Ted Rall, the Pulitzer Prize finalist, columnist and cartoonist joins Robert Scheer on in this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about his firing by the Los Angeles Times and and his latest book, “Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.”
The host commends the journalist for his “courageous” and “gutsy” reporting on the Afghanistan War and a long, noteworthy career. Yet, it is precisely his candid storytelling through words and visual arts that earned him a place in the Los Angeles Police Department’s crosshairs. The story of Ted Rall’s firing as a cartoonist by Los Angeles Times in 2015 reveals the historically cozy relationship that existed between the media and the police. Writing a blog for the LA Times, in which he detailed an encounter with an LAPD officer who’d detained and handcuffed him for allegedly jaywalking years earlier, ultimately led to Rall’s very public firing and a legal case that now threatens to bankrupt him.
“I did cartoons about a whole variety of subjects over the years, until 2015,” Rall tells Scheer. “And unbeknownst to me, in sort of late 2014, the LAPD pension fund [had invested multimillions] to become the No. 1 shareholder of Tribune Publishing, which owned the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, and 13 other newspapers that are well regarded.” Rall said it was his cartoons and his blog criticizing abuse by police officers that antagonized the LAPD and led to his firing.
Scheer, who was a L.A. Times journalist for 29 years, recounts an interview he did with then-LAPD chief Daryl Gates in the 1990s around the time of the Rodney King uprising, in which Gates saw nothing wrong with the use of the very same chokehold method that has killed countless victims, notably Eric Garner and, more recently, George Floyd.
“You are an example in this whole story of somebody who’s punished because the police department was annoyed,” Scheer continues. “If it had been an ordinary citizen annoyed, they might not have cared very much.”
On the topic of Rall’s most recent book, which focuses on the split between the neoliberal and progressive factions of the Democratic Party, the two journalists discuss the rise of the progressive politics and what that means for the upcoming 2020 general election.
“The book is about the way that that struggle [in the Democratic Party] has unfolded over the last 40 or 50 years,” the cartoonist explains. “And it’s about the dilemma really faced by progressives [and] neoliberals as well. The Democratic Party isn’t viable unless you have both sides of the party together and equally enthused.
“But after progressives saw what was possible with Bernie [Sanders] in 2016,” Rall goes on, “it kind of whet their appetite for something more than just identity politics change. They wanted real, class-based change; they wanted Medicare for All, student loan forgiveness, Green New Deal, $15 minimum wage. And they’re making those demands.”
Rall predicts that due to the constant betrayal and suppression of the leftwing of the party, progressives might withhold their votes from Biden and that the Democratic Party could break up as could the Republican Party due to the split between the Tea Party and more traditional conservatives. Listen to the full conversation between Rall and Scheer as the two discuss electoral politics, a controversial Rall cartoon with which the “Scheer Intelligence” host himself took issue, and the future of journalism.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, a pretentious title given to me by the radio station, KCRW, which generously hosts these shows. But the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, it’s Ted Rall. And I hesitate to call him a cartoonist, although that was his position at the Los Angeles Times when they unceremoniously fired him. And I’m going to get into that in a good way; I worked at the L.A. Times myself for 30 years, and was gone I guess five years before you started, and ten years before you got dumped.
But he’s much more–I shouldn’t say “much more”; I don’t want to disrespect political cartoonists. But he’s a very good column writer, book writer, thinker, historian. And we’re going to get into his most recent book, which is–can the Democratic [Party] find unity in time to beat Donald Trump. That’s the issue raised. And what was the title, anyway? Political Suicide: The Democratic National Committee and the Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, A Graphic History, which I found to be a good read and full of a lot of interesting information.
But let me start with the controversy around you, because you’re still embroiled in some legal issues. And you were a provocative, very interesting editorial page cartoonist, I guess on a somewhat–you weren’t a staff member, but you were what, a contract employee? What was the basis?
TR: Well, there is–
RS: Let me preface this and say, why did they hire you? Because you certainly were [Laughs] a controversial figure. And why did you take the job knowing that I had been fired ten years earlier? What were you thinking?
TR: Well, yeah, I found out about your firing after I started, actually. You know, I’m based in New York, and I had long wanted to land at a daily newspaper so that I could do editorial cartoons about state and local issues, which is an opportunity I’ve only had to do a few times in my life, but most of my life I’ve only gotten to do national and international stuff. And so on a lark, I just emailed the editor over there, Sue Horton, and she said that she and the gang over there had long been fans of mine, and they would love to use me. And as it happened, I was going to be in L.A. shortly thereafter. I went in, we got along, she said hey, do you want to do a cartoon for tomorrow? So I literally just went over to Starbucks and drew a cartoon about Jerry Brown, who was the governor at the time, and emailed it in. And we were off to the races.
So after that, I just did a cartoon for them–at least one a week. And that pretty much was our arrangement for the next six years, although there were certainly some additional assignments. Like for example, at one point I went to cover the war in Afghanistan for them, in cartoon form, and I filed from there, and they ran a lot of those. So there was other stuff, there was freelance stuff. But mainly I was their local and state staff editorial cartoonist, and they did present me as a staffer on their website.
RS: So let me set the stage here, because by then the L.A. Times had already been bought by the Chicago Tribune.
TR: That’s right.
