DMZ America Podcast #59 | July 29, 2022: Ted Calls in from Moscow; Paul Pringle and Other Self-Serving Figures at the LA Times

In this week’s DMZ America Podcast, cartoonist Ted Rall calls in on a shaky line from Russia. Listen to this first-hand account of how US sanctions are (not) affecting Moscow and how things look and feel in the Russian capital. LA Times investigative reporter Paul Pringle, in the news over his controversial book (“Bad City”) calling out corruption at the Times and in LA in general, and attacking his own newspaper over a USC scandal, played a key role—perhaps largely forgotten—in the LA Times’ infamous decision to fire and smear Ted as a favor to the LAPD. Scott and Ted recall how things went down in 2015 and analyze how few people at the LA Times have much to be proud of.

 

 

In Defense of Defamation Lawsuits

            “He that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed,” Iago tells Othello in Shakespeare’s play. The belief that defamation is serious, and that the perpetrator of libel or slander deserves to be punished, is a standard trope in popular culture.

The Hollywood screenwriter falsely accused of communist sympathies struggles to clear his name in the 1950s. The journalist breaks a big story only to be smeared by the rich and powerful men whose crimes he exposed. The narrative of the innocent person sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit relies on dual tragedies, the injustice of undeserved suffering as well as a conviction that results in society wrongly believing that the condemned is an evildoer.

In the real world, however, there is little sympathy for a person whose reputation has been damaged by a falsehood spread by a malicious enemy. One example is actor Johnny Depp’s $50 million defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard, who has countersued him for $100 million. Both parties accuse each other of physical and emotional abuse.

Much of the public commentary in response to Depp’s trial, currently underway in Virginia, is of the eye-rolling “they both deserve each other” variety. This happens a lot.

I’ve learned from personal experience as the plaintiff in two defamation cases that it’s often hard for society to separate the victim from his victimizer. Some suspect that the victim somehow brought the libel down on herself. Others think that whatever was said wasn’t that serious, and that the target of slander ought to brush it off and move on. Sometimes the libeler benefits from high social status that prompts outside observers to sympathize with them—the media elites who sided with snide Gawker over downscale Hulk Hogan in the sex-tape case come to mind. Many people simply don’t like lawsuits or those who file them.

Americans’ bias against defamation plaintiffs has created a lopsided judicial landscape in which it is nearly impossible for even the most meritorious defamation claims to make it to a jury trial, much less result in a substantial damage award.

In 1999 I wrote a cover story for The Village Voice that criticized graphic novelist Art Spiegelman for, among other things, deploying disproportionate power within New York’s publishing world. As if to prove my point, the artist’s allies and colleagues went after me with threats of violence. One of Spiegelman’s buddies, a pornographic illustrator whose name I won’t mention here because it would only further his further desire to aggrandize himself at my expense, decided to teach me a lesson—via identity theft. He wrote an obnoxious email, signed my name to it, and sent it to my colleagues and employers. My editor at the New York Times op-ed page believed it was from me and fired me.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the creep sent out more out more messages under my name.

My lawyer hired a proto-cyberdetective to identify him, costing me thousands of dollars. After we tracked him down, we sent several cease-and-desist letters—which he ignored. To the contrary, he replied that he had done nothing wrong and would feel free to use my name in the future however he pleased.

I sued. New York case law is clear: impersonation of a journalist or “man of letters” is libel per se, or an act of written defamation so extreme that it is necessary only to prove that it happened, not to prove specific lost business opportunities. At a pretrial hearing a judge commented that the defendant “couldn’t have done more harm to Mr. Rall if he had walked up behind him in the street and shot him in the head.”

Because Spiegelman’s avenger didn’t have a defense, he filed for one delay after another. Online, he characterized me as a humorless jerk who was angry that he had made fun of me. Both tactics worked. My lawyer eventually died of brain cancer; my case is still technically pending on the court docket 23 years later. And many people in the cartooning community think that the two of us deserve each other, or that he’s a free-speech martyr. Never mind that I had never done anything to the guy, met him, or even heard of him guy before he tried to destroy my career.

I know I was right. The law was on my side. But those things didn’t matter.

The last two decades have seen a flurry of legislation that has made justice even more elusive for defamation plaintiffs. The most pernicious are “anti-SLAPP” laws, which stop discovery, dismiss cases and force plaintiffs to pay defendants’ legal fees. Because anti-SLAPP laws have been sold to state legislators and the public as a tool for small individual defendants to fight off big corporate plaintiffs in frivolous liable claims, they are popular with Republicans and Democrats alike: the ACLU, former labor secretary Robert Reich and TV host John Oliver are all fans of anti-SLAPP laws.

Actually, anti-SLAPP laws solve a problem that doesn’t exist. If a plaintiff lashes out at you with a libel lawsuit, the first thing your lawyer will do is file something called a “motion for summary judgment.” If the lawsuit is baseless, the judge will throw it out right at the start, and you’ll walk away paying zero to nominal legal fees.

Because there is no distinction under U.S. law between rich and poor plaintiffs and defendants, anti-SLAPP laws perversely protect some of the worst people in the world against their victims. Donald Trump used anti-SLAPP against Stormy Daniels after she sued him for calling her a con woman; her case was tossed and she was ordered to pay Trump’s $300,000 legal fees. Trump also used anti-SLAPP to further bankrupt a victim of his Trump University scam. He’s currently using anti-SLAPP against Jean Carroll, who says the former president raped her in a dressing room.

Libel-loving newspapers have been having a field day with anti-SLAPP. There is no question that The New York Times gleefully and intentionally smeared Sarah Palin as inspiring a mass shooter, yet wants the ex-Alaska governor to pay their fees—even though New York’s anti-SLAPP law was enacted after she sued. The National Enquirer knew that Richard Simmons wasn’t transitioning from male to female, yet Photoshopped images of him wearing women’s clothes on its cover story to that effect. He was right, they were wrong, he sued, they hit him with anti-SLAPP, the victim was ordered to pay his attacker $130,000. My readers are well aware of how The Los Angeles Times, then owned by the LAPD pension fund, intentionally smeared me and went after me with anti-SLAPP as well.

