jaywalking.

Even though California’s anti-SLAPP law makes it extremely difficult to sue for defamation, we do not believe the law was intended to, nor does it say, what the Times is arguing. So we are fighting on.

This path is not without risk. The lower court awarded the Times about $350,000 in legal fees, and ordered me to pay them. If the Court of Appeals agrees with the Times, my case will be dismissed and I will have hundreds of thousands in additional fees.

Nevertheless, it is important that victims of injustice stand up for themselves, and not just for their own sake but for the betterment of society. If the LA Superior Court ruling stands, it would create a precedent that would effectively legalize libel. This could ruin countless lives and careers. In addition, the Times must be held accountable for its corrupt collusion with the LAPD. Media organizations should not create financial partnerships or close associations with law-enforcement agencies they are supposed to cover objectively. Given that the Times publisher was friends with the chief of police whom I mocked in my cartoons, is it any wonder that the LA Times does a lame job reporting on police malfeasance and violence against people of color?

After the court accepts it, I will post and disseminate a copy of our Appellate Brief online. If you wonder why the press is in trouble these days, it’s worth a read.

You can support my legal battle against the LA Times here.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Trump, the Pussy Tape and a Bunch of Lazy Journalists

Image result for trump access hollywood            “The tape, without question, is real.”

I expected better from The New York Times.

The quote is the lede of a news story by Daniel Victor, a reporter at the Times. Victor’s piece is about a controversy, or more precisely, an echo of a controversy: the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Donald Trump is heard joking with show host Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals. The audio (you don’t see Trump’s face during the gutter talk) was released shortly before a major debate against Hillary Clinton; it nearly cost Trump the election.

Perhaps in an effort to distance himself from the big sexual harassment discussion, Trump has lately been telling people that the audio wasn’t real — that it wasn’t him saying all that sexist stuff. “We don’t think that was my voice,” he told a senator recently.

Trump’s denial-come-lately (he apologized at the time) is being ridiculed. “Mr. Trump’s falsehoods about the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape are part of his lifelong habit of attempting to create and sell his own version of reality,” Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin of the Times wrote. Senator Jeff Flake said: “It’s dangerous to democracy; you’ve got to have shared facts…that was your voice on that tape, you admitted it before.”

Trump lies a lot. He may be lying here. I don’t know.

The point is, neither does The New York Times.

            What disturbs me more than the possibility/likelihood that the president is a liar is the fact that journalists who ought to know better, including six-figure reporters employed by prestigious media organizations like The New York Times that repeatedly brag about adhering to high standards, are too lazy and/or ignorant to conduct basic due diligence. This isn’t new: I have been the subject of news articles for which the news outlet didn’t call me for comment (calling for comment is journalism 101). But journalistic laziness is still shocking and wrong.

A news article that begins with an unambiguous declarative statement like “The tape, without question, is real” ought to contain proof — or at least strong evidence — that there really is no question.

Victor’s piece does not come close to meeting basic journalistic standards. Victor quotes a host from “Access Hollywood” who says that’s Trump on the tape. Mostly he relies on Trump’s 2016 apology: “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.” But so what? I can say I was on the grassy knoll but that doesn’t mean I really shot JFK.

I don’t like Trump either. But it’s reckless and irresponsible to report as news, as proven fact, something that you don’t know for certain.

The sloppy reporting about the authenticity of the Trump tape reminds me of the breathtaking absence of due diligence exercised by The Los Angeles Times when it fired me as its cartoonist. There too the story centered on an audio.

I wrote in a Times online blog that an LAPD cop had roughed me up and handcuffed me while arresting me for jaywalking in 2001. The police chief gave the Times’ publisher an audio the cop secretly made of the arrest. The audio was mostly inaudible noise, yet the Times said the fact that it didn’t support my account (or the officer’s) proved I had lied. I had the audio “enhanced” (cleaned up); the enhanced version did support my version of events. Embarrassed and/or scared of offending the LAPD (whose pension fund owned stock in the Times’ parent company, Tronc), the Times refused to retract their demonstrably false story about my firing. I’m suing them for defamation.

Where my former employer went wrong was that they didn’t investigate thoroughly. They were careless. They didn’t bother to have the audio authenticated or enhanced before firing me and smearing me in print.