RS: Right, and for people who are not native to Southern California, you know, the L.A. Times is one of the great papers in America. And a checkered history, as all the mass media, in terms of ignorance about class divisions in America, defending corporations, being anti-union, ignoring minority populations when they weren’t defaming them, we could go through all that history. But when we think of the legendary newspapers–and that’s true of the New York Times, it’s true of all of them–but you know, you have to give them a great deal of respect for courage in covering stories, like war and peace, and dedicated journalists who rose above the corporate restraints.
And so when we think of legendary journalism–the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post–and then the L.A. Times was always in the top rank, usually in the top two or three papers. But then the Chandler family, which had owned it all throughout its history, had a falling out among themselves, and Otis Chandler, who was a strong, effective publisher, and they sold the paper to the Chicago Tribune. And I was fired [Laughs] not by the Chandlers, but by the Chicago Tribune. I had a column for a long time, and I’d been a national correspondent. So I was there for about 29 years, great years, and when it was a great paper, for all of its failings.
You went in when this large corporation bought this paper, that had a great local base, but also owned other papers. And they were changing the mix. And what interests me so much about your story–and it’s an ongoing story, because they’re trying, the paper now is trying to get money from you, a substantial amount of money, because you dared to sue them over what you said was defamation. We’ll go into the details of that. But the reason this story is so important for people to understand is we’re in a time where we talk a lot about fake news. We also talk a lot about controlling the police.
And if there’s one area where newspapers were traditionally involved in fake news, going back to the birth of every major newspaper, it was towards the police. The police were there to control society for the powerful, and the newspapers basically ran their stories uncritically. And until I looked into your case, I didn’t realize–and I’d like to begin with that, because the police are so much in the news now, and police violence, and so forth. Your troubles really had to do not only with your taking on the LAPD, a department that was always a center of controversy as far as its racism and oppression of working people and so forth. But when I looked into your controversy, I discovered the police department, or its benefit program or what have you, was actually also an owner of the paper at the time you were fired. So why don’t you take us through this whole case history, really?
TR: Well, yeah, it absolutely was a–it is a–[Laughs] let me start from scratch. There’s your first edit, Bob. [Laughs] So starting from the beginning, I didn’t really know, and I think my editors did not really know, just how deeply involved the LAPD was with the L.A. Times. When I began in 2009, certainly I was surprised to wander into the cafeteria and see it filled with police officers, and when I inquired about it I was told, well, this is the way it’s always been, the police headquarters is just next door to the Times. Which it was at the time, in Downtown L.A. And I didn’t understand that. Because–OK, so don’t the cops have their own cafeteria? It was like, well, no, it just, it’s always been this way. And that just, you know, struck me as odd.
RS: Well, first of all, let me interrupt and say that’s a lie. [Laughs] I ate in that cafeteria for 29 years, both the executive cafeteria and the regular worker cafeteria, and we did not have police officers sitting there unless they were invited in because some reporter was working on a particular story. It’s just not true. Now, that might have changed after I was gone, but I never saw that.
TR: That’s super interesting. Well, that’s what my editor told me, anyway. So obviously, you know, I only knew what she told me. So aside from that, though, I never felt any pressure at all, not to cartoon against the police or to pull back, to pull my punches. You know, the LAPD, as you mentioned, Bob, is a very controversial institution. It’s the most–the invented the SWAT team, they’re one of the most militarized, maybe the most militarized, large city police department in the United States, with a long history of corruption and violence against people of color. And so they came up in the news a lot, and so when I would submit rough sketches, often they were about the LAPD and its chief at the time, Charlie Beck. And quite often those roughs were approved, and I was allowed to draw a cartoon about the LAPD.
And so basically, things went on that way; I did cartoons about a whole variety of subjects over the years, until 2015. And unbeknownst to me, just months earlier, in sort of late 2014, the LAPD pension fund–which was the LAPPL, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which is a police union–they had a $16 billion pension fund that they invested to become the No. 1 shareholder of Tribune Publishing. Which owned, as you mentioned, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, and 13 other newspapers that are well regarded, papers like the Orlando Sentinel and the Baltimore Sun. This deal was midwifed by a new publisher with no experience whatsoever in journalism, a guy named Austin Beutner, who is now the superintendent of L.A. United School District, the largest school district in the country.
Anyway, Beutner came in to Tribune, and as far as I can tell–and this part’s speculation, but it looks like the deal was made at Tribune to bring him in as publisher in exchange for bringing money into an institution that desperately needed it. Tribune had been in bankruptcy for several years. I remember my paychecks would come in from some kind of shell company managed by the bankruptcy court. And it was–and so they desperately needed cash. You know, print media had been in trouble for a long time, but really went into a tailspin after the 2008, 2009 economic crisis. And so anyway, so Beutner became the publisher; he was a hedge fund billionaire with lots of connections, and he appears to have midwifed this deal where his political ally, the LAPPL, bought controlling interest in the parent company of the L.A. Times.
Interestingly, the same union had purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune back in 2009, and they made no bones about the fact that they wanted to influence the editorial direction of the San Diego paper. They issued a statement in the L.A. Times, of all places, saying that now that they owned the San Diego paper, they shouldn’t have to tolerate any editorial writers who are anti-police or criticize public servants like law enforcement officers. But this was all happening at a high level, and I don’t think my editors knew anything about it, and they kept greenlighting cartoons and blogs about the police.