From the Scarlet Letter to people’s tendency to turn away from the homeless and physically disabled to the observation by moviemakers that audiences tend to lose affection for a character after he suffers a wound, the psychology of our reptilian brain often causes us to feel revulsion for fellow humans visibly suffering from an injury. The plaintiff often notices the glint of contempt in the eyes of the judge in a defamation case: why can’t you just stop whining and go away?

But the proper way to consider someone sleeping on the street is to think that there but for the grace of God go you. And the same thing is true when you look at a defamation case. Johnny Depp might just be a wuss lying about getting beaten up by his younger wife. But it’s far more likely that he thinks he was destroyed by ruinous lies, and that he has no choice but to sue in order to set the record straight. It’s a serious claim, one that anyone in his position should have the right to explore before a judge and jury.

 (Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

How Sarah Palin May Save Defamation Law

           How easy should it be to sue a newspaper or other news outlet for defamation? Thanks to a 1964 Supreme Court decision and the proliferation of constitutionally-dubious “anti-SLAPP” laws, it’s virtually impossible for someone who accuses a media company of lying about him to get to trial, much less win a damage award. If your local paper decides to smear you, the truth is, there’s not much you can do about it.

Sarah Palin’s lawsuit against the New York Times poses the first threat in years to the American press’ ability to print whatever it wants. Opening statements in her trial began last week; the fact that a public figure is getting her day in court against a major newspaper is a news story in and of itself.

            The 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan set a high standard for a public figure like Governor Palin, or even a “limited public figure” like an editorial cartoonist, to prevail in a libel or defamation claim. Publishing an untruth isn’t enough. Under Sullivan the printed lie must be demonstrably damaging to the victim’s reputation and must result from “actual malice.” Actual malice, the court ruled, means that the publisher either knew that the smear was false before they published it, or that they demonstrated “reckless disregard for the truth.” 

It is unusual for a publication to go so far as to knowingly print a falsehood with a view toward damaging someone’s reputation, as The Los Angeles Times did to me as a favor to the LAPD in 2015, which owned the newspaper at the time, was a political ally of the then-publisher, and wanted me destroyed in retaliation for criticizing police misconduct. As with most libel cases, Palin v. New York Times comes down to the second half of the definition of actual malice.

            On its face the Times’ actions against Sarah Palin seem to embody reckless disregard for the truth. In 2017 the paper published an editorial, “America’s Lethal Politics,” that pinned the blame for the shooting of a Congressman on a Palin political TV ad. “The link to political incitement was clear,” the paper claimed.

It was anything but.

As the Times put it in a correction posted several hours later, the Times editorial “incorrectly stated that a link existed between [Palin’s—though the paper didn’t mention her by name] political rhetoric and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established. The editorial also incorrectly described a map distributed by a political action committee before that shooting. It depicted electoral districts, not individual Democratic lawmakers, beneath stylized cross hairs.”

            “In our view, this was an honest mistake,” Times lawyer David McCraw told the Washington Post in 2019. “It was not an exhibit of actual malice.” But James Bennet, the editorial page editor who wrote most of the editorial, ignored his own fact checker, who told him that the Times itself had already published an article debunking a link between Palin’s ad and the Gifford shooting. The Atlantic, where Bennet had previously served as an editor, had also debunked the Palin-Giffords meme. In a business where “if your mother says she loves you, check it out” is the 11th Commandment, failing to check it out is, or ought to be, the very definition of reckless disregard for the truth.

            In recent years, however, most judges have been strongly biased against plaintiffs in defamation and libel cases and so have turned a blind eye to the reckless-disregard half of the “actual malice” definition under Sullivan. Newspapers and other media defendants have largely been able to get away with rhetorical murder using the “my bad” defense.

            Adding to the media’s ability to wield the First Amendment as a cudgel to destroy reputations are anti-SLAPP statutes. Thirty-one states, including many of the most populous, have anti-SLAPP laws whose main effect is to make it close to impossible to sue for defamation or libel. In order to get to trial, defamation plaintiffs have to convince a judge that they would be likely to convince a jury at trial—but they aren’t allowed to subpoena evidence or depose witnesses to build their case. Many lawsuits die there.

If a plaintiff fails, which they usually do because judges routinely ignore or don’t understand the convoluted language of anti-SLAPP statutes, not only do they not get their day in court, they have to pay bloated legal expenses to the deep-pocketed corporate media defendant who libeled them. That’s what happened to me in my five-year fight against the LA Times. Anti-SLAPP laws are a nightmare but they aren’t going anywhere because they are supported by both pro-corporate conservatives and misguided liberals.

            Among some recent victims of anti-SLAPP are fitness icon Richard Simmons, who was ordered to pay $130,000 to the National Enquirer after he sued the tabloid for brazenly lying that he was transitioning to become a woman, and Stormy Daniels, who was ordered to pay Donald Trump $293,000 after she sued him for calling her a liar. In these and many similar cases, the law turned reality on its head and re-victimized the aggrieved party. But even the ACLU won’t stand up for them because the group reflexively supports anti-SLAPP, the Constitution be damned.

            If a New York jury, which is likely to be overwhelmingly Democratic, overlooks its political distaste for Palin and rules against the Times, the case may head to a U.S. Supreme Court that seems more open to the possibility of scaling back Sullivan. “How do you balance free speech rights with the right to your individual reputation, and in the context of public officials who have volunteered for public service and do need to be held to account?” asks former Palin attorney Elizabeth Locke. “Redrawing that balance does not mean that we lock up journalists or that any falsehood should result in a huge jury verdict. But imposing the potential for legal liability, which is virtually nonexistent with the Sullivan standard in place, would create self-restraint.”

