Ted Rall is one of a couple of cartoonists who are perpetually on the bubble for me.
Which is to say, I generally find his work annoying and incoherent, but he connects often enough that I keep him in my feed and have featured him here more than once.
I also supported the Kickstarter he ran to finance a trip with Matt Bors and Steven Cloud to Afghanistan, and wrote about it on a couple of occasions.
But I've also quoted Abbie Hoffman here on a couple of occasions. A quotable bombthrower can be more interesting than someone who actually understands what's happening but who drones on in dreary footnotes.
Hoffman did occasionally come up with proposals to solve the problems he ranted about, but he stole nearly all of them from other people. Rall is more honest: He mostly rants and rarely proposes solutions.
Which makes his public dismissal from the LA Times a perfect chance to defend the First Amendment, because it's not like he's a favorite of mine.
Except that the First Amendment also protects the LA Times' right to not print things they don't want to print, so this really isn't about the First Amendment. It's more about ...
1. Can we trust media that allows itself to be bullied by politicians and advertisers?
2. Did they have to be such jerks about it?
The less detailed outline:
Rall is a freelancer whose arrangement with the LA Times came to an abrupt halt when the LA Police Department produced (apparent) evidence that an encounter with an officer depicted in one of his columns didn't happen the way he said. Part of the evidence was a garbled audio tape of the encounter, from the officer's lapel mike.
Ted was not simply cut from the Times' lineup, but castigated in a note to readers for lack of journalistic integrity. He subsequently had some audio experts clean up the tape and announced that it backed his version of events. Cartoonists came to his defense and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists issued a rebuke and called for an investigation.
The LA Times has responded with a more detailed confirmation of their original findings and decision, including the results of their (later) submitting the tape to audio experts.
Let's take the second point first: Did they have to be such jerks about it?
You can argue that their readers deserved an explanation as to why Ted's stuff was no longer appearing.
But, unlike Tom Brady and Deflategate, there is no collective bargaining agreement that should dictate how these things are handled. Rall wasn't even entitled to an explanation, and the readers might have settled for something more vague.
So, no, they didn't have to be jerks. They chose to be jerks. It was a pretty stupid choice.
The answer to the first question is also "No."
We shouldn't trust media that allows itself to be bullied by politicians and advertisers, except that we can trust them to be commercial media, which brings us back to whether their readers deserved an explanation.
We can trust commercial media that is open and above-board with readers, with advertisers, with politicians, and bullied by none of them.
The original explanation boiled down to "We let Ted criticize the cops a lot, but we can't let him lie about them," and the problem with that was that they weren't holding the ace.
They still seemed to be holding a pretty good hand, but it wasn't unbeatable, and, given that they didn't have to show their cards in the first place, they should either have had every loose end nailed down or not have opened themselves up to questions.
And, boy, have they dug themselves into a hole.
An apology without reinstatement seems silly and would probably infuriate readers.
But reinstatement would essentially call the police liars, and I don't think they are in a position to do that, either.
Looks to me like they missed a good chance to shut up. That's a hard mistake to fix.
Meanwhile, Rall's dismissal might seem a perfect chance to defend the First Amendment, except, as said, this isn't about the First Amendment.
It's about fairness, and, if you want to argue about fairness, you want Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson: The angel over whom no decent objection can be raised.
Ted's no angel, a fact in which he seems to take a lot of pride. Which is okay, but it doesn't make him the ideal unblemished lamb for this slaughter.
At the risk of violating the Prime Directive, let's go back to that cartoon:
First of all, Rall has not been "vindicated." On his cleaned-up version of the tape, you can now hear voices, but not with a clarity that goes beyond the LA Times' late-to-the-hanging experts' opinion that they are an unrelated, unintelligible conversation of random passersby. The LA Times wasn't holding the ace, but Ted doesn't have it in his hand, either.
The far more important point is this: Making enemies is not the job of any cartoonist, columnist or general-purpose journalist.
It may be an unavoidable consequence, but, even that, not often.
The good butcher does not dull his blade, and the idea that "if they're both angry, we must be getting it right" is the defense of an incompetent.
If they're both disappointed, maybe.
In my experience, however, if they're both angry, it generally means you didn't get any of it right.
My experience also suggests that pissing people off may get you applause from the peanut gallery, but it won't get you any actual results.
If you want to accomplish something, learn to use the rapier, not the stinkbomb.
However, this doesn't mean I don't think Ted got a raw deal. He did.
If nothing else, a clean, surgical break would have left him free to go find other venues instead of tangled in this mess. They could have just dropped him; They didn't have to slime him.
Instead, the LA Times screwed it up totally, and beyond ethics or human decency, it was a strategic blunder.
Their unnecessary public posturing made them look like the LAPD's rentboys, when -- even if they are the LAPD's rentboys -- all they had to do to make the Cap'n like them was stop running a freelancer's stuff.
They didn't even need to hand him a cardboard box, much less provide him with a soapbox.
If making unnecessary enemies is not the job of a cartoonist, making unnecessary heroes is not the job of a supervisor, either.