And so May 2015 rolled around, and I drew–there was a jaywalking crackdown in L.A. that one of the columnists, Steve Lopez at the L.A. Times, wrote about. It was in downtown L.A., it specifically targeted people of color; it was pretty egregious, because people were being charged $200 for the offense of jaywalking, which is a lot of money. And so when I did my cartoon about it, I wrote a blog that went with it, and I mentioned sort of–just sort of as a hook in my blog, hey, you know, I know about this jaywalking thing because I got arrested, falsely arrested, and handcuffed by an officer for allegedly–but I was not, actually [Laughs]–jaywalking in West Hollywood 14 years previously, in 2001, shortly after 9/11.
I was, back in 2001, walking back from an appearance where I was on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, that was taped at CBS Television City in West Hollywood. Some friends were waiting for me for dinner, and some family members. I was walking over there, and I was actually pretty early, and I was–the arrangement was for me to call and find out where we were eating, and so I was walking down Melrose Boulevard. This police officer on a motorcycle confronted me and basically grabbed me, threw me up against a wall, roughed me up a little bit–nothing serious, but slapped the handcuffs on me rather brusquely, and proceeded to write me a summons for jaywalking. Which, incidentally, I just was not. I was really–while this whole thing was going on, it was–it drew the notice of a number of passers-by. Melrose Boulevard at eight o’clock at night is kind of like St. Mark’s Place in New York City or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley; it’s a place with a lot of stores and sort of punk rock type people hanging out. And so people started giving the copy a hard time, and yelling at him to take off my handcuffs. This becomes pertinent later on.
And so, anyway, I got to dinner; I was very upset about it, I had the summons that I didn’t deserve. And I decided, based on conversations with some of the people at dinner, who were local, to file a complaint with Internal Affairs about this police officer. And so I did, and I never heard back. I called a couple times to the LAPD to follow up and see what was going on; they never got back to me. And ultimately, I just figured I was one of those, the 99% or so of Internal Affairs complaints that are just ignored and summarily just rejected. And you know, that’s a problem that’s sort of national.
Anyway, so all these years later, in 2015, about two months after my blog about this incident appeared, I get a call from Paul Pringle, who’s an investigative reporter at the L.A. Times, a guy who I’d never met, unfamiliar with. And he said, he told me well, you know, the LAPD says you’re lying, that your story isn’t true. And I said, well, of course they would say that. And he said, well, they have evidence. And I’m like, what evidence? He said, well, the copy was secretly audio recording your arrest back in 2001. So I’m like, what? And I’d never heard of such a thing; we were just starting to talk about body cameras in 2015. I had no idea there was a whole secret audio recording program going on.
So Pringle says, can I send you the audio? So he does, and he sends me a digital version of it. I listen to it, and it’s six and a half minutes long, and all you can hear, really, is static and noise from the police. And this audio is available online for anyone who wants to look at it. But basically it’s sort of like [imitates loud static sound]. And every now and then, you can sort of hear a voice in the distant background. But it’s so bad that I honestly couldn’t swear on a Bible that it was even me on that thing. And then, so he said, well–you know, Pringle said, so what do you think? I said, this is a joke! It doesn’t prove anything. He goes, well, I can’t hear any sign that your story is true on this thing. And I’m like, well, of course not. You can’t hear anything on this. It’s like–and he goes, well, how do you explain that? I’m like, I don’t have to explain it. It’s your audio, it’s the police’s story, it’s up for them to explain why it doesn’t back up their story.
I didn’t take it very seriously. But I ought to have, because within 24 hours, the decision had been made to not only fire me, but to publish an editor’s note stating that effectively, I had made the whole thing up, that it never happened, and for that reason–
RS: That what never happened? They had a tape that you were there, right?
TR: Right, but–
RS: And you were arrested, right?
TR: Right. It’s absurd, because I was arrested, and the–
RS: Why were you arrested? Even if you had been jaywalking, why were you arrested?
TR: Well, apparently, in Los Angeles, jaywalking is a misdemeanor.
RS: I know, but this hotshot reporter who called you, what was he saying with this? He was saying it was normal that you be arrested and dragged off to jail, and the police have on that tape no evidence that you were–what? Resisting them, or–?
TR: Well, it was actually topsy-turvy. They didn’t take me to jail. They released me at the end of the arrest. They wrote the ticket, kept me there handcuffed, and then let me go. And they let me go actually because another officer pulled up and said, “Hey, what the fuck are you doing? Let him go.” And then he did. And so I think that, you know, obviously, he had kind of gone too far; there was a whole scene, you know, people were screaming at the cop. And so–and it was funny, because I never argued with the police officer. I mean, you know, why would you? You have to be insane. And cops are dangerous, and I’m scared of them. And so anyway, I never argued, I was extremely compliant, very polite. But the cop was rude throughout this whole thing. And at the end of the encounter, he even threw my driver’s license on the ground. He pretended like he was going to give it to me, then threw it into the gutter.