            No one wants to strip media companies of the First Amendment protections they need in order to do their work on a day-to-day basis. But it’s also time to stop screwing defamation plaintiffs with meritorious cases, not to mention protecting lazy journalists. An artful and legally correct remedy would be for the high court to declare Sullivan (and the anti-SLAPP laws that rely upon it) unconstitutional as applied rather than throw it out entirely. To restore sanity to defamation law and start to hold out-of-control media companies accountable, lower courts should be directed to establish two common-sense propositions.

            First, defamation claims should be allowed to proceed unless there isn’t the barest possibility of prevailing at trial, in which case they should be tossed during an early-stage motion for summary judgment to dismiss. That’s what anti-SLAPP case law says in states like California, where my case was litigated, but judges routinely hold defamation claims to a much higher, basically impossible, standard.

            Second, the Supreme Court should clarify that, while Sullivan indemnifies a defendant from being sued over an honest mistake that is quickly corrected, ignoring basic journalistic due diligence clearly constitutes reckless disregard for the truth.

            I never expected to write the following words but here goes: Good luck, Sarah Palin.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the weekly DMZ America podcast with conservative fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

High Crimes against Journalism and Decency: Jeffrey Goldberg’s Insane “Trump Called Troops Suckers” Piece Is a New Low

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Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an article for The Atlantic that could harm Donald Trump’s chance to win re-election. Setting aside the controversial content of the remarks attributed to the president, it is important to note that this is an atrocious example of journalism.

You could almost call it “fake news.”

And corporate media is taking it at face value.

You may think Trump is a turd—I do. You may want him to lose the election—I do. (I also want Biden to lose, but that’s another column.) You may believe that Trump probably said what Goldberg reports—I think there’s a good chance. But everyone who cares about journalism ought to be deeply disturbed by the nonexistent sourcing for this story and its widespread acceptance by media organizations that ought to know better.

It’s easy to see why Democratic-leaning media corporations jumped all over Goldberg’s piece: it hurts the president and it reinforces militarism. But they’re degrading journalistic standards to manipulate an election.

According to Goldberg, four anonymous sources told him that Trump called American marines who died in World War I “losers” and repeatedly questioned why anyone smart would join the military or be willing to risk their life by fighting in one of America’s wars.

Anonymous sources have their place. I have used them. But basing a news story entirely on accounts of people who are unwilling to go on the record is journalistically perilous and ethically dubious. There are exceptions, as when a Mafia source fears physical retribution.

There is no such claim here. Most media organizations’ ethical guidelines are clear: news without attribution is not news. It is gossip.

            The Los Angeles Times, a publication my readers know that I hold in low regard, nevertheless takes a stance against anonymous sources. “When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving,” the paper’s ethical standards say. “An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.”

            The Atlantic piece falls way short.

Likewise, writing that strips statements of necessary context is anti-ethical. Trump, writes Goldberg, “expressed contempt for the war record of the late Senator John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. ‘He’s not a war hero,’ Trump said in 2015 while running for the Republican nomination for president. ‘I like people who weren’t captured.’” He goes on to note that Trump wanted to deny McCain the honor of lowering flags to half-mast after McCain died.

Goldberg frames Trump’s comments as part of a general bias against the military and portrays his attacks as unprovoked. Truth is, long before Trump made those comments he had been engaged in a well-documented, long-running feud with the Arizona senator. McCain based his political career on his military service and the five years he spent as a POW in Vietnam. McCain was Trump’s enemy, and there is considerable evidence that McCain—known for a sharp tongue—started the war of words. Trump gave back in kind.

“Nor did he set his campaign back by attacking the parents of Humayun Khan, an Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004,” Goldberg continues in another context-free passage. Khan’s father famously spoke against Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” Khan said. In Trumpian terms, Khan started it. But Goldberg’s omission makes it look like Trump attacked a fallen soldier out of the blue.

Goldberg does this a third time: “When lashing out at critics, Trump often reaches for illogical and corrosive insults, and members of the Bush family have publicly opposed him.” Both sides have insulted each other; as far as the record shows, Trump is usually running offense, not defense—but Goldberg falsely portrays the enmity as a one-way street.

One of the praiseworthy aspects of this president is his relatively restrained approach to military interventionism, coupled with his willingness to directly engage adversaries like North Korea and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the latter which recently signed a peace agreement with the United States. It is logical for Trump, who is skeptical of illegal wars of choice like Afghanistan and Iraq, to question why people would volunteer to fight and possibly die in such a pointless conflict. For Goldberg, militarism is a state religion. Questioning it is intolerable.

Goldberg’s piece, the tone of which reads like the pro-war hysteria following 9/11, reflects the aggressively militaristic neoliberalism of the Democratic Party in 2020.

Goldberg references Trump’s 2017 visit to Arlington cemetery with then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. “A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan … Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’ Kelly (who declined to comment for this story) initially believed, people close to him said, that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.”

            Joining the military, of course, is hardly a non-transactional decision. Soldiers get paid. They get medals. They get free college. They are revered and thanked for their service. Military service gives you a leg up when you run for political office.

Moreover, Trump’s question is one Americans should be asking more often. Why would a 29-year-old man volunteer to travel to Afghanistan in order to kill the locals? No one in that country threatened the United States. No one there did us any harm. Afghans don’t want us there. Why did Robert Kelly go?

Goldberg seems obsessed with Trump’s description of fallen soldiers as suckers. “His capacious definition of sucker includes those who lose their lives in service to their country, as well as those who are taken prisoner, or are wounded in battle,” Goldberg writes. But is he wrong?

            LBJ suckered us into Vietnam with the Tonkin Gulf incident, which historians of all stripes accept was a lie.

            George H.W. Bush suckered us into the first Gulf War with a tale of Iraqi soldiers rampaging through a Kuwaiti hospital and pulling babies out of incubators. Another lie.