Back to the Trump tape.

Editors and reporters at any newspaper, but especially one the size of the New York Times, which has considerable resources at its disposal, ought to know that proper reporting about audio or video requires both authentication and enhancement.

Proper forensic authentication of a recording like the “Access Hollywood” recording of Trump is a straightforward matter. First, you need both the original tape as well as the device with which it was made. A copy or duplicate of an audio or video cannot be authenticated. The tape and recording device are analyzed by an expert in a sound studio for signs of splicing or other tampering. The identity of a speaker can never be 100% ascertained, but comparisons with known recordings of voices (as well as background noise from the original recording location) can provide meaningful indications as to whether a recording really is what and who it is purported to be. (The LA Times didn’t do that in my case. Anyway, they couldn’t. All they had was a copy, a dub — and you can’t authenticate a copy.)

My situation with the LA Times highlights the importance of enhancement. Had the paper’s management paid for a proper enhancement, they would have heard what lay “beneath” a track of wind and passing traffic: a woman shouting “Take off his handcuffs!” at my arresting officer.

            Do I believe Trump’s denials? No.

Is the media right to say Trump is lying about the Billy Bush recording? Also no.

Because the media have offered no evidence as to the recording’s authenticity. For all we know, the original tape was never released. I’d be shocked if the recording device was released. And I’d be triple-shocked if those two items were sent to a professional audio expert for authentication.

A president who is an evil, dimwitted, underqualified megalomaniac is a danger to democracy.

So is a lazy, cheap, cut-and-paste class of journalists who don’t bother to thoroughly investigate stories.

(Ted Rall’s (Twitter: @tedrall) next book is “Francis: The People’s Pope,” the latest in his series of graphic novel-format biographies. Publication date is March 13, 2018. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Our Obsession with Trump Shows Authoritarianism Has Arrived

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Bernie Sanders has joined the chorus of politicians and pundits who warn that the U.S. is sliding into authoritarianism under Trump. But he’s kind of wrong about how.

There are indeed reasons to worry that civilian and constitutional rule are giving way to institutional post-democracy. Trump’s cabinet and top White House staff contain enough military generals to give Pakistan a run for its money. Trump’s party controls both the House and Senate yet the president prefers to dash off executive orders rather than making the necessary effort to shepherd legislation through Congress. And of course there’s his police-state rhetoric, like when he “joked” that cops should bash their suspects’ heads into the sides of their squad cars.

But the most reliable indicator of looming authoritarianism can be found in the media, specifically in its obsession with the president.

A study by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that 41% of all news stories during the president’s first 100 days were about Trump. That’s three times higher than any other president. Six months in, news outlets still devote hundreds of broadcast hours and thousands of words dissecting 100-character tweets Trump dashed off in seconds at four o’clock in the morning.

Trump has a lot on his plate: healthcare, tax reform, the border wall, Venezuela for some reason. But one story towers above all others in news coverage: the Russia-Trump connection. Fifty-five percent of all stories about Trump on TV network news since Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel have been about the Russia probe, according to the conservative Media Research Center.

(Count me among the guilty: as a political cartoonist, it’s hard not to notice that images of Trump garner more clicks than those about climate change. Here I go again, right here in this column.)

Americans are divided along party lines. But Trump has brought us together in one respect: he’s making everyone feel anxious by creating a constant atmosphere of crisis.

The president’s Republican supporters are worried sick that a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy will force Trump out before he can carry out his promises. “BREAKING NEWS! WATCH: Top Republican Issues Warning About ‘Taking Out’ Trump – This Is Terrifying…. ” warns an email blast from TeaParty.org. From the same email: “Establishment RINOs just teamed up with the bloodthirsty Democrats to betray their constituents and keep Obamacare – the DISASTER that is destroying he [sic] lives of millions of Americans.”

            These emails hit in boxes of Republican voters at an hourly rate. Here’s another:Within the darkest, dankest bowels of our government, the Leftist Deep State has nursed its wounds and regathered its might. They’re preparing for another surprise attack. The highest Deep State archons have gone absolutely berserk with gnashing, fist-bleeding, spit-flinging rage.” Terrifying! Given how much effort goes into working them up, it’s amazing how few gun owners go on a shooting spree.

