IT’S TIME TO play “You Are the Editor.” Your most debated decision today does not concern Iran or Pakistan or the design of your paper’s new iPad app, but rather whether to run a comic strip that includes book excerpts that paint a public figure in a negative light.
For sake of this exercise, let’s say you haven’t secured an advance copy of the tell-all bio being excerpted. You either run the strips — excerpts and all — or you take a pass, at least until you can read the book and conduct your own “verification.”
What would you do?
At least two newspapers — including the Chicago Tribune — decided not to run this week's “Doonesbury,” which, in a “first serial arrangement,” includes excerpts from Joe McGinniss’ soon-to-be-published biography of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reportedly pulled “Doonesbury’s” Palin-story strips as of Tuesday.)
(Update: Speaking of premarital personal romance: On Wednesday, the book excerpt we alluded to Sunday involving former NBA star Glen Rice is apparently titillating many observers: It’s now heating up the Internet.)
In explaining its decision to readers, the Tribune said that “the subject matter does not meet our standards of fairness [because] the strips include excerpts from a book that is not yet on the market and therefore unavailable for review or verification by the Tribune.”
The Tribune expanded on that in a note Monday night, saying that the decision was not about partisan politics and that it was not a case of censorship, but rather editorial judgment. Geoff Brown, the Tribune’s associate managing editor/entertainment, writes in the note: “We do not consider any factors except whether content meets our standards of fairness or taste. We judge each case on its merits.”
(Comic Riffs asked Brown on Monday night what he thought personally of the “Doonesbury” strips. His reply: “I don’t give public opinions on comic strips. Never have, never will.”)
The Tribune, like The Post and many other newspapers, has a decades-long history of making judgment calls regarding the Pulitzer-winning “Doonesbury,” as creator Garry Trudeau’s satiric pencil has famously blurred the lines between comic stripper, journalist and political pundit.
In 1985, for instance, the Tribune was among the papers not comfortable with how Trudeau satirized the Reagan White House’s decision to bestow a humanitarian award upon Frank Sinatra. One “Doonesbury” strip pictured Sinatra with Aniello Dellacroce, whom the cartoonist called an “alleged human” charged “with the murder of Gambino family member Charley Calise.” The Tribune was among the papers that deleted the reference to the Calise murder.
Bottom line: Editors, of course, have the right not to run a cartoon.
But to that I would append: Cartoonists who editorialize, of course, have the responsibility not to be fair.
Whether you’re Jon Stewart or P.J. O’Rourke, Trudeau or Tina Fey or Bruce Tinsley, Lewis Black or Will Durst, satire is not a business that traffics in fairness. Its first order of business is entertainment toward the aim of enlightenment.
Satirists bring their biases — even when a primary bias is simply how to best find an audience — to the act of their art. The mere process of picking targets is not fair. The satirist wields a klieg light to shine at hypocrisy with the bright beam of hyperbole. Or irony. Or misdirection.
This, naturally, is why (some) newspapers still have political cartoonists. Because they draw their opinions, they are permitted to play in the intellectual sandbox of unfairness.
Within journalism, political cartoonists are akin to your one relative — the cheeky cousin, the wacky uncle — who somehow has the family’s tacit blessing to say or do what no one else can get away with.
The political cartoonist is the singular class clown who is so entertaining, the teacher allows his or her antics — perhaps even smiles inside — instead of sending the cut-up to the principal.
The political cartoonist is even the Don Rickles of the room — the one person whose barbs are/were so amusing, even the prickly Sinatra (to bring this full circle) made an exception and blessed this one jester.
The late, great Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette said editorial cartoons were primal — like the once-maligned “jungle” beat of rock ‘n’ roll. They bypass the brain’s spam filters where mere text gets vigorously inspected like an airline passenger. So even the chemistry of cartoons, it seems, doesn’t play fair..
And historically, was it deemed “fair” before Thomas Nast famously satirized Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall’s corruption? Surely some editors wouldn’t have dared run those cartoons.
Was it declared “fair” before Herblock linked Watergate to Nixon within mere days after the infamous “third-rate burglary”? Some editors would have waited till all the facts were in and verified.
To be clear: It is the job of editors to decide what is journalistically responsible — and legally defensible.
But political cartoonists such as Trudeau must absolutely push the boundaries with the aim to backlight the truth.
That is the inherent unfairness — and yet brilliant purpose — of satire.