            After 9/11 George W. Bush suckered us into Afghanistan by saying Osama bin Laden was there—he was not.

            Of course Bush lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. More suckering. (At the time, Goldberg spread the lie that Saddam Hussein was allied with his enemy Al Qaeda.)

            Assuming that anything in Goldberg’s piece was true, Trump was right.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

An Open Letter to Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine

Dear Mr. Pearlstine,

On June 5th you issued a statement acknowledging the role your newspaper has played in the racist oppression of people of color. “The Los Angeles Times has a long, well-documented history of fueling the racism and cruelty that accompanied our city’s becoming a metropolis,” you wrote. You promised reforms, including “addressing the concerns of people of color in the newsroom.”

You admitted that this is merely a start and asked for suggestions for how the Times can redeem itself and earn the trust of readers, especially people of color.

I will take you at your word.

To begin with, the Times should come clean about its longstanding, cozy relationship with the LAPD. And it should end this deep conflict of interest, which makes it impossible for your paper to report objectively about the police. When the media fails to hold the police accountable they are free to abuse the citizens they are supposed to protect.

My case shines a light on how the media censors critics and breeds self-censorship by journalists. I was the Times’ editorial cartoonist from 2009 to 2015. My cartoons often criticized police brutality and racist policing. Instead of stopping their abuse of minorities, however, the police repeatedly demanded that the papers that ran my cartoons fire me. Those requests fell on deaf ears until 2014, when the Times brought in a new publisher, Austin Beutner. Beutner, a hedge fund billionaire who is now superintendent of LA schools, midwifed a deal by which the $16.4 billion LAPD pension fund purchased #1 shareholder status in Tribune Publishing, which owned the Times and 14 other newspapers. (Yes, it’s legal for the cops to buy media companies.) Sealing the deal and in violation of the Times’ ethical guidelines, the LAPD police union gave an award to Beutner.

The LAPD police union has a history of buying newspaper stock. They don’t hide their motives. They seek to remove negative coverage of the police from “their” papers. “Since the very public employees they continually criticize are now their owners, we strongly believe that those who currently run the editorial pages should be replaced,” the union’s president explained in 2009, after it acquired interest in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Months after the LAPD-LA Times deal, then-LAPD police chief Charlie Beck arranged a secret meeting at Beutner’s office. Fire your cartoonist, Beck demanded. Beutner agreed.

But firing me was not enough for Beck. The LAPD also wanted to send a chilling message to journalists throughout the Southland: if you criticize the police, we will destroy you. So the Times published a smear job about me.

The Times’ article didn’t mention the meeting between Beck and Beutner. It didn’t talk about the LAPD pension fund’s ownership of the Times. To this day, those facts have never been revealed to Times readers. The piece relied upon faked evidence provided by Beck to characterize me as a liar (in a blog about jaywalking, of all things). I proved the evidence was bogus and that I had been truthful, yet editorial page editor Nick Goldberg—under orders from Beutner—ignored it.

Goldberg later admitted that the truth didn’t matter. The Times was determined to ruin me and didn’t care that I had done nothing wrong. Inexplicably, Goldberg still works at the Times.

My case is not just about me. It opens a window into why and how the Times’ relationship with the police corrupts its commentary and coverage.

It shows why and how victims of police brutality have been ignored or diminished.

It explains why and how police narratives are taken at face value, no matter how ridiculous. While I was being given the bum’s rush, reporter Paul Pringle, assigned to be the Times’ hatchet man, told me that he had verified that the bogus LAPD materials were authentic. How? I asked. “The LAPD told me,” he said. I laughed. He was serious, though. Pringle still works at the Times too. He recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

How can anyone read about what happened to me and still believe anything the Times has to say about cops?

Mr. Pearlstine, if this is not empty talk, if you are serious about turning over a new leaf, you should address my case. Hiring more people of color in the newsroom is overdue, important and necessary. But black reporters aren’t more likely than white journalists to go after the police if they’re equally afraid of getting fired. Everyone at the Times knows what the paper did to me; they know it can happen to them too if they go “too far” against the cops.

The LAPD got rid of their most irritating critic and a pundit who made going after police brutality a priority. The Times never replaced me.

The LAPD terrorized other journalists. They won.

Rehiring me would make a powerful symbolic statement that the Beutner era of corruption and complicity with the police is finished. It would demonstrate you do not edit a police propaganda rag. You could take down the two libel-filled articles about me that are still on your website. You could issue a retraction and an apology.

The LAPD has since divested itself of its Tribune stock. The Times’ current owner, Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong, should pledge not to enter into financial partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

Like many other papers, the Times relies on the police to tip off reporters about breaking local news. This relationship should be severed. Reporters ought not socialize with cops, much less rely upon them for stories. Refusing to be a police lapdog requires hiring more journalists—but Soon-Shiong is a biotech billionaire. He can easily afford them.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I look forward to hearing from you.

Very truly yours,

Ted Rall

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Bernie,” updated and expanded for 2020. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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Billionaires and Corporations Love anti-SLAPP Laws. Why Does John Oliver?

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Why does this multibillionaire need a cartoonist’s money?

            John Oliver recently dedicated his HBO show to why we need a federal anti-SLAPP law. Like most of his stuff, the episode was witty and engaging. It was also sloppy, thoughtless and poorly researched. From now on, I’ll wonder whether I can trust anything he says.

            An anti-SLAPP motion is a powerful legal maneuver available to defendants against libel and defamation lawsuits. In the 27 states that have them, the filing of an anti-SLAPP motion brings everything to a halt until a judge — not a jury — decides various issues about a case. Does it involve a matter of public interest? Is there a chance the case would succeed at trial? If the judge rules for the defense, the case is thrown out and the plaintiff pays the defendant’s legal fees.

