washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ombudsman
Ombudsman

Drawing Complaints, Online and Off

By Michael Getler
Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page B06

Much of the mail to me this past week was about something that was not in the newspaper, although a lot of the people who wrote angry e-mails or left angry phone messages apparently thought it was.

Here's what happened. Twice in one week, drawings by well-known editorial cartoonists -- Ted Rall in one case and Pat Oliphant in the other -- appeared online on The Post's Web site. Both drawings prompted heavy criticism from people who had either seen the drawings or had been told about them.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

Add Ombudsman to your personal home page.

_____Today's Op-Eds_____

_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards

The Rall cartoon, according to an explanation offered by the artist after the protests about it, was meant to be about the election results and to mock supporters of President Bush. It used a classroom setting involving mentally handicapped children to convey its point about who was running the country. The Oliphant cartoon also involved Bush but focused more on a fawning caricature of secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice.

The Rall drawing, in particular, drove lots of people up the proverbial wall. "I cannot even fathom a human being thinking that the act of drawing this is amusing. Even more, I can't believe the paper found it suitable for print," one reader wrote. As for the Oliphant drawing, this was typical of the reactions: "It's one thing to be anti-Bush and anti-Rice, but to publish a racist cartoon to attempt to prove your point is inexcusable."

The print Post, on the other hand, did not publish those drawings. The Post is pretty careful about what gets into the paper. I've written a couple of columns about editors here refusing to print "The Boondocks" comic strip on occasion because of its racial themes.

These political cartoons appeared only on The Post's Web site, and probably several other Web sites. They are provided as a reader service to users of washingtonpost.com in the same way that links to all the major news services are provided. The material for all these services goes on the site automatically. There is no editor watching over it. The site editors do select the cartoonists -- all of whom are well known -- whose work will automatically appear. But there is no pre-selection or editing of cartoons or wire service stories.

And it is not easy to find the cartoons on the Web site. It takes an active search and a few clicks of the mouse. It is not like something you would stumble across turning the pages of a newspaper. Nevertheless, the newspaper is tarred by the criticism.

I could tell from the mail I got, particularly on the Rall drawing, that at least some of it was from people who had been told about it and were probably part of a campaign, although clearly many people didn't need anyone to tell them what to do.

Setting aside last week's episode, this kind of thing has happened before in which a special-interest group picks something that appeared only on the paper's Web site and uses it as part of a campaign or mass e-mailing to make a point. That damages the paper in the process because large numbers of people are told that something appeared in The Post. On the other hand, as one reader argues, "The Post's responsibility is the same regardless of where the strip appeared."

Typically, newspapers have a lot more people and resources than the offshoots that look after their Web sites. So episodes such as these raise the question of whether news organizations are hurting themselves by not having enough resources to check the raw material that is fed into the system. On the other hand, this material is widely available on many other sites, so there is no stopping someone determined to find it.

After a few days on The Post's Web site, the Rall cartoon was pulled and, according to Doug Feaver, washingtonpost.com executive editor, Rall's work has been dropped from the site. Feaver said the decision was a "cumulative" one based on some earlier drawings as well. Feaver said he felt the Oliphant cartoon was "within the normal bounds of editorial cartoonery, although I understand that others could disagree."

In the past several weeks, there has been a small but steady stream of pleadings from readers to report more about the toll on Iraqi civilians and the plight of families caught up in the war. "You never hear about the civilians, about what's happening to families. It breaks our hearts," one Iraqi American female caller said, referring to her friends and relatives here.

Actually, The Post and other news organizations have had many stories about the impact of the fighting on Iraqi civilians, but not recently. The emergence of a widespread insurgency in a score of towns and cities last spring has inhibited that kind of reporting as journalists face the risk of being killed or kidnapped if they venture into those areas.

But another caller noted that The Post, on Nov. 9, featured an unusual and revealing story on the front page by an Iraqi journalist who had been allowed to spend time with a group of insurgents in Fallujah as they awaited an attack by U.S. forces. Why not also use Iraqi reporters to get inside the embattled civilian population and provide accounts of their lives and losses, the caller asked.

On Thursday's front page, correspondent Jackie Spinner, who has been doing solid and gutsy reporting while accompanying U.S. forces advancing into Fallujah, was able to interview at least a few families in that city who had hunkered down through the battle. Yet the dimensions of what has happened to Iraq's civilian population are certain to be vastly larger and deadlier than the daily reports of battles and car bombings. Not being able to tell it is a sad reality of this war. Let's hope that ways can be found to tell this story.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company