But you know, they basically questioned everything about it. And when–for example, they said, well, if it were me, I would be–Pringle said, I would be arguing with the cop. And I’m like, well, I never said I argued with the cop, and I didn’t argue with the cop. And I–
RS: Yeah, but we’re not talking about a guy arrested on suspicion of murder or something. We’re talking about jaywalking. And so what I don’t understand–and when I read about your case, and I read what the appellate court said, and the Supreme Court [Laughs] and everything, I thought, wait a minute. Let’s get back to the chase of the free press. You were fired because the police claimed they had a tape that you had lied in a blog about what happened to you in a jaywalking incident, right? And why would–what was the position of the paper that they were fire somebody at the request of the police based on–what? That you distorted what had happened in–I don’t get it. And there was no hearing? Of course they don’t have a union, so there’s no protection. The police would have a lot of protection–if they’re accused of murder, they get all kinds of hearings, they get all kinds of possibility to prove their innocence. And here you lose your–before they’re fired. You lose your connection with the L.A. Times on the basis of this recording?
TR: That’s correct, yeah. That’s right. This ridiculous, like, recording that had basically no content on it, which–well, there’s more to that, as you know. But yeah, that’s right. And at the time, my editor, Cherry Gee, was on vacation; she’d been gone to Japan for several weeks. And so she was the only person there who I dealt with on a day-to-day basis, and who had greenlit the article and the cartoon. She, by the way, was allowed to stay, and she took a retirement, she took an early severance; I think she probably signed a non-disclosure, which is why she can’t comment on this. I also talked to Susan Brenneman, at the time, who was my other editor at the time, and she said oh, this just sounds like the police being police; I believe you. But yeah, no, I never had a hearing. Nick Goldberg, who was the editorial page editor at the time, talked to me; he didn’t seem to know what was going on. He called me, not to inform me of what was going on; he called to find out what was going on. Which is when I sort of figured out that this was coming from somewhere–
RS: OK, let me cut to the chase, because I want to talk to you about a lot of other stuff. But the reason that people listening to this should care–should care–is that your voice was silenced. And the police didn’t like your cartoons, they made that clear. And the paper rolled over. And now, in addition to having lost your job–but your career is doing well, you’ve got books, you’re a good fellow. But the readers don’t get to see your cartoons. So this censorship of a provocative artist, who was annoying the police, was allowed to stand. And instead of their being held accountable, or anybody at the paper or the Tribune Corporation, you, in fact, are now facing–what? Some huge possible legal expense that will bankrupt you, because the L.A. Times, now under different ownership, still is persisting in holding you responsible, and they’re demanding damages.
TR: Yes, that’s right. So to–
RS: Let’s cut to the chase here. The paper is now threatening to bankrupt you because they’re still sticking to their story, and they want, what, retribution? They want to punish you? What’s going on here?
TR: Well, actually, they’re not even sticking to their story. Because what happened is, after they fired me and published that article, I got the audio enhanced, where they cleaned up the noise. And it turns out you can actually–the tape just completely backs up my story. You can hear a woman screaming at the police officer, “Take off his handcuffs.” And whether or not I was handcuffed was–I know it sounds silly, but it was the big thing that the Times was really concerned about in their article. They said, you know, we don’t think he was handcuffed–although jaywalkers in L.A. are handcuffed every single day; it happens all the time. In fact, in the L.A. Times there was an article about the same officer handcuffing suspects. So it happens, it’s routine, but they just didn’t believe me on that. And the audio–
RS: Or they, it was what they called when I was at the L.A. Times, “too good to check.” Meaning–
TR: [Laughs] Yeah.
RS: –meaning that they didn’t want to embarrass the police. And I want to say, I’m going to put–when we run this on Scheerpost, my own site, I’m going to put a clip there of an interview I did with Daryl Gates at the police academy during the Rodney King uprising, and the police brutality at that time, where he defended the chokehold. And he defended it on the grounds that Black people died because he said, well, they have a different physiology, and that’s why. He blamed it on the people who died in a police chokehold. And I remember, even in the coverage of that whole thing, they were pro-police.
And the point I’m trying to get at in this interview is that these legendary newspapers that we’re so–yes, they play an important role. When it came to policing, particularly of minority communities, they were not in any sense fair and balanced. And Daryl Gates was a favorite of the L.A. Times. The police department was a favorite, whether they ate lunch in the cafeteria or not; I guess they got even cozier after I left. But the real issue here is not–you know, here’s a paper that throughout much of its history did not even report on the black or brown community in Los Angeles. Systematically racist. Mayor Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor of Los Angeles, pointed that out often. I interviewed him about that for the L.A. Times. The historic racism was there.
But you are an example in this whole story of somebody who’s punished because the police department was annoyed. If it had been an ordinary citizen annoyed–nope, might not have cared very much. So I think we got it. Can you just tell us, if people are concerned about your situation, what is the status of it, and you know, what can they do about it?
TR: Well, so after I proved that I was innocent and they refused to take me back, I sued them for defamation and for wrongful termination. And the Times hit back with something called an anti-slap motion, which basically means that I had to prove that I was going to win in court, otherwise–before I actually get to go to trial–otherwise I have to pay the L.A. Times’ legal bills. Well, basically, the L.A. Times has argued throughout, from the trial court into the appellate court into the California State Supreme Court, that they admit that I told the truth; they know that they lied about me; but that they have, under California code and under the anti-slap statute, literally a, quote unquote, “an absolute right to libel.”