            Liberals and conservatives alike like anti-SLAPP. Supporters say they protect activists, whistleblowers and average individuals from being bankrupted if they get sued by deep-pocketed corporations and wealthy individuals who use the courts to harass their victims. In his show Oliver described his experience being sued by a coal baron who wanted to chill criticism. HBO, Oliver said, spent $200,000 to defend him because the suit was filed in a state without anti-SLAPP.

            It’s easy to see why someone like Oliver, targeted by a frivolous defamation claim designed to tie him up in court and waste his employer’s lucre, would yearn for a federal anti-SLAPP law. His must have been a frustrating experience.

            There is, however, an inherent design flaw in anti-SLAPP: the United States Constitution. Under the equal protection clause, you can’t give rights to one class of defendant and not another. You can’t limit anti-SLAPP protections to impecunious individuals and small businesses; rich people and giant corporations have to get the same legal prerogatives.

            Which is what has been happening. Billionaires and corporate conglomerates use anti-SLAPP to crush legitimate libel and defamation lawsuits filed by ordinary individuals and whistleblowers. Happens a lot. Why don’t you hear about these cases? Because media companies love, love, love anti-SLAPP.

            In 2016 The National Enquirer published a cover story about fitness headlined: “Richard Simmons: He’s Now a Woman.” He wasn’t. “Secret Boob & Castration Surgery,” the tabloid screamed, “Yes, This Photo Shoot Is Real!” It wasn’t. The cover photo of “transwoman” Simmons was Photoshopped.

            Thanks to anti-SLAPP, what should have been an open-and-shut defamation case turned a travesty of justice into a farce. While acknowledging that the paper lied about Simmons, Los Angeles judge said that letting Simmons’ case go forward was tantamount to saying that it is bad to be trans. Simmons was an innocent victim and the Enquirer knowingly lied. Yet the court ordered him to pay American Media, owner of the paper, $130,000 in legal fees. So much for anti-SLAPP as being a tool for the little guy! AMI brought in $310 million in revenues last year.

            In 2018 MSNBC host Joy Reid [disclosure: I have appeared on Reid’s show] retweeted a photo of a Trump supporter yelling at a high school student at a Simi Valley, California city council meeting. Reid added the following text: “He showed up to rally to defend immigrants…She showed up too, in her MAGA hat, and screamed, ‘You are going to be the first deported’…’dirty Mexican!’ He is 14 years old. She is an adult. Make the picture black and white and it could be the 1950s and the desegregation of a school. Hate is real, y’all. It hasn’t even really gone away.”

            Hate is real. The story was not. The kid said that Roslyn La Liberte, the woman in the photo, was trying to keep things “civil.” She never said that stuff.

            La Liberte’s son emailed to inform Reid of the truth. Reid nevertheless reposted the image, this time alongside a black-and-white image of pro-segregation protesters in Little Rock in 1957 with this caption: “It was inevitable that this image would be made. It’s also easy to look at old black and white photos and think: I can’t believe that person screaming at a child, with their face twisted in rage, is real. B[ut] everyone one of them were. History sometimes repeats. And it is full of rage.”

            La Liberte was wronged. Rather than settle or plead guilty, MSNBC’s lawyers hit the working grandmother with an anti-SLAPP motion. Ignoring the fact that Reid’s posts easily qualify under as “reckless disregard for the truth” under the landmark libel case Sullivan v. New York Times (1964), the judge wallowed in pro-corporate sophistry: “the juxtaposition of the photographs does not ‘make clear that [La Liberte] is alleged to have engaged in specific racist conduct akin to that demonstrated during desegregation.’” La Liberte’s case was thrown out, denying her justice. Adding injury to insult, she has to pay MSNBC’s legal fees. MSNBC is owned by NBC Universal, a $203 billion company.

            President Trump used anti-SLAPP against Stormy Daniels, the porn actor who sued him for calling her a liar. Trump is worth $3 billion. Daniels owes him $293,000 for his legal fees.

            My readers are familiar with my case against the Los Angeles Times. No one disputes the fact that they lied about me, fired me as a favor to the LAPD (which owned them at the time) and tried to destroy my journalistic reputation in order to send a chilling message to journalists who criticize the police. My anti-SLAPP case is still working its way through the court system—and things currently look good—but there is already a $330,000 judgment against me. They want me to pay that money to two billionaires, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and LA schools superintendent and former Times publisher Austin Beutner, with a combined net worth of $16 billion.

            Bill Cosby has been using the anti-SLAPP statute against his rape victims.

            Faced with these cases, anti-SLAPP apologists sometimes say that the law isn’t bad, that it is simply being abused. If a law is written in such a way that it can be routinely abused, it is bad by definition.

(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.)

Billionaires Who Promise to Save Journalism and Then Default: It Ought To Be a Crime.

Image result for first look media

Let’s talk about fraud: “a person or thing intended to deceive others, typically by unjustifiably claiming or being credited with accomplishments or qualities,” the dictionary calls it.

Let’s also discuss breach of contract. “A breach of contract occurs when the promise of the contract is not kept, because one party has failed to fulfill their agreed-upon obligations, according to the terms of the contract. Breaching can occur when one party fails to deliver in the appropriate time frame, does not meet the terms of the agreement, or fails to perform at all,” says a random legal website I googled. Sounds right.

Pierre Omidyar cofounded eBay. He became a billionaire at age 31 when eBay went public. Forbes says he’s now worth $12.8 billion.

As you know, journalism is in trouble. So it sounded almost too good to be true when Omidyar lured Glenn Greenwald, who famously received the Edward Snowden stash of secret documents that proved the U.S. government is spying on us, away from the UK Guardian in order to helm a new, fearless, left-leaning journalism organization by the name of First Look Media.

Best of all, Omidyar promised to fix the biggest problem faced by 21st century journalists: shrinking budgets. First Look Media, Omidyar said, would get a whopping $250 million in order to support “independent journalists in a way that leverages their work to the greatest extent possible, all in support of the public interest.”

Geld macht frei.

