If White House reporters had any self-respect or were oppositional at all, they would fight back against Donald Trump’s ruthless mistreatment at press conferences.
Like climate change, this is one of those problems I keep expecting people to wise up about but — because they never do — it keeps getting worse.
Thus this tutorial.
The problem is that too many Americans conflate the First Amendment with free speech.
You see it when people discuss the current social-media crackdown against controversial right-wing radio talk show host Alex Jones and his website InfoWars. Jones was banned by Facebook, YouTube (which is owned by Google), Apple and Spotify, and more recently suspended by Twitter for one week. Writing in The New Yorker Steve Coll mocked Jones for calling himself the victim of “a war on free speech.”
“Such censorship is not unconstitutional,” Coll reminds readers. “The First Amendment protects us against governmental intrusions; it does not (yet) protect speech on privately owned platforms.”
The U.S. government is rarely in a position to censor Americans’ freedom of expression. Because the vast majority of censorship is carried about by non-government entities (like the social media companies blocking Jones) the First Amendment only bans a tiny portion of censorship.
Some government agencies do censor the press. A federal judge ordered The New York Times to halt publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The LAPD, whose pension fund owned part of the parent company of The Los Angeles Times and was angry about my work criticizing its brutality and incompetence, ordered the Times to fire me as its cartoonist. They complied. Annoyed by an editorial in the local paper criticizing them for conducting random searches of high school students at basketball games using dogs, the police in Baker City, Oregon created a fake dossier of crimes committed by the editorial writer, which they used to get him fired from his job.
These cases are covered by the First Amendment. But they are outliers.
We can’t protect existing rights if we don’t understand the current parameters of the law. New rights arise from unfulfilled political needs and desires; we can’t fight for expanded protections without defining what is lacking yet desired. Schoolchildren and student journalists, both public and private, are constantly running up against censorship by teachers and administrators. Employers constrain political speech, obscenity and other forms of expression on the job. These are free speech but not First Amendment issues.
In recent decades opponents of free speech, mostly but not exclusively on the right, have relentlessly conflated First Amendment debates with those over free speech. The effect has been to reduce society’s expectations of how much freedom we ought to have to express ourselves.
Take the Jones case.
Writing for the website Polygon, Julia Alexander provides us with a boilerplate (liberal) response to Jones and his allies’ complaints that the big social media companies are suppressing his free speech. First she described some of the episodes that prompted banning Jones, such as pushing PizzaGate and Sandy Hook shooting denialism. Then she pounces: “It’s not a freedom of speech issue, nor one of censorship,” Alexander writes. “The First Amendment…gives American citizens the freedom of speech…The United States government isn’t bringing the hammer down on Jones. This isn’t a political issue, as badly as Jones might want to pretend otherwise.”
See what Alexander did? In just a few sentences she squeezes and smooshes the extremely broad practice of “censorship” into the relatively tiny box of “the U.S. government…bringing the hammer down.” I don’t mean to pick on her — I’ve seen this same exact ball of sophistry used over and over by countless other pundits.
Of course Twitter, Facebook et al. are censoring Jones. Of course the First Amendment doesn’t cover him here. Obviously it’s a freedom of speech issue. The question — the question pro-censorship folks like Alexander doesn’t want us to ask — is, is it right?
For what is right is not always what is legal (see: slavery). Alex Jones and his allies may or not be legit. Their political arguments often are not. But the question they’re asking here is legit and important: should companies like YouTube have the power to suppress speech — any kind of speech?
Alexander ends with a message you ought to find chilling: “Don’t publish vile content, and your video will probably be a-ok.”
Who gets to define “vile”? Alexander? Mark Zuckerberg, apparently.
Obviously it is a political issue. But that’s not the main point here.
Free speech used to belong to the man with the means to buy ink by the barrel. Now you can buy a newspaper for pennies on the dollar, but who will read it? Much if not most of the political debate in our civic life takes place on platforms owned, controlled and censored by the companies blocking Jones’ content. They write and enforce their own rules. As private companies they are unaccountable to we, the people. We don’t know how they make censorship decisions or who makes them.
Perhaps this is a splendid state of affairs. Maybe Americans don’t mind surrendering control of political debate to faceless tech giants.
Whatever we decide, however, we deserve a transparent discussion. We ought not to let ourselves be fooled into falsely equating free speech to the First Amendment. Free speech means exactly that: everyone and anyone can say anything at all, anywhere they please, to anyone.
Every First Amendment case is a free speech issue. But only a tiny fraction of free speech issues is a First Amendment case.
(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 hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Distributed by Creators Syndicate
(C) 2018 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
“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.)