And so they said–I remember their lawyer said, in open court, “The truth doesn’t matter.” The, quote unquote, “truth doesn’t matter.” All that matters is that a newspaper is allowed to literally publish anything it wants, with impunity, and it does not matter whether it’s true or not. They literally have argued that. And so far, it’s worked. The trial court ruled against me, so did the appellate. The California Supreme Court indicated initially that it was going to rule in my favor, then changed its mind. And interestingly, they completely decertified the appellate decision, which means that they’re admitting that this is bad law, but they’re leaving it to stand in my case. So literally, I’m the only journalist in the state of California who is subject to this. But it sent a chilling message, and I face a judgment of about $1 million for the Times’ legal bills, because they have an $815 an hour attorney who probably pads her bills pretty generously. And so they want me to pay.
But the idea here is, they want to send a message: do not mess with us, do not mess with the LAPD. And so it’s a message not just for Ted Rall, it’s a message for every journalist in the state of California. And I think it’s been heard loud and clear. They have a union now, and the union is terrified to speak up about this, because even with the new owner, Dr. Pat Soon-Shiong, they’re just–they haven’t changed anything, they’ve continued to go after me. So my lawyers and I are desperately trying to get the attention right now of the United States Supreme Court, but frankly, it’s a Hail Mary Pass. You know, it would be a miracle if anything were to happen.
RS: Well, you know, understand–and California, you know, has this anti-slap thing which is supposed to prevent frivolous lawsuits and people who are going after famous people and celebrities, and therefore, you know, if you’re going to make accusations then you’re going to have to pick up the other side’s legal thing. And the newspaper–all people who care about a free press have always been concerned about that having an intimidating effect. Here is a case where the journalist–you; the artist–you, working for the paper, has not only been intimidated, been fired. And now the newspaper is willing to use this intimidating law against one of its own, and would effectively bankrupt you and crush you. OK, so people should look into this case more. But I want to take advantage of the fact that you’re here, and that you have gone on to have an even stronger career. And by the way, I want to applaud some of your writing about Afghanistan, because that was your second trip to Afghanistan. Many years before you had gone there, right, and written about it?
TR: That’s correct, yeah, I’ve been there [inaudible] times.
RS: Yeah. And I read your reporting, and it was really courageous, gutsy. So please tell me a little bit about this. This was before you ever went to work for the L.A. Times, and then you went back. And you didn’t go as an embedded reporter; you really did some incisive, courageous reporting. And so let’s talk a little bit about that.
TR: Well, thank you. The embedding program actually didn’t even, wasn’t born until the Iraq War in 2003–
RS: No, I know, that was your second trip, I’m talking about–so go back to your first, and then to the second.
TR: Yeah, so in the fall of 2001, after 9/11, when the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan in October, I decided to go over there. I had a tremendous interest in Central Asia and Afghanistan that predated 9/11. And I got the sense from watching TV that we were just not being given a very accurate sense of what was going on there. So after looking around, I finally convinced the Village Voice to send me. And so I got in; I spent about three weeks in northern Afghanistan during the final stages of the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of the Taliban. And it was obviously a very intense experience; several of my colleagues lost their lives, it was–others were injured. And you know, we definitely, I think, did some really good work in terms of showing the effects of this conflict on ordinary people, men and women and children in Afghanistan. And I did a lot of filing from there; I lived with local families. And then when I got back, I wrote a book about–a sort of very quickly written book about my experience, called To Afghanistan and Back, which turned out to be the first book in any form about the U.S. invasion, just because it came out so quickly. And it did very well for that reason, and became a bestseller, and kind of put me on the map for Afghanistan reporting.
And so then after that, I’ve gone back a few more times. And I did a–I went back in 2010; I did a book that sort of compared the state of the country nine years later with the way it looked at the beginning. People have probably forgotten all the times that the U.S. has claimed that it was going to withdraw from Afghanistan, but Obama had said in 2010 that we were leaving. So I went over there to sort of find out the good, the bad, and the ugly about the U.S. experience, and there was stuff that was also comical, as well. And I put that in a book called “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back as Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan,” which is a more measured and careful, more carefully written, prettier book for sure, than To Afghanistan and Back. But To Afghanistan and Back is more immediate, and is, like, grittier. So it just depends on your taste. But, like, I have a great love for, and a fascination with, Afghanistan and its people. I would love to go back.
RS: Yeah, and I would point out that you risked your life for the Los Angeles Times, going there, not having the protection of an embedded reporter. And yet despite that, all it took was a controversy that any citizen could have with the LAPD over who, what, when. Because in every demonstration now, we have lots of people of different backgrounds who claim they’ve been abused by this, or other police departments. And now I think the mood would not be to uncritically accept their work, I suspect. And I can tell you from personal experience, plenty of people I know who have worked at the L.A. Times have had their own run-ins with the LAPD, and many in their capacity as journalists, when the treatment was not good.