Watch this crazy announcement video from 2013. No, really, watch.

First Look Media, Omidyar promises in his video, would feature a “flagship” online magazine—The Intercept, edited by Greenwald—that would “cover news and stories from entertainment and sports to politics and business.” In addition, he pledged, there would be “a family of digital magazines.” (Spoiler: the sports, business and entertainment stuff never materialized.)

One of First Look’s “verticals,” in publishing vernacular, was to be called Racket, “a hard-hitting, satirical magazine in the style of the old Spy” to be edited by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone. (Disclosure: I met with Taibbi to discuss the possibility of working for him. Another disclosure: I talked to a reporter at The Intercept about covering my lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times. He was excited but went cold after he pitched it to his editors.)

According to Taibbi and also Greenwald, Taibbi chafed under Omidyar’s incessant micromanaging on everything from whom he could hire to where they would sit. Taibbi quit and returned to Rolling Stone. That was the end of Racket.

Then the fickle billionaire pulled the plug on his other playthings. “Omidyar made clear that there were no plans to launch any more digital magazines in the near term,” Greenwald wrote in 2014. First Look did pick up the cartoon site The Nib in 2016 and added the nonfiction storytelling publication Topic in 2017, only to cancel both and fire their staffs as part of “cost-cutting moves” in 2019.

Omidyar did not explain why an organization backed by a man worth $12.8 billion needs to cut costs, nor how he reconciles his fickleness with that I’ve-got-your-back video. Really, watch it! (To put this in terms a normal person can understand, if you’re worth $500,000, Omidyar’s $250 million pledge is equivalent to $9,000. If you have $500,000 and you can’t spare $9,000 you’re doing something wrong.)

Earlier this year, Omidyar decided to shut down First Look’s maintenance of the Snowden archive. Given that that trove was the company’s original raison d’être, alongside its dedication to investigative journalism, it left loyalists like First Look cofounder Laura Poitras scratching their heads. In March the company laid off its team of researchers.

The point of First Look, remember, was to give good reporters plenty of cash so they could focus on writing and research.

According to Columbia Journalism Review Omidyar has made good on just $90 million of his $250 million commitment. Which is still a lot of money, but it won’t last forever when you’re burning up cash paying exorbitant wages to editors like Greenwald. He collected $1.6 million between 2014 and 2017 while entry-level grunts are making do with $55,000 in a Manhattan where one-bedroom apartments go for $3,500 a month.

Left-leaning journalism types have been whispering about the shenanigans at First Look for years. But few are willing to speak out in public. Omidyar is powerful and wealthy. What if you might want to work for him someday?

Billionaires are purchasing social good will in the hope that they will be “credited with the accomplishments or qualities” of contributing to the “public good,” as Omidyar says in his over-the-top video.

And I’m fine with that—as long as they don’t breach their contract with the public. Omidyar promised us a passel of verticals/online magazines. Where are they? He promised journalists virtually unlimited freedom to investigate, travel, whatever it takes to do their jobs. Budget cuts and mass layoffs are a clear violation of that pledge. He cheated us. He should be held accountable.

Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong is another billionaire, this one from biotech, who has burnished his image as a savior of American journalism by purchasing The Los Angeles Times, the nation’s fourth-largest newspaper. Soon-Shiong is purportedly worth $7.1 billion.

But there’s already a stink, and I’m not talking about the smell of jet fuel raining down on the Times’ new low-budget office building in El Segundo, directly under the flight approach to LAX. The Times previous home was an art deco gem downtown on Times-Mirror Square. Why, one wonders, can’t a man worth $7.1 billion shell out the $50 million-ish cost of a downtown office building rather than move reporters a three-hour drive away from some parts of the city they’re supposed to be covering? (That’s $3,500 for someone worth $500,000.) Why do so many of his new hires skew so young, Millennial and thus so cheaply five-digit?

Despite slavishly sucking up to him in public statements, the union representing Times employees has been rewarded with contempt by Soon-Shiong, who refuses to negotiate in good faith.

Jeff Bezos, self-proclaimed savior of The Washington Post, has a similar attitude toward workers at his newspaper.

I don’t have a problem with derps derping, even when they’re running major news outlets. What seriously pisses me off is when those derps are billionaires who market themselves as saviors to be admired, when they’re anything but.

(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.)

 

Freedom of the Press? Not in the U.S.

Image result for reporter arrested

            The United States ranks 48th among nations for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Since few other countries have the equivalent of our First Amendment, learning that we rank below Botswana and Slovenia may come as a surprise.

Mostly the organization pins this dismal state of affairs on Trump’s attacks on the news media. They reference the White House’s revocation of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press card, the president’s “fake news” and “enemy of the people” jibes and his tacit approval of the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by the government of Saudi Arabia. “At least one White House correspondent has hired private security for fear of their life after receiving death threats, and newsrooms throughout the country have been plagued by bomb threats and were the recipients of other potentially dangerous packages, prompting journalism organizations to reconsider the security of their staffs in a uniquely hostile environment,” reports RWB. (Cry me a river! I’ve received hundreds of death threats.)

Like most other mainstream analyses of the state of press, RWB focuses on how easy it is for large, corporate-owned media conglomerates with establishmentarian political orientations to do their jobs.

Independent journalists, especially those whose politics are left of the Democrats or right of the Republicans, have much bigger problems than deep-pocketed mega-conglomerates like CNN.

No consideration of freedom of the press in the U.S. is complete without a hard look at the case of Julian Assange. The founder and publisher of WikiLeaks is rotting in an English prison, awaiting extradition to the United States for possession and dissemination of classified information—exactly what The New York Times did when it published the Pentagon Papers and the Edward Snowden revelations. He is being “treated worse than a murderer, he is isolated, medicated,” says journalist John Pilger, who recently visited him. Incredibly, corporate media is siding with the Trump Administration, not merely ignoring Assange but mocking him and accusing him of treason (which is impossible, since he’s not American).