Liberals are going crazy too. “Get Organized to Drive Out the Fascist Trump/Pence Regime. In the Name of Humanity — We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!” urges an email from RefuseFascism.org. “We’re in a crucial moment in history, when the danger of a full-out fascist regime, as we have analyzed, threatens the people all over the world and the planet itself as a viable place for humans and other species to thrive and survive.” Even the bugs are doomed!

No false equivalence here — I’m an unapologetic leftie. The point I’m making here is, everyone is obsessed with Trump, not just the media. And that obsession is a strong clue that the authoritarian era may already be underway.

For 15 years the global embodiment of authoritarian rule was Turkmenistan under former Soviet strongman Saparmurat Niyazov. Like Trump, Niyazov was a quirky megalomaniac who routinely issued executive orders on everything from grandiose construction projects (a vast manmade lake in the world’s hottest desert) to the mundane (a ban on chewing tobacco, ejecting dogs from the capital because of their “unappealing odor”).

Like other visitors to Turkmenistan, I was struck by the ubiquity of Niyazov’s image on currency stamps, statues and posters. But what really made an impression on me was how carefully the Turkmen people studied his every move, both literally and figuratively.

Whenever Niyazov’s motorcade left the presidential palace, the police shut down most streets in Ashkhabat. Motorists carefully tracked his schedule to avoid getting stuck in traffic — or arrested. Because college applicants knew that the president personally reviewed their applications, savvy students sprinkled their essays with quotes from the leader’s book, the Ruhnama. When the Father of All Turkmen let his hair go from dyed to white back to black again, countless thousands of his hapless subjects felt it wise to follow suit.

As in the U.S., where leftist opposition increasingly focuses against the person of Donald J. Trump (as opposed to the systemic oppressions of capitalism and militarism), political opposition in Turkmenistan was directed against Niyazov, the center of the nation’s personality cult. En route to my hotel, my taxi driver pulled over to toss his saved-up household trash over the fence surrounding the presidential palace. Judging from the lawn, he wasn’t the only one.

Prisoners will tell you that serving time safely requires a close watch on guards’ mood swings and shift changes. Survival is part of human nature; studying those with power of life or death over you is key to survival in situations where individual rights are slim to nonexistent.

The U.S government has become increasingly violent, intrusive and capricious since 9/11, brazenly listening to our calls and reading our emails and generally treating individual rights like quaint relics of the past. Obama announced his right to drone-kill Americans on American soil; he and now Trump are even deporting U.S. citizens. The erratic nature of Trump’s personality and policy prescriptions have amplified the sense that Americans, like the Turkmen, had better pay close attention to the man in charge if they want to survive.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Confessions of a Frequent Guest on Fox News

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Report the news. Don’t become the news.” Not that Fox News has ever adhered strictly to boilerplate advice from Journalism 101, but the craziness on Sixth Avenue has come to a serious boil lately.

TV news elder statesman Ted Koppel called Sean Hannity “bad for America.” Sean freaked out and attacked Ted. Sean reportedly pulled a gun on fellow Foxer Juan Williams. Fox peeps reported it to management, who did nothing.

Bill O’Reilly and Fox paid $13 million to settle sexual harassment complaints filed by five women. Again, management knew — but stood by Bill. Advertisers are pulling out.

Last year Fox boss Roger Ailes was forced out in the aftermath of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Gretchen Carlson, who is now at MSNBC. Fox paid her $20 million and apologized. Julie Roginsky recently filed another suit against Ailes.

I’ve never worked at Fox. But I used to spend enough time there to gain insight into a dysfunctional organization.

This was during the years immediately following 9/11. George W. Bush and his wars were popular, especially with Fox viewers. And I went after Bush more aggressively than anyone else. So they were constantly begging me to come on as a liberal punching bag.

It became routine: Fox News popped up on caller ID. Would you like to come on The O’Reilly Factor/Hannity and Colmes/later just Hannity to talk about it? Why yes, I would. Bill or Sean would yell at me (as Alan silently cowered). I’d shoot back a volley of snark in hope that some of it would get through my deliberately tamped-down mic.

