Updated: Was the LAPD Behind the Ouster of a Political Cartoonist?

Or did the veteran cartoonist fabricate being "roughed up" by the LAPD?

A cartoon by Ted Rall from the disputed May 11 blog post. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist and the Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times has ended its relationship with a political cartoonist, allegedly for fabricating an anecdotal account of an encounter with a police officer. The cartoonist, Ted Rall—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1996—says the move was retribution.

LA Times’ editorial pages editor Nicholas Goldberg said “inconsistencies” in a recent blog post by the award-winning cartoonist were the reason for the decision, and that Mr. Rall’s “future work will not appear in The Times,” due to this misrepresentation.

The post in question was on the topic of the Los Angeles Police Department’s crackdown on jaywalking, and Mr. Rall retold a story supposed police behavior from a 2001 jaywalking ticket he received. Mr. Rall described his encounter as such:

“Just over 10 years ago, I was ticketed—and handcuffed—for an alleged pedestrian violation while crossing Melrose Avenue. Ironically, this was one of the rare times that I was innocent of even jaywalking, something I do every day.”

That story that has now come under scrutiny. After the May 11 post, which was updated by Mr. Goldberg today, the Los Angeles Police Department provided records from the incident that appear to contradict Mr. Rall’s story, including the filed complaint and an audiotape of the incident recorded by the police officer.

Despite the audio and the complaint, Mr. Rall is sticking to his story. He issued this online post, claiming that the LA Times buckled under pressure from the LAPD to have him fired because Mr. Rall has been an outspoken opponent of the department in his cartoons. The “audio only” evidence, Mr. Rall claims, has “atrocious” sound quality and “doesn’t even back up the LAPD’s account or allegations” against him.

Among Mr. Rall’s claims was that the officer threw his driver’s license in the gutter and that he was handcuffed. An LA Times reporter looking into the incident said he didn’t hear the cuffs “click,” or the license hit the ground, in Mr. Rall’s account. He retorts in the blog post: “Listen to the tape: Industrial Light & Magic this ain’t. And a driver’s license is made of laminated paper. Paper, even laminated paper, doesn’t make a heavy sound when it lands. Not here on Earth.”

The whole incident unfolded while Mr. Rall’s usual editor was (and still is) on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Mr. Rall also told the Observer that he was “not letting this go,” and that his main concern is that the 14-year-old audio tape could have been edited and/or tampered with.

“Certain things [on the tape] strike me as being missing,” said Mr. Rall. “I clearly remember the officer ordering me to not move—and I remember him being pretty brusque about it—and that’s not on the tape.” Mr. Rall is also looking for a female witness who was at the scene and whose voice could be heard on the audio tape.

However, the LA Times editor who handled the paper’s response to the post and a source at the paper had a different version of events.

“This is not about Ted Rall’s politics or his critiques of the police,” Mr. Goldberg told the Observer. “The Los Angeles Times covers the LAPD closely and we are often very critical of the department. The issue here is what happened in 2001 when Ted Rall was stopped for jaywalking. After we looked at the documents the LAPD gave us and listened to the audiotape, we had serious questions about whether he had described it accurately.”

Another Times staffer, who asked not to be identified, said that there were significant editorial discussions around the decision to end the paper’s relationship with Mr. Rall, and that the final call hinged on two realities: the fact that in Mr. Rall’s version of events, many bystanders were shouting at police, which is not audible on the tape, and that his initial complaint to the police made no mention of violence or being handcuffed, which raised yet more questions for the LA Times brass.

And the plot thickens further—the LA Times reporter said he never brought up clicking when he interviewed Mr. Rall, our source said.

While the audio presented does create the impression of a perfectly polite interaction, Mr. Rall has insisted that the officer was either careful to speak away from the recorder when he said anything offensive, or the tape has been altered. The source at the LA Times disputes that as well, saying that the LAPD conducted an internal analysis of the tape, and it verified that it has not been altered.

It does seem a lot of effort to go to–forge a tape to get a cartoonist in trouble? Of course, stranger things have happened. One fact, however, is not in dispute: the LAPD took some time and effort to find and provide a tape to the LA Times.

Mr. Rall, who won a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 1995 and another in 2000, draws cartoons (some of which have been seen in the pages of our own esteemed publication) that are syndicated in approximately 100 newspapers around the United States. He also served as President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists from 2008 to 2009.

Mr. Rall does have a contentious history, having filed an unresolved defamation lawsuit against New York Press illustrator Danny Hellman in 1999 for a retaliative email prank.

He is working on a new book about Edward Snowden that comes out on August 18. While Mr. Rall was coy about the thrust of the new book, he did add that he would detail “some new information” in its pages.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional information and comments from the Los Angeles Times.

Updated: Was the LAPD Behind the Ouster of a Political Cartoonist?