Censorship is insidious; readers and viewers can’t know what they’re not told. Almost as sinister as the persecution of Assange is the wholesale erasure of left-wing politics from U.S. news media. 43% of Americans tell pollsters they want the U.S. to become a socialist country. 36% of registered Democrats currently support self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign promises closely align to Sanders’.

The nation’s 1,000-plus newspapers employ countless Democrats and Republicans. But there isn’t a single staff columnist or editorial cartoonist who agrees with that 43% of the public that socialism would be better than capitalism. There isn’t a single one who says he or she supports Sanders or Warren.

Watch CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews and the other cable news outlets. Once in a very long while you might catch a token leftist joining a yakfest. You’ll never see socialist get a gig as a regular contributor, much less be asked to host a show. If you don’t think it’s weird that 43% of the country’s population is being censored, I don’t know what to tell you.

Pervasive among both corporate and independent journalists is self-censorship. Apologists say that freedom of the press doesn’t include the right to be published, and that’s true. Because journalists are like everyone else and can’t survive without earning money, however, the real-world practical effect of having to earn a living is that reporters and pundits have to watch what they say lest they become unemployable pariahs like I was after 9/11. “Sorry, man,” an editor I considered a friend told me after I asked him for work at his business magazine, “you’re radioactive.”

The Washington Post and other corporate news companies ridiculed Bernie Sanders’ recent assertion that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Post influences its coverage. As Sanders noted, it’s not like Bezos calls Post editors to tell them what to print and what to censor.

Self-censorship is subtle. Post executive editor Marty Baron is technically correct when he retorts that “Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence.” But he’s dodging the meat of the matter. Baron and other Post editors know who their bosses are: Bezos and, more generally, his allies in the corporate ruling class. No matter how much they protest that they can follow any lead and print anything they want, that knowledge of who butters their bread informs every move they make. It’s why, when the editorial page editor sorts through the day’s nationally syndicated political cartoons, he never ever publishes one from a left-wing political orientation, no matter how well-written or well-drawn it is. It’s why, when they’re hiring new staffers, they never hire a leftie. They’re smart enough not to bite the hand that feeds them. It’s also why the person making that hiring decision is not himself or herself one of the 43%.

I’m more audacious. Yet I too know not to go too far.

I’ve learned that I can draw a cartoon or write a column criticizing “free trade” agreements without fear of getting fired or assassinated. There is also no fear that it will be published by a corporate newspaper—so why bother? Over the long run, I have to give editors material they want to publish; if I send out too much stuff about a verboten topic like free trade I’ll lose clients.

Most people who hear about my defamation lawsuit against the Los AngelesTimes support me. But most people don’t hear about it for a simple reason: when one member of the press is besieged—especially when it’s justified—the others circle the wagons. Reporters for The Washington Post, The New York Times and fake-left outfits like The Intercept contacted me eager to write about how the LAPD pension fund bought the Los Angeles Times in 2014 and then ordered the paper to fire me because I criticized the police in my cartoons. (It’s still legal for the the cops to buy a newspaper.) Invariably they went silent after talking to their editors.

Corporate gangsters stick together.

As I said, I’m not that brave. My editor didn’t tell me about the LAPD deal with the Times. I assume she didn’t know. If she had called and said “hey, lay off the police, they own us now, draw about something else,” I would have. I have to make a living.

48th? When it comes to press freedom, the U.S. is benefiting from grade inflation.

(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.)

Ted Rall v. Los Angeles Times: What You Need To Know

My lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times is a long, complicated story. The following is an attempt to bring you up to speed in digestible form.

I became the staff cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times in 2009. Unbeknownst to me, in 2014 the LAPD Pension Fund became the biggest shareholder of Tribune Publishing, parent company of the Times. No one at the Times told me to lay off cartoons about the cops, probably because my editors too were unaware of the secret deal. In 2015 the Times fired me at the request of the LAPD.

The LA Times’ Nutty Audio
I was walking from a Bill Maher show taping to dinner in West Hollywood in October 2001 when an LAPD motorcycle officer confronted me, handcuffed me and roughed me up, drawing a crowd of passersby. He wrote me a ticket for jaywalking. I had not been jaywalking. I filed an Internal Affairs complaint about the false arrest but nothing came of it.
Image result for charlie beckIn July 2015 a LA Times reporter informed me that the officer had secretly audiotaped my arrest, that the LAPD (actually, it was Police Chief Charlie Beck, see below) had given the Times (actually, to publisher Austin Beutner, see below) the tape and that the tape showed I had lied about being handcuffed and mistreated by the cop in a 2015 blog that was posted with a cartoon that I did for the Times about an LAPD jaywalking crackdown.
The sound quality is atrocious. It’s 6-1/2 minutes of static, wind and traffic noise. There is evidence that it was spliced or otherwise tampered with. The LAPD audio neither confirms nor denies my account, which was truthful. Nevertheless, the Times decided to terminate me AND to publish a libelous “Editor’s Note” to readers intended to destroy my reputation as a journalist so that I would never work again.
I had the audio “enhanced”—cleaned up so that voices and other sounds could be heard. The enhancement confirmed my version of the encounter, including a woman shouting “Take off his handcuffs!” at the officer. I sent the vindicating evidence to my editors at the Times. They ignored me.

The Times Doubles Down
Three weeks passed. During this time, pressure built on the Times to reverse their decision. Journalistic organizations, Times subscribers commenting on their website, letter writers and social media from left to right urged the Times to reinstate me. They refused questions from reporters at other press outlets, censored the letters and shut down online comments at latimes.com. Thanks to the enhanced audio, the Times knew it had libeled me in the Editor’s Note. Rather than issue a retraction and offer me back my job, the Times issued a second article, this one by the Times’ ombudsman, that doubled down on the allegations from the first article, which they knew to be false.