Going on Fox felt like going to war. These were the darkest days of the War on Terror: 2002, 2003 and 2004. Republicans were right-wing Republicans and so were Democrats. Someone had to stand up against wars of choice and legalized torture. Someone had to fight for the Bill of Rights. I was insulted (Hannity: “you have no soul”) and lied to (O’Reilly in response to my argument that the U.S. couldn’t win in Afghanistan: “I’ll bring you back to follow up”). But it was worth it. I’d take any opportunity to represent for the Left.

Lord knows the Democrats weren’t doing it.

Some of their tactics were risible. They were so extreme that, over time, no one to the left of Reagan would agree to appear on the network unless they’d never heard of it.

Ergonomic warfare, for example. My teetering armless guest seat was placed several inches lower so that, at 6’2″, I was forced to gaze up as O’Reilly lorded over his desk (which I couldn’t reach so as to rest my hands) from his comfy Aeron chair. A minute into O’Reilly’s oral arguments-style volley of hostile questions, it took most of my concentration not to roll backwards off the set.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but isn’t someone who takes the time to come to your studio, slap on pancake makeup and suck up a barrage of nasty questions and comments entitled to hospitality?

That said, I kind of liked Bill. He was cordial during breaks. Once, while one of my cartoons was provoking death threats (granted, mostly from Fox fans), he expressed genuine concern for my personal safety. Off-camera, he didn’t come off as an ideologue. I got the impression that he was in it for the money.

Hannity was a classic Long Island mook.

Unlike O’Reilly, the thick-necked Hannity followed me around the studio, trashtalking me with right-wing talking points while I searched for the restroom. “Save it for the show,” I advised him. What’s wrong with this guy? I thought. Give this to him: he’s for real. Hannity is a rabid culture warrior, a Goebbels for an America in free fall.

One episode turned me off Fox for good. Hannity’s producer invited me on to discuss a controversial “Doonesbury” cartoon. I was going to deliver my opinion and analysis as a political cartoonist, not talking about my own stuff. On the air, however, Hannity ambushed me instead with insults over a controversial cartoon I’d done months earlier about Pat Tillman, and which I’d already appeared on his program to defend.

I held up OK and kept my cool. But I was pissed. These appearances are discussed and agreed upon in detail: you’ll show the cover of my book at the beginning, you’ll identify me as “Syndicated Editorial Cartoonist,” you’ll be questioned about this and that. Switching to an entirely different subject violates the rules. At a well-run cable news network, punking a guest could lead to a warning or dismissal. Hannity’s crew just laughed.

Not long afterward, Sean’s producer called to apologize and begged me to return. I said I would if Sean would apologize on the air, the same medium where he’d tried to humiliate me. “He’s not likely to agree to that,” the producer said. I stayed home.
Two of my Foxiest memories took place in make-up.

A rushed make-up assistant accidently scraped my open eye. Years later, my left eye tears up in windy weather. Riding a bike, it runs full on. Stuff happens.

More startlingly, Sean entered the room while I was in the make-up chair. He didn’t trashtalk me or acknowledge my presence. My make-up artist was an undocumented worker. Sean knew. He told her that Fox was trying to determine how to pay her off the books and reassured her that they would figure it out.

As tempting as it would have been to expose the hypocrisy of a network and a personality who have raked in millions by spreading nativism and xenophobia, I didn’t go public for a simple reason. I didn’t want to strip an innocent hard-working person of her livelihood or, worse, subject her to possible deportation.

It was a confusing episode. Here was Sean Hannity, mega-mook, taking a risk by breaking the law to help an illegal immigrant. He almost seemed human. On the other hand, Fox News could easily afford to hire a U.S. citizen at a reasonable salary. There was more nuance in that minute-long conversation than in a year of Fox News broadcasts.

It was also revealing. Why would the top-rated channel in cable news break federal immigration law? The answer, it seems, is that Fox management didn’t think rules applied to them.

I’m still waiting to come back on O’Reilly to talk about Afghanistan.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Long Before Trump, News Media Wallowed in “Alternative Facts”

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Most of the news media is at war with Donald Trump, and rightly so. First, journalists should always be at war with the governments they cover. Nonadversarial journalism isn’t journalism — it’s stenography. Second, Trump Administration officials’ refusal to even pretend to be interested in the truth, immortalized by Kellyanne Conway’s notorious praise of “alternative facts,” demands highly caffeinated contempt.

