Since the newspapers that generate over 90% of the news began tanking in the 1990s, we have repeatedly been told that some magic bullet, usually technological but not always, was going to save the industry.
I have written extensively about my lawsuit against the LA Times. As I prepare for the next, do-or-die, stage of my case, it’s time to explain why Rall v. Los Angeles Times et al. has broad implications beyond me personally.
Freedom of the press is at stake.
The subtle yet fundamental question here is: who needs freedom of the press? The obvious answer is journalists: reporters and pundits. But journalists’ freedom to report and editorialize is in grave danger from a surprising enemy: their employers.
Once was, reporters like Woodward and Bernstein were on the same side as their employers. In this age of corporate aggregation of newspapers and other media outlets by publicly-traded media corporations and individual billionaires, however, newspapers and other media outlets are often compromised by their quest for profits, as the LA Times’ parent company was when it allowed its stock to be sold to the LAPD pension fund. In this struggle the media companies have framed themselves as guardians of press freedom at the expense of journalists, ironically securing the power to screw journalists in the guise of First Amendment protections.
If the California Supreme Court refuses to hear my case — which is probably what will happen — or hears it and rules for the Times’ anti-SLAPP motion against me, the court will send a chilling message to journalists and pundits across the country. Most Americans, and most reporters, live in states with anti-SLAPP statutes modeled on California’s.
The threat to journalists is unmistakable: rock the boat and you risk being destroyed.
Write an article critical of a powerful institution like the LAPD, the nation’s highly militarized, largest and most brutal police forces, controlling a $16 billion pension fund, and they can pull strings to get you fired. It can also happen in a tiny town like Baker City, Oregon.
Even worse, you can’t find another job because they use falsified “evidence” to smear your reputation for honesty. Even if you can prove that it’s BS — as I did — media companies use their editorial endorsements of jurists and politicians to rig the courts with their allies so you, the victim, get dunned hundreds of thousands of dollars for the villainous media company’s legal fees!
I have advice for journalists thinking about covering police abuse: don’t. The price for doing your job — termination, defamation and bankruptcy — isn’t worth it.
If I could go back to 2015 when the LAPD-owned LA Times trashed my reputation in service to a thin-skinned police chief, I would not draw or write anything about the cops. It’s too dangerous.
I have learned how big media companies have stacked the bench with sympathetic judges, lobbied for laws that protect them from accountability for breaking the law and used their influence to crush individual journalists for such crimes as reporting the news or having worked long enough to earn a high salary. The system doesn’t even pretend to be fair. Many judges are former prosecutors; how can they justify not recusing themselves from cases involving the cops?
Now there is a $330,000 judgment against me for having the gall to defend my reputation in court. Unless the California Supreme Court overrules it, that judgment will be final and will grow bigger. Journalists and pundits aren’t covering my case — they’re afraid, as they ought to be — but they are watching. If the judgment stands, who will be stupid enough to take on the LAPD or similar institution?
As if the chilling effect on journalists wasn’t enough reason to watch my case, the Times is arguing (so far, successfully) that media companies should no longer extend protections against discrimination by gender, age and sexual orientation to their workers. Unless the court overturns the lower court rulings against me, the door will be pushed open for the Times and other California media corporations to fire, say, its African-American or transgender employees without redress in the courts.
Then there’s the damage to defamation law. For hundreds of years it has been possible for a person wrongfully slimed by a news publication to go to court to try to clear their name. Abusive anti-SLAPP motions have made a mockery of libel law to the point that the National Enquirer, represented by the same lawyer as the Times, falsely claimed Richard Simmons had become a transsexual woman and Simmons was ordered to pay $130,000 to the Enquirer!
It should be challenging to sue for libel, not impossible.
“The quote/unquote truth doesn’t matter,” Los Angeles Times/National Enquirer lawyer Kelli Sager said in court. So far, she’s been right. Judges have bent over backwards to believe the Times’ many lies and ignore the plain truth right in front of them. Hopefully a court outside LA will let me get my day in court.
(Ted Rall, the 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.)
I was wronged. All I wanted was a trial by jury, a right enshrined in Anglo-Saxon legal tradition in the Magna Carta 803 years ago.
Is this still America? No. America is dead.
Not only have I been denied that fundamental right, I have been punished for having had the temerity to seek redress in the courts.
Justice is when wrongdoers are punished and victims are compensated. Instead, the California court system has provided Anti-Justice. The wrongdoers are getting off scot-free. I, the victim, am not merely being ignored or brushed off. I am being actively punished.
The ruling in Ted Rall v. Los Angeles Times et al. came down last week. The California Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the Times’ “anti-SLAPP” motion against me. Anti-SLAPP law supporters, including the Times, say they’re supposed to be used by poor individuals to defend their First Amendment rights against big companies. But that’s BS. The Times—owned by the $500 million Tronc corporation when I filed suit, now owned by $7 billion biotechnology entrepreneur Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong—abused anti-SLAPP to destroy me.
My case was simple. I drew cartoons mocking the LAPD and then-Chief Charlie Beck for the Times, criticizing them for abusing people of color and the poor. A new publisher, Beck’s pal, took over. Beck asked publisher Austin Beutner to fire me and to smear me so I couldn’t work anymore. So the Times ran two pieces announcing that I’d been fired, not for offending Beck—violating their own Ethical Guidelines, they kept his identity secret—but for supposedly lying in a blog post discussing a jaywalking arrest in 2001. I hadn’t lied. I told the truth. And I proved it.