So it’s connected that somehow, something has been lost from these newspapers. I think the people now doing the L.A. Times are trying to do a good job. You got a workforce there that’s struggling. I think newspapers are really important. And the kind of journalism that they’ve done, despite questioning whether one person owns it or another, we lose something when we lose–and you’ve written about that. You’ve talked about–so let’s end with, you know, you represent to my mind a kind of Sy Hersh, Izzy Stone. And in the cartooning field, Mauldin; there were plenty of cartoonists who covered war more effectively than anybody. Paul Conrad, who was himself a veteran of World War II, was the great cartoonist at the L.A. Times, and I often felt Paul Conrad’s work was worth more than the entire paper. And the L.A. Times did publish him, because readers wanted him, and readers supported him. And now readers are left to the tender mercy of the internet, and the business model for traditional newspapers and magazines has been broken, and there really isn’t much place for the political cartoonist. I’m going to be doing one up the road with Mr. Fish, who is another legendary cartoonist, I know whom you know.
But talk to us about–let’s close this up with the state of journalism, because you’ve written about that. And by the way, I want to nod to your own background, you studied engineering [Laughs] before you got into the rest of your–I happened to study engineering also, at City College; you were at Columbia. But I was touched by the fact that you dropped out and then you went back and got a general, I guess a BA or something. But you’ve also made remarks about the elite that go to journalism schools, and what’s happened to the profession. So give us your take on the business of journalism.
TR: Well, I mean, it’s not a secret that journalism is in big trouble financially. It’s not that, as you said, it’s not that there’s a lack of people interested in it or willing to do a good job or take chances to do good work. But the financial model that supported journalism through deep-pocketed families like the Chandlers, who enjoyed prodigious advertising revenue–that model has broken down due to the internet. And you know, a lot of people listening to this might say, OK, well, I don’t care about newspapers, I don’t read them. And even if you don’t, you’re still reading newspaper-generated news, because at least 90% of all the news that’s generated in the United States, whether it appears on the internet or you listen to it on the radio or you watch it on television, it comes out of newspapers. That’s where it originates even now. So it does matter, and the state is pretty grim.
And I think one of the things that’s being lost–well, a lot of things are being lost. You mentioned editorial cartooning has been viewed as disposable. Experienced reporters have been the first to be laid off whenever there’s budget cuts, because they have the higher salaries. And these organizations think, oh, I can hire two reporters for the price of one if I fire this older person–but then you’re losing that person’s experience and wisdom. We’re also losing people who take chances and risks. I mean, if you–you know, if you’re in a scenario where people are constantly going through rounds of layoffs, the people who get laid off are not the people who are doing the worst work. It’s the people who are the least popular, the most challenging, the most difficult, the most ornery–they’re the ones who usually get cut first.
So we’re losing the risk-takers, and we’re ending up with people who are sort of young, wet behind the ears–and also, as you pointed out, people who are from more elite families. So for example, the New York Times hires an inordinate number of graduates from Columbia Journalism School. But basically, Columbia Journalism School doesn’t give scholarships. If I had applied–and I was from a poorer family–I would have never gotten a scholarship to go to J-school, and I’m not unusual. So the graduates from that school are by definition coming out of the upper-middle class and the upper class; they’re not coming, you know, you’re not getting working-class and poor people who are smart and then get jobs at these major media institutions.
So we’re losing, you know, a class point of view; we’re losing–and I think, you know, the oppositional nature of the fourth estate is what’s really being lost. This is–newspapers are supposed to operate outside of the status quo; they’re supposed to be oppositional, they’re not supposed to be supportive of politicians or corporations. They’re supposed to be critical, and let’s just say deeply skeptical. They don’t have to necessarily be antagonistic for the sake of being antagonistic, because that would be equally not devoted to the truth. But they should be following the truth wherever it leads, and it’s increasingly difficult to do that, I think. With the way that the financial model has broken down, they really need to kowtow to the people in power. Even if your paper is not directly owned by a police department, as the L.A. Times was when it fired me, they still for example have to rely on the cops to get leads for stories, because they don’t have enough reporters on the ground collecting stories from the street, from the people. So they need to rely on these institutions, which are necessarily problematic and biased.
RS: So let me wrap this up with some self-criticism, in that people like us went to work for a paper like the L.A. Times, and we did a good job. And there are plenty of people–and we also make mistakes, by the way; well, I don’t want to get into great detail, but we don’t always get it right. And you yourself have apologized in one area that I feel quite strongly about, because I followed the Pat Tillman, the Arizona State and then Arizona Cardinals football player who–and his brother Kevin, they made a great sacrifice, decided to walk away in Pat Tillman’s case from a very big salary, and go fight because they thought if these wars were justified, ordinary people should. And you had a cartoon which, you know, raised some questions about it, but then you did apologize for that. I just want to get that on the record. You know what I’m referring to, right?
TR: Yeah, of course. Yeah, so I did a cartoon about Pat Tillman. You know, it’s not that I was really wrong at the time. I mean, at the time, Tillman was being presented as a big, stupid, racist mook who went off to the Middle East to kill Muslims in revenge for 9/11. And that’s how his memorial service was presented when it was sort of hijacked by right-wing politicians like John McCain; Tillman’s family was from Arizona. Turned out to be that Tillman was a very different person. He was actually progressive, he read Noam Chomsky, he was opposed to the war. I spoke to his mother Mary, and she told me that the reason that he enlisted was actually because his brother had enlisted, and he was told by a recruiter that he could literally watch his brother’s back and be in the same unit, which turned out to not be really true. You know, not the first time that a military recruiter has ever lied to a recruit, I think. But yeah, you know, it just wasn’t true. He was not this rah-rah war–
RS: By the way, nor was his brother, at all, Kevin Tillman. And you know, Kevin Tillman, who has written for Truthdig that I edited, I know quite well, and I know his mother quite well–they went very specifically because they thought that it’s unfair in an all-volunteer army, that if this war is justified, that only people who need it as a job should go. And they did not want to go to Iraq; they went to Iraq, but they thought that was based on a lie. And they did believe in the original story, and felt they were deceived. So I just felt that that’s a case–but you know, I think we clearly do get things wrong. That’s not the point. The point is, is it’s systemic, is the institution encouraging us to get it wrong. And I think you would agree, and that particular one, you did get it wrong. I’ve gotten things wrong.