But let’s not forget an inconvenient truth. Pre-Trump, the watchdogs of democracy were mostly lapdogs, gently licking the blood-soaked hands of those who fed them: America’s political and corporate elites.

Media malpractice has been so sustained and widespread that it’s hard to know where to start. Opinion pages and cable news panel shows where no one to the left of Hillary Clinton is allowed? The abandonment of local news coverage? Massive social and economic upheavals ignored because they only afflict the poor and the middle-class-en-route-to-poor: the rusting of the Rust Belt, the meth and opioid epidemics, the replacement of good jobs by bad ones, the faking of low unemployment and inflation rates?

Editors and producers are guilty of many sins. For my money, however, the biggest and lying-est are the big lies of omission that leave important facts unknown to the public for years and even decades, result in many deaths, and let the perpetrators off the hook both legally and historically.

August publications like The New York Times have finally begun reporting that the president lied when he, you know, lied ­— as opposed to some weasel word like “misspoke” or counterquoting from an opposing politician. They’re even using “torture” to describe torture (instead of “enhanced interrogation techniques”). But that’s new, and it’s only because they’re corporate liberal and Trump is blogosphere crazy right-wing. Give them another Obama and it’ll be back to giving the people the business as usual.

The high body counts of war spotlight the staggering moral failures of a press that, day after day, fail to remind readers of fundamental truths that usually get suppressed from the outset.

For the better part of a decade, American citizens paid good money for newspapers that purported to bring them the news from Vietnam. What those papers never told them was that the reason LBJ gave for entering the war, a 1964 attack on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, never happened. This isn’t controversial; liberal and conservative historians alike agree the war was sold on fake news.

Imagine if the media had begun every story about Vietnam with a Trump-era-ish reference to Johnson’s big lie? “Continuing Unprovoked Attack on North Vietnam, U.S. B-52s Rain Death on Hanoi Without Reason.” Significantly less than 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese might have died.

After the U.S. lost — which they reported as a withdrawal rather than what really happened — lazy and easily cowed journalists and editors let stand the canard that returning Vietnam War vets were spat upon, insulted as “baby killers” and generally mistreated by dirty leftie hippies waiting for them at the airport. It never happened. To the contrary, the antiwar movement was supportive of vets, running clinics and other facilities to help them out. The myth of the spat-upon hippie, it turns out, began with the 1982 movie “Rambo,” when Sylvester Stallone’s character says it — probably as a metaphor.

Afghanistan’s Taliban government had nothing to do with 9/11, but few Americans know that. Even the soldiers sent to fight, kill and die there thought they were avenging the attack on the World Trade Center — and why not? Thanks to the Bush-era fake news purveyors, few of even the best read and most informed Americans know that Osama bin Laden was already in Pakistan on 9/11, that the Taliban offered to arrest him and turn him over if the U.S. showed some evidence of his guilt, that Al Qaeda had fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan (the vast majority were in Pakistan, as were the infamous training camps), and that there wasn’t a single Afghan among the 19 hijackers.

Would Afghanistan have become America’s longest war if news headlines had read something like “Bush Promises To Hunt Down Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Country Where They Aren’t, Sends Weapons and Cash to Country Where They Are”? Doubtful.

That the media fell down on the job during the build-up to the Iraq War is well-documented. Yet, even after the WMDs failed to turn up in that country after we destroyed it, the media never applied the standard they now stick on Trump, e.g. “Continuing Unjustified Assault on Innocent Iraq, Marines Prepare For Battle in Fallujah.” Talk about fake news — even if Saddam Hussein had had WMDs, Iraq’s lack of long-range ballistic missiles meant it never could have posed a threat to the United States.

Alternative facts abounded under Obama.

Obama launched hundreds of drone attacks against Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere that killed thousands of people. Studies showed that 49 out of 50 people killed were innocent bystanders, and that the other 1 were local guerilla fighters who hated their own local governments, not anti-American jihadis coming to kill us here. Yet story after story about drone assassinations referred to victims as “militants” or even “terrorists,” without a shred of evidence. If you’re going to let your president kill people just for fun, the least the media as a watchdog could do is call it what it is: “President Murders 14 More Muslims Cuz Fun.” Did you know the military calls them “squirters” — because their heads, you know…?

The president called out as a liar? Better 240 years late than never.

(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)