Tag Archives: lawsuits

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.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Confessions of a Frequent Guest on Fox News

Image result for ted rall sean hannity

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.)