But I want to get it back to the systemic issue, which is that your book, your current book, Political Suicide: The Democratic National Committee and the Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, A Graphic History, describes that process of trying to figure things out. And I found it a quite powerful book; I never thought that I would think that a graphic–how would you describe it? A cartoon book?
TR: I would say it’s a graphic novel format, nonfiction book.
RS: Yeah. Well, I would never think that such a book would be so informative. And it really is. I want to suggest it for people. And it’s recently come out, it’s Seven Stories Press. And it’s a crash course in what happened to the Democratic Party, and it’s very relevant to this election. Because it basically challenges the automatic pass we give to the so-called lesser evil. So why don’t you tell us about this book and what it’s all about.
TR: Sure. Well, right now, obviously, we’re looking at the aftermath of the 2020 primaries. But we saw in sharp relief in 2020 and in 2016 the split between the progressive and the neoliberal corporatist wings of the Democratic Party. And that’s a split that’s been around at least since the 1960s, but in recent history we saw it kind of emerge after McGovern’s defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in 1972. And at that time, up until then, the New Left had kind of been ascendant in the Democratic Party and trying to take it over and move it to the left. But then right-wing senators and figures like Scoop Jackson, Sam Nunn, people like that kind of took over the Democratic Party and moved it to the right, and pushed it through institutions like the Democratic Leadership Council. Over the years, election after election–kind of culminating, I would say, with Bill Clinton’s 1992 election and continuing throughout the Obama years, where basically the Democratic Party sought big corporate donors, kind of distanced itself from the working class and from big labor, moved toward, tried to chase more sort of swing-voter, Reagan Democrats, as they called them, and so tried to appeal to sort of a policy of triangulation, small-bore issues.
And that split kind of came to a head in 2016. Up until 2016, progressives had basically been told, shut up, you have no other choice but to vote for the Democrats, because it’s us or the Republicans. But then Bernie Sanders’ insurgency, I think, took off–probably to no one’s surprise more than Bernie’s–and it exploded, and he was suddenly speaking to stadiums with 20,000 people in them. And he sort of almost accidentally captured the Democratic nomination. He was planning, I think, a symbolic kind of pull-Hillary-Clinton-to-the-left campaign, and it became much bigger than that. Then we all know what happened; the DNC really did rig the system against him, to prevent him from forming a real threat to Hillary Clinton. Hillary became the nominee, but a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters didn’t turn out for her in the fall. Some of them even moved over to Trump, and Trump won. It wasn’t the only reason that Trump won, but it was a reason that Trump won. And so that sort of repeated itself in 2020, less dramatically, because there was also Elizabeth Warren splitting the progressive lane. But still, the DNC still had its thumb on the scale.
So the book is about the way that that struggle has unfolded over the last 40 or 50 years. And it’s about the dilemma really faced by progressives. I mean–well, it’s a dilemma for the neoliberals as well. The Democratic Party isn’t viable unless you have both sides of the party together and equally enthused. But after progressives saw what was possible with Bernie in 2016, it kind of whet their appetite for something more than just identity politics change. They wanted real, class-based change; they wanted Medicare for All, student loan forgiveness, Green New Deal, $15 minimum wage. And they’re making those demands, and it’s basically, they did something that they had not done previously, which was to withhold their votes in the general election. And I think Joe Biden faces the very real prospect that they may do the same thing this time. Joe Biden comes out of the same corporatist, right-wing part of the Democratic Party; I mean, certainly, he hasn’t always been right-wing, but he has some pretty conservative positions, particularly on foreign policy. He voted for the Iraq War; he still claims that it wasn’t his fault, that it was because he fell for Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction.
And so anyway, the book traces that, and sort of sets up the dilemma for both sides of the Democratic Party, and talks about how there might be a split at some point. Which I think could happen also in the GOP; there’s also a sort of an uneasy alliance between the Tea Party wing and the sort of old-style conservative, George H. W. Bush-type Republicans. But right now, the focus is on the Democrats.
RS: And in your cartoons, there’s always someone–someone has just given the statement that you have, and then their husband or wife or someone sitting next to them in the cartoon says, “Yeah, but Trump–but Trump–but Trump.” And right now, we have kind of Trump derangement syndrome or something. I mean the guy, you know, is coming unglued; his policies are quite dangerous, and the lesser evil seems to be compelling. The question is, what if it’s also totally whitewashing, effectively, of all politics? I mean, is this sort of the, you know, the dumbing down of the whole thing?