My Lawsuit
I waited seven months for the Times to do the right thing. Finally, in 2016, I sued the Times, its parent company Tribune, and four individuals for defamation and wrongful termination. I am determined to defend my reputation against these scurrilous smears.

Here are the individual defendants:

Austin Beutner
Image result for Austin BeutnerTimes publisher at the time, hedge-fund multi-billionaire Austin Beutner was subsequently fired by Tribune for trying to orchestrate an inside-the-boardroom coup. Beutner secretly met with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who subsequently resigned in disgrace. At this meeting Beck handed Beutner the audio recording from 2001. Beck demanded that I be fired for criticizing the police in my cartoons; Beutner, Beck’s political ally and a man who’d like to run for mayor or governor, complied. (The Times still hasn’t told readers where the audio came from.) Beutner is currently the superintendent of the Los Angeles public school district, the largest in the country. His refusal to give teachers a raise prompted an acrimonious walkout by educators.

Nicholas Goldberg
Image result for nick goldberg la timesTimes editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg, a middle manager, appears not to have been trusted with inside knowledge of the high-level conspiracy between Beutner and Beck. It’s hard to know anything for sure before the courts grant discovery, but Goldberg’s role was likely limited to that of hatchet man: his by-line is on the Editor’s Note.

Paul Pringle
Image result for paul pringle la timesBypassing Goldberg, Beutner probably assigned Times investigative reporter Paul Pringle to look into my story. Pringle informed me that the LAPD was accusing me of lying and questioned me at length about what happened the evening of the jaywalking arrest. Pringle, who worked the “cop shop” beat for years and thus spent a lot of time with police, made clear that he believed the cops, not me. Among other silliness, he asked why the low-quality audio didn’t contain the sound of my driver’s license (made of paper) hitting the ground after the officer tossed it or the click of the handcuffs going on. He also wondered why there was no sound of me arguing with the officer; I repeatedly explained that I was compliant, that I don’t argue with cops. In order to determine the authenticity of the LAPD audio, he told me, he asked the LAPD if it was legitimate. Pringle won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism.

Deirdre Goebel Edgar
Image result for deirdre edgarUntil 2018 Deirdre Goebel Edgar was the “Reader’s Representative” of the Times. The reader’s representative is the ombudsman of a newspaper; though paid by the paper her duty is akin to Internal Affairs at a police agency: to make sure the paper is upholding journalism’s highest ethical standards in service to readers. Indeed, in 2014 she authored the Times’ Ethical Guidelines. Among other things, the guidelines require that the subject of a critical story be interviewed at length, in person, to give their side. Edgar wrote the second “doubling down” article in 2015 smearing me as a liar. She did not contact me.

The Times Hits Me With an Anti-SLAPP Motion
Image result for kelli sagerCalifornia’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) law was designed to stop individuals and whistleblowers from being slammed by big corporations like real estate developers out to crush community activists by tying them up in court with frivolous defamation claims. After I sued the Times, Kelli Sager—a high-powered $715/hour attorney employed by such reputable enterprises as the National Enquirer to fend off legitimate libel lawsuits—hit me, a fired $300/week cartoonist, with an anti-SLAPP motion alleging that I was using my power and influence to deprive the Times of its First Amendment free speech rights. The Times is currently owned by Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong, who is reportedly worth $7 billion. Soon-Shiong gets a lot of good press that he doesn’t deserve; he has continued to employ Sager.
Before the case begins, the anti-SLAPP motion must be resolved. First up: the trial court.

Superior Court
At trial court in Los Angeles, the Times filed a motion for summary judgement against me, arguing my claim to be frivolous. The judge at the time, who retired a few months later, denied the Times’ motion.
Switching tacks, Sager filed a motion demanding that I post $300,000 cash bond to guarantee the Times’ legal fees in the event that it won anti-SLAPP and won a judgement that required me to pay the Times’ attorneys’ fees, because I live in New York and not California. The judge knocked it down to $75,000. Hundreds of people contributed to my GoFundMe. I posted bond. Every year I pay the bond company $1250 to hold the money.
After a blizzard of stalling tactics by Sager, Judge Joseph Kalin heard the anti-SLAPP motion in 2017. Just days before the second and third of three anti-SLAPP arguments, attorney Carney Shegarian abruptly fired me as his client. I do not know why. I quickly found a new attorney but Judge Kalin ruled that I had to represent myself against Sager in oral arguments.
Anti-SLAPP requires judges not to assess the evidence, but to assume that all the claims are true to see if the complaint has any merit. Kalin assessed the evidence, agreed that the audio enhancement showed I was innocent, and nonetheless ruled against me. He ordered me to pay the Times $330,000 for Sager’s fees.
I appealed.

Court of Appeal
Earlier in 2019 the Court of Appeal, also in Los Angeles, heard my appeal. Like Kalin, the Court of Appeal ignored the anti-SLAPP rule about assessing evidence. During oral argument Justice Elizabeth Grimes, seemed shocked when my attorney Jeff Lewis brought it up. Grimes ruled for the Times.
I appealed. The California Supreme Court accepts fewer than 5% of petitions for review so I was pleasantly surprised when they agreed to hear my appeal. Seven major First Amendment organizations issued amicus letters supporting my appeal to the state Supreme Court.
My petition was a “grant and hold,” which means it’s tied to the outcome of a related case, in this situation Stanley Wilson v. CNN. Wilson claims he was wrongly terminated and defamed by CNN as a ruse, with the real reason being race discrimination.

California Supreme Court
The high court ruled in favor of Wilson in a ruling that urges lower courts to grant discovery in anti-SLAPP cases, something that was denied us. As we petitioned and against long odds–they reject more than 95% of appellants–the court remanded us back to the Court of Appeal with instructions to rehear us in light of Wilson.
A favorable ruling by the Court of Appeal would mean that the $330,000 judgement would be erased, we can begin discovery and, four-plus years after the fact, the actual case would commence.

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