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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SYNDICATED COLUMN: No Way Would Today’s Newspapers Publish the Pentagon Papers

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Steven Spielberg’s new movie “The Post” depicts a newspaper’s decision to defy the government, risk its financial health and imprisonment of its editors in order to report a hard truth and defend the press’ First Amendment rights by publishing the Pentagon Papers.

After the Washington Post’s decision to inform the American people that top government officials had known that the Vietnam War was unwinnable yet had repeatedly lied about it for years, editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) dumps a pile of out-of-town newspapers on a desk for publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) to see. We’ve started a “rebellion,” Bradlee informs Graham. We’re no longer alone speaking truth to power.

No way would that happen today.

I was pleased to see that “The Post” highlights the pressures and biases that weighed against publication: a publisher undermined by sexism and low expectations, a paper trying to raise capital under the eye of nervous bankers, the Nixon Administration’s take-no-prisoners prosecutorial abuse by a vicious attorney general, and — not least — the Post’s cozy establishmentarianism, centered around Graham’s famous hard-drinking salons where reporters hobnobbed with the officials they were supposed to cover objectively.

After a lot of wavering and gnashing of lawyerly teeth, Graham finally makes the call: go to press.

The key point of this story, which isn’t made in the movie and few younger moviegoers are likely to be aware, is that it was her decision to make. The Graham family held controlling interest in the Washington Post Company. Great newspaper families like the Grahams, the Chandlers and the Sulzbergers were quirky and often had bad politics. But they also had something today’s corporate, publicly-traded media outlets do not: editorial freedom.

They didn’t always do the right thing. But they could. So sometimes they did.

Sadly, those days are gone.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, reportedly a right-leaning libertarian, bought the Post in late 2013. What reception would a Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers) or an Edward Snowden get if they contacted a Post reporter today, under Bezos?

Snowden’s case is indicative. The Post and three other papers published Snowden’s NSA leaks in 2013, months before Bezos took over. In 2016, the Bezos-owned Post called upon President Obama to refuse Snowden’s pardon application. In so doing, wrote Glenn Greenwald, the Post “achieved an ignominious feat in U.S. media history: the first-ever paper to explicitly editorialize for the criminal prosecution of its own source — one on whose back the paper won and eagerly accepted a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.” (The other three papers were pro-pardon.)

Even more obnoxiously, the Post’s Snowden editorial didn’t mention its major conflict of interest related to intelligence agencies like the NSA. Amazon — the Post’s sister company under Bezos — had the CIA (where Snowden also worked) as a $600 million client. That’s more than twice what Bezos paid for the Post.

Coincidence? Je pense que non.

The Los Angeles Times sells “Speaking Truth to Power” hoodies. But when the power is the LAPD — and the LAPD owns the paper — the Times publishes lies.
My regular readers are familiar with the sordid details of my 2015 firing by The Los Angeles Times as a favor to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. You’re not much of a political cartoonist in L.A. if you don’t go after the militarized, racist, violent LAPD — and the Times published many of my anti-LAPD/anti-Beck toons over the years. So did the Pasadena Weekly, which drove the boys in blue so nuts that they asked its publisher to fire me. PW refused.

Then the Times’ corporate parent, the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, hired an LAPD-connected billionaire and wannabe politician, Austin Beutner, as publisher for the Times. Beutner appears to have midwifed a deal in which the LAPD patrolmen’s $16.4 billion union retirement fund moved to a firm that invested eight figures into a fund containing Tribune stock. (Given that newspaper stocks in general and Tribune specifically had been losing value, it’s a fair assumption that the buy was more about influence than taking care of retired LAPD officers.) Within weeks — and explicitly against Times rules — the same union issued an award to Beutner for his “support [of] the LAPD in all that they do.”

Beck asked his friend Beutner to use ginned-up “evidence” to fire and smear me; Beutner, the cop-award winner, complied, and even stayed the course after the truth came out and I was vindicated. My defamation case against Beutner and the Times is in court.

The Times never disclosed to its readers about Tribune’s business relationship with the LAPD union.

It’s a level of corruption that would make Al Capone blush. Yet it’s perfectly legal in the United States for a police union to buy a newspaper. Indeed, the same union bought part of the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2009 — and leveraged its ownership to ask that the U-T fire critics of the police.

Come to think of it, isn’t it weird that a company with more than half a billion dollars in business with the CIA is allowed to own a major news organization like the Post?

Given the Trump Administration’s attacks against “fake news” and the news media, it may seem paradoxical to suggest government action as a solution to the corruption of the news media as we’re seeing at outlets like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. But the evidence is clear. Outrageous deals such as those between the Post’s owner and the CIA and between the Times’ owner and the LAPD amount to government censorship of the news media — a violation of the First Amendment’s fundamental principle.

Congress should prohibit such arrangements.

(Ted Rall’s (Twitter: @tedrall) brand-new book is “Meet the Deplorables: Infiltrating Trump America,” co-written with Harmon Leon. His next book will be “Francis: The People’s Pope,” the latest in his series of graphic novel-format biographies. Publication date is March 13, 2018. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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