TR: Yeah, the problem is that–it is, there’s no doubt that a Joe Biden presidency is better than a Donald Trump presidency for a lot of people. But the problem is that if Democrats, progressive and left-wing Democrats continue to vote for figures like Joe Biden, there’s no reason for the Democratic Party to ever change, or to ever make any kind of allowances or concessions to the left, and then they never will. And the thing is, every single election, we’re always told, nothing is more important than beating Mitt Romney; nothing’s more important than beating Sarah Palin and John McCain and so on and so on. And–
RS: But Romney would look pretty good right now, wouldn’t he?
TR: [Laughter] Probably so, probably so. And [unclear] he was the architect of Obamacare, basically. But it’s a–you know, but we’re always told that. And look, there’s never going to be an election where nothing important is at stake. There’s always something important at stake; I mean, you know, it’s the United States government. There’s always a war, or a pandemic, or an economic crisis; people are always going to need help. So at some point, people have to kind of decide, what are they going to do? Are they going to just keep voting against their own interests, or are they going to take a stand, but also understand that that stand is going to cause some suffering?
RS: So let me conclude this with something I did get out of your book. And again, let me tell people what the book is: Political Suicide: The Democratic National Committee and the Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, A Graphic History, these wonderfully provocative cartoons and dialogue. But let me just say, in your history you remind us that the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, has had a checkered past. This is, after all, the party of segregation; at a time when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, let’s not forget the Deep South, which was the rump of the Democratic Party, was the segregationist party. And by contrast, the Republican Party was much more supportive of ending segregation, and before that, obviously, slavery. And you know, there’s a–in terms of war and peace, the Democratic Party has been in favor of such things, and even the issue between Bernie and Hillary. And you did a graphic history of Bernie, and of Julian Assange, right? Or you–what was the other one?
TR: Ed Snowden.
RS: Ed Snowden. Well, the revelations of people like Ed Snowden and Julian Assange are treated as traitorous by leading Democrats; even Senator Dianne Feinstein in California, Hillary Clinton and others have condemned them. And we also know that in the 2016 election, the high crime of Julian Assange is supposed to be that he let us know what Hillary Clinton said when she talked to Goldman Sachs and other bankers for those very expensive speeches, right? And he’s also responsible for leaking the memos about what the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, did to hurt Bernie’s chances, and how they had become a captive of the Hillary Clinton campaign and its money.
So let’s conclude on that, because let’s put ourselves into one of your cartoons. And I’ll be the mate, the husband or white, and asking you–yes, but doesn’t Trump change everything? And right now, there should be no excuse for not jumping on that wagon, and uncritically. And let me say, that’s not a yes or a no answer. Because in your book, you say maybe, but the alternative is grassroots politics, demonstrations, and people who advance that. So that would probably be a good, positive note on which to end.
TR: Right. Well, it’s funny, because when my book went to bed, it was before the coronavirus, and before the killing of George Floyd that prompted mass protests that are ongoing by Black Lives Matter. And that have re-inaugurated a new era of protest, the likes of which America hasn’t seen since the 1960s and early 1970s. And I think, you know, it’s kind of a perfect storm with mass unemployment and really no distractions, right? Like, there’s no sports, there’s no restaurants, there’s no church, there’s no houses of worship; what else is there to do on a nice afternoon than go out and fight for justice in the streets?
So street protest was kind of declared all but dead after Occupy Wall Street, but it turns out that it’s alive and kicking. And I think there’s not going to ever be any real hope from electoral democracy by itself. Electoral democracy can be responsive, certainly, but what happens on the street has greater potential for being radical, and for having sort of broad-based changes that can’t just be rolled back. And I think that’s why the sixties were so incredibly important; that’s why, for example, so many advances of the Civil Rights Movement have stuck and stayed with us and been expanded upon, because they started in the street with the people. We can’t–you know, politics can’t be outsourced to politicians every two to four years. It’s something that we have to take charge of in our own lives every single day, whether it’s just a conversation with our friends or marching in the streets or whatever, or taking a photo of–you know, a video of a police officer arresting a suspect. We all have to, we have that responsibility as citizens to do that.
RS: Yeah. And when you say protest is alive and well, every time it is, whether it was the labor movement or it was the anti-war movement, or now the Black Lives Matter movement, co-option is alive and well. And the stronger and more effective a movement of social protest is, the more enticing are the alternatives to sell out and betray it.
And one thing I can think, in concluding, we can say about Ted Rall, he’s not a person who’s likely to sell out. You can disagree with him, as I did at one point in this interview, but you have to respect the body of this man’s work. And it’s the kind of work that jeopardizes any establishment job you might land from time to time. As I said earlier, why were you surprised they would put you out of a dominant institution like that. However, your articles, your columns, your drawings–that is one good thing about the internet; they’re readily available. Just Google Ted Rall, and you’ll find all of the outlets. Check out his book, and I give it again, Political Suicide, very easy to look up.
But we’ve run out of time for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our engineer at KCRW, which kindly hosts these podcasts, Christopher Ho, I want to thank him. Natasha Hakimi, who does the excellent introductions. And Joshua Scheer, who is our producer and does everything to make this possible. And see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. But I want to have a special thank-you to the JWK Foundation for being a funder for this show, in honor of the late Jean Stein, a great journalist, writer, editor, and keep her memory and spirit alive. Thank you and see you next week.