Blaming The Messenger
Cartoonist Ted Rall, fired by the LA Times over a secret recording by a police officer, tells the story of NSA data-collection whistleblower Edward Snowden
Political cartoonist and writer Ted Rall can’t expect to make too many friends through his work.
It isn’t “Peanuts.” Rall is a provocateur who goes out of his way to poke the powerful in the eye.
He targets Democrats. He targets Republicans. He targets the military. He targets patriotism. He targets new taxes, tax cuts and tax dodgers. But most of all he targets authority, which in the Greater Los Angeles area has meant targeting the police. Relentlessly.
And it was the police, Rall firmly believes, who finally sent him packing from L.A.
In July, the Los Angeles Times fired Rall from a regular freelance cartooning and writing gig after someone with either the LAPD or the L.A. police union accused Rall of fictionalizing a blog post about being bullied by an officer during a 2001 jaywalking citation in Hollywood — and provided the paper with a 14-year-old audio recording of the arrest.
The tape isn’t exactly a high-fidelity recording and many facts of the matter remain elusive. In a series of editor’s notes, the Times asserted that Rall’s story doesn’t add up. Rall contends that he told the truth and accuses the paper’s former publisher of caving into political pressure bolstered by financial ties between the police pension fund and the Times’ parent company.
Considering Rall didn’t know the police recording existed until it was used against him, it seems only fitting that Rall’s latest graphic novel is a biography of NSA digital spying program whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Rall’s “Snowden” is a 240-page illustrated biography that mixes Snowden’s personal journey with explanations of the NSA spying programs he revealed, and ultimately asks the readers to ask themselves whether they would have made the decision to go public.
He discusses and signs his book on Sunday in Santa Monica.
— Joe Piasecki
You must’ve been shocked that an audio recording from a 2001 police encounter existed, let alone that it was preserved 14 years?
I think most people were shocked, too. I haven’t heard from anyone who said it’s something they understood to be normal. I think the reason for that is they’re not usually admissible in court and don’t really serve much purpose, I guess, except to get cartoonists fired.
Would you make any comparison between the existence of that recording and the kind of federal data collection that Snowden exposed?
A writer for The Guardian has made that comparison: It is state surveillance. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, obviously. Where it’s germane is in response to the argument that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, state surveillance can’t hurt you.
I really wasn’t doing anything wrong. I told the truth about that encounter, but they spun and doctored the evidence to make it look as though I had done and said something wrong. It’s an example of how state surveillance can be used against you even when you are perfectly innocent. There’s nothing on that tape that belies anything I’ve said. There’s no sound of me saying ‘Here I am not being handcuffed’ or ‘It’s so nice of him not to have thrown my license in the gutter.’
With the NSA, they’re not just tracking phone calls but voice over Internet protocol, Netflix streaming. They’re sucking up and storing every communication and can use it against you.
How does your book tell Snowden’s story in ways that it hasn’t previously been told?
Nobody has written a biography of Snowden. This tries to be comprehensive about everything we know about his life. He didn’t allow me to interview him, but fortunately he and his lawyer provided corrections and edits after the proof was finished — matters of fact, like dates. It also tries to lay out in a much simpler format, page by page, what each NSA program revealed by Snowden does, why it matters and why we should care.
And there’s a little bit of philosophy. Snowden faced an existential dilemma between two competing promises: to keep classified information secret for his employer and to protect and defend the Constitution of the United Stated of America. He obviously couldn’t do both because these NSA programs are illegal, almost every single one of them if not all of them, under the Fourth Amendment. Their defenders don’t really argue they’re legal; they argue that they’re necessary. So it’s trying to put yourself in his shoes, and it’s also kind of a rumination on ethics and morality. How is it that over a million people who had access to much of the same information were not compelled to step forward in some way? Only him. What’s wrong with the rest of us?
Do you think Snowden will ever return to the United States?
Ever is a long time. He’s a relatively young guy, so sure. At some point the political atmosphere will move in favor of privacy rights or to the left or just letting bygones be bygones. I think he would like a trial if he could get one where the issue itself would be on trial, but there’s no evidence that would happen. They’d throw the book at him. Like what they did to Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.
Do you remain convinced that leadership of the Los Angeles Times was bowing to pressure from the LAPD and the police union to find a reason to get rid of you?
They didn’t need any excuse to get rid of me, and they didn’t dislike me. I was a freelancer. They could have gotten rid of me [without stating cause] with just a simple email, and it’s not like I could have made a stink about it either. Clearly this was about the Los Angeles Police Protective League or the LAPD and their political pressure.
The LA Times’ follow-up investigation states that details in your published accounts of the incident have varied over time. What during that encounter are you absolutely certain about, and what are the points that you were trying to make that prompted you to keep writing about it?
The thing that prompted me to keep writing about it was I thought it was outrageous but also typical police behavior. A false arrest in order to, I assume, fill a ticket quota. It’s abuse of a citizen who is not resisting arrest or being troublesome in the least. And jaywalking is also a chickenshit ticket that shouldn’t even be a crime. The absurdity of getting into deep trouble over something so minor, even if you were guilty, is what makes it interesting. If a boring white guy like me can get in this much trouble and be treated this badly over a really ridiculous offense, what does this say about the police state? It pissed me off politically, and it pissed me off personally.
In terms of the details that have changed over the years, let’s get real. For the sake of argument, if every detail had changed in every account, the Times’ business is what I wrote for them. And did I lie in what I wrote for them? No. Aside from that, details change in stories, and the details that changed were trivial. In one account I wrote he had thrown my wallet down instead of thrown my license down. They’re nitpicking.
You wrote in a 2009 column: ‘I admit it. I don’t like cops.’ Was this 2001 encounter the beginning of that?
Since this whole thing started, it’s been so interesting how different people’s perceptions of cops can be so different. It might make a good graphic novel. Most of my interactions with cops have been negative. When do you come into contact with cops? Usually when they’re pulling you over to give you a ticket. When do you see them protecting and serving you? Not very often. They’re there to scare you and raise revenue for the state and to intimidate you.
I got my first speeding ticket at 16, and I wasn’t psyched. I’ve never really been happy with the way cops have handled me. Occasionally you get a nice one. Occasionally. But I’ve actually talked to a cartoonist who said he’s never had anything other than a very friendly interaction with a police officer. I don’t even know what world he’s living in. Obviously there’s a difference in perception there.
Given your own experience and your time studying Snowden’s, what advice would you give a loved one about deliberately provoking the anger of people in power?
It’s not a way to get rich, and it’s not a way to avoid trouble. However, I think confronting authority is the job of all journalists, writers, artists and creative people. Anybody who has a public voice has a moral obligation to confront authority that’s wrongheaded, illegal or just bad — which is true of much of the authority in the United States today.
It’s no fun sometimes, but if there were more of us doing it then it would probably be easier, and I think it would be more effective.
Ted Rall will discuss and sign copies of “Snowden” at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4, at Diesel: A Bookstore, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dieselbookstore.com.