TAKING IN SUNDAY’S “Doonesbury,” some readers did a double-take and asked: Um, doesn’t creator Garry Trudeau know about the latest news developments?
The confusion stems not from the cartoon’s larger issues, but rather from a specifically cited recent case. Yesterday’s “Doonesbury” uses Rolling Stone’s would-be expose on campus rape as an entree into the strip’s fictional narrative, as the characters provide commentary on institutional cover-ups of sexual violence.
In the strip, Boopsie opens the action by telling her college-bound daughter: “You’re not going to UVA!” — before citing the news story in which an accused gang-rape assailant (here, a “frat boy monster”) is quoting as telling his University of Virginia victim that he “had a great time.”
Using the controversial Rolling Stone story as a springboard for the strip caused numerous readers to wonder: Did Trudeau submit his strip before the magazine very publicly backed away from major elements in the article? Before Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana issued his Dec. 5 readers’ note about troubling crucial discrepancies in the central “victim’s” account — painting her as an unreliable source? (The Post published a thorough re-examination of her claims here.)
On the official “Doonesbury” site, hosted by The Washington Post, one reader wrote: “I wonder how far in advance of the publication date they are drawn.” The editor’s official reply: The Sunday strips are “turned in to production five to six weeks before the publication date” — meaning that Trudeau indeed submitted his strip prior to Rolling Stone’s December acknowledgment about discrepancies in its U-Va. story.
Some readers accused Trudeau of treating the Rolling Stone story “as fact.”
Turns out, the comic wasn’t just a matter of early deadlines or total reportorial belief in Rolling Stone. Rather, this was also a case of Trudeau’s larger critique of institutional sex-crime cover-ups (“Doonesbury” has dealt before with this issue as it relates to the military.)
“We had some internal discussion about whether the flaws in the [Rolling Stone] reporting mattered here, and we concluded they didn’t,” Trudeau tells The Post’s Comic Riffs of his talks with his syndicate, Universal UClick, about how to respond after Rolling Stone’s statement. “U-Va. is only used as setup to get the reader to consider the larger problem of institutions prioritizing their reputations over the welfare of those they’re charged with safeguarding.
“That issue has remained front and center,” Trudeau continues, “and even U-Va. recognizes that sloppy reporting doesn’t change the fact that they have a huge problem within their culture.”
Update: Trudeau adds on Tuesday: “If I had been able to make changes [to the comic], obviously I would have. No one deliberately creates opportunities for critics to change the subject.” (In terms of production schedule, Universal UClick tells Comic Riffs that once critics began to raise doubts about the Rolling Stone article, it was too late to effectively change the strip for all clients.)
For any newspaper editors who might have balked at the campus-rape “Doonesbury” comic, a substitute strip was at the ready. The syndicate tells Comic Riffs that it received replacement requests from the Chicago Tribune, the Bergen Record, the Providence Journal and the Evansville Courier.
“We have made replacement strips available when asked,” Trudeau tells Comic Riffs. “I no longer have a problem with that, because the Internet creates such high visibility when a newspaper opts out that readers who care can look for the release elsewhere.”
And in an interesting footnote, the word “U-Va.” never appeared in The Post’s print version of Sunday’s “Doonesbury,” says Post comics producer and editor Donna Peremes, because that specific University of Virginia reference appeared in the strip’s two introductory “drop panels” — those optional panels that most all Sunday strips have, which can be “dropped” in some production configurations. So Post print readers were left to infer the University of Virginia context from the strip’s remaining six panels.