“One hell of a defamation case,” a lawyer told me. Another, a top expert on libel, said: “If you don’t win your case, defamation law in California is dead.”
But as the Times’ lawyer kept saying in court, “the quote/unquote truth doesn’t matter.” She was right. What mattered were power, money and influence.
The ruling means my case will probably never go to trial. The court has already ordered me to pay $330,000 to the Times for their legal fees because hey, a guy with $7 billion obviously needs and deserves to get cash from a cartoonist the Times used to pay $300 a week. That sum will definitely be higher—perhaps double—by the time the Times files the rest of its padded legal fees.
I will never get discovery, which means neither I nor the readers of the Times will ever learn the details about how then-publisher Austin Beutner (now superintendent of LA schools, where teachers are on strike because Beutner doesn’t want to give them a proper raise) arranged for the LAPD pension fund to become #1 shareholder of the Times’ parent company. Neither I nor the readers of the Times will ever know just how deep the corruption between the LA Times and the LAPD went, or to what extent the Times agreed to provide police-friendly coverage.
For me personally the ruling necessarily means bankruptcy and/or being forced to leave the United States so I can continue to earn a living. This used to be the kind of thing that happened to journalists in other countries, not the U.S. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even get the ACLU behind me—because they don’t want to be seen as opposing the anti-SLAPP law.
I’m much luckier than Jamal Khashoggi—though the scorched-earth litigation tactics and lies deployed by National Enquirer/LA Times attorney Kelli Sager makes me pretty sure they would do the same thing to me if they could get away with it.
But the court’s real message isn’t directed toward me. What the court did in brazen deference to the LAPD and the LA Times and in direct opposition of the law was to send a message to journalists in California: do not mess with the cops and do not mess with a newspaper owned by the cops.
If you do your jobs, we will crush you.
At a time when reporters who still get to work are grateful to merely see their salaries slashed rather than join the ranks of the unemployed, you’d have to be a total goddamned idiot to criticize law enforcement.
There is one last slim reed of hope: the California Supreme Court. I am petitioning the high court to reverse the Court of Appeal’s anti-SLAPP ruling. But the odds are long. They hear fewer than five percent of appeals.
During his confirmation hearing Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh said that as a judge he wanted even the losing side to come out of the process feeling that his side had been heard and carefully considered.
I feel the opposite.
Since the start of my case it has been painfully obvious that the fix was in. As the plaintiff and as the victim of deliberate and repeated libel on behalf of one of the most corrupt police agencies in the country, I was the aggrieved party. Yet the courts treated me just like the Times did when they canned me: I was guilty until proven innocent and guilty even after having been proven innocent.
Pretzel logic has been a constant since 2015, when Beutner’s Times ran a piece about me which read that “a man and a woman can be heard speaking in the background at one point, but only a few of their words are intelligible…[they] appear to be having a conversation unrelated to the jaywalking stop.” Hey morons: if you can’t hear what they’re saying, how can you hear what they’re not saying?
The court’s ruling was no more intelligent.
The anti-SLAPP law requires judges to consider a theoretical construct at the anti-SLAPP stage of a case. Without judging the evidence, assume that the plaintiff’s case is 100% as presented, 100% accurate, all his evidence 100% true. Then assume that nothing the defense says is true. Would there be a smidge of a case there? If yes, the case moves forward.
As in many other anti-SLAPP cases, the judges didn’t even pretend to do that.
When my attorney Jeffrey Lewis mentioned that basic aspect of anti-SLAPP during oral arguments (listen here), the judges reacted as though they’d never heard such a thing before! Times lawyer Sager knew Lewis was correct which is why she didn’t touch the issue in her rebuttal. Yet the ruling in favor of the defendants didn’t mention, much less rebut the evidence rule. To the contrary: the justices ignored my arguments and evidence, assuming everything I said to be false. And they took everything the Times said, not at face value—because anyone reading the pieces could tell they were false—but beyond, crediting their goodwill beyond even what the Times alleged in its defense (for example, saying that the Times sent my enhanced audio for professional analysis, something the Times never claimed).
A couple decades ago I wrote that the court system was the last functional branch of government, the final resting place of the proposition that injustice could be addressed even when the villain was powerful. Perhaps I was right then. It certainly isn’t true now.
Any American who trusts the court system is a fool.
(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.)
I sued the LA Times for wrongful termination and defamation in 2016. The Times responded with an anti-SLAPP motion asking the court to order me to pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars in their legal fees. They prevailed at the trial court level.
In 2017 I filed my anti-SLAPP appeal to the California Court of Appeals. Now the Times has responded to my appeal with their own brief.
Here are the relevant documents:
My Opening Brief for my anti-SLAPP appeal:
The Times’ Respondents Brief:
Now we are working on our response to their response. We will post our response brief here after it is finished and filed. After we file that, the court will advise of a date when they will hear my anti-SLAPP appeal.
Obviously my attorneys and I have thoughts about the Times’ arguments as stated in their brief, but Times attorney Kelli Sager reads my blog (hi!) so it would be unwise for me to say anything here about what we think.
However, thousands of heads are better than three! We might be missing something important in this struggle for free speech and against police control of the press. So if you have any thoughts about any of this, please comment here or feel free to contact me directly at rall.com/contact. Thank you for your support!
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.)