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I think newspapers were right to pull Doonesbury

I’ve read a few reactions to the news that some newspapers have pulled this week’s Doonesbury that mocked Sarah Palin. Here’s a quick recap of some of the voices and then I’ll add my own.

Brigid Alverson from Comic Book Resources:

On the one hand, I want to defend Trudeau’s right to publish his strip (editors who sign up for Doonesbury know what they’re getting into from the beginning, after all) and readers’ right to read it. On the other hand, if I were an editor, I would be complaining to the syndicate. The strips are awful heavy-handed, even by Trudeau’s standards; he’s clearly eager to get the juicy bits out there before anyone else. I’m no Palin fan, but from the excerpts I have seen online, McGinniss’ book is mean-spirited and journalistically dodgy, relying heavily on anonymous sources and folks with axes to grind, and the Doonesbury strips just amplify that. They should have been sent back for a rewrite, but that’s the job of his syndicate editor, not comics-page editors at individual papers.

Michael Cavna over at the Washington Post:

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.

Now my take. I’m going to side with the newspapers on this one. Earlier in the week after looking at the first two or three strips I thought papers like The Chicago Tribune and others were being overly sensitive. But today’s strip is a game changer. We’ve (comic fans) been looking at these strips one at a time and formulating our opinion of the newspapers actions based on the very small sample of strips. Editors had advanced copies of this week’s content last week and I think they had reason to worry after seeing today’s strip. Today’s strip breaks news that Palin had a fling with Glen Rice of the Miami Heat. That’s news. Coming from a comic strip, but news nonetheless. The source is Palin biography by Joe McGinnis that will not be released until next week. Certainly, if the rumor proves to be false, what is the liability of the newspaper for having propagated the rumor?

So definitely, I think newspapers have the right to be cautious and those that pulled the strip were doing their job as editors.

As an aside, I thought (and I’m painting a wide brush here) liberals believe sex is a private matter for individuals. Why is Garry delving into this salacious issue? We’re talking about an encounter 24 years ago before Palin was even married.

UPDATE: I should probably add the obligatory disclaimer: I am not a Palin fan. She’s one of the reasons I didn’t vote for McCain in ’08 and I’ve struggled to understand why she’s so popular or how she’s been taken so serious.

Community Comments

#1 Bernard Crowsheet
September/15/2011
@ 1:39 pm

Why stop at pulling the strip, let’s get a group together and chop off Gary’s hands, that way he can’t mock our politicians anymore, heavy handed or not is not the case, is anyone reading Doonesbury as a source of news? Opninion yes, news? really? Either way his hands must be cut off to prevent icky things like wondering what freedom of speech really means.

#2 Darryl Heine
September/15/2011
@ 1:46 pm

Who is or isn’t against Sarah Palin?

Next thing you know, Garry T. could end the Doonesbury strip by 2012. The Denver Post dropped it this past Summer, and 3 newspapers – Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitutiuon, and Newsday – have not carried much of this week’s Doonesbury strips.

#3 Stephen Beals
September/15/2011
@ 2:34 pm

I respect your opinion, Alan, but I don’t think Trudeau’s going anywhere major columnists haven’t gone. Revealing pieces of a soon-to-be-released book isn’t as horrible as, I don’t know, outing an undercover CIA agent.

I see it as another dismissal of comics as kid stuff, even the obvious “not for kids” Doonesbury. This book is already being heavily discussed on TV at times the kids can watch (like they would want to).

I was a kid when Doonesbury was pulled from my paper because of the trip through Reagan’s brain, Cathy was put on the editorial page when she briefly discussed politics, and Funky Winkerbean was pulled because of its teenage pregnancy storyline.

All of those would easily make prime time or daytime TV (Funky could be an after school special). Yet, somehow, it’s too much to be put in a comic strip. I think part of the problem is that comics have always been ghettoized in one section, so teenage pregnancy can be next to Dagwood late to work. It’s a problem that still exists online.

As for Trudeau getting into who Palin slept with, I can only guess. I’m pretty liberal. I don’t care who she slept with. I think that he’s mining the obvious talking points of the book like every other show/column. That’s not a bad thing. It’s what the entertainment industry does, which includes everything from 24 hour news channels to comic strips.

We’re going to see more responses to this book from comedians and TV shows and some of them aren’t going to be as kind (or as good) as Doonesbury. The difference is that, unlike a comic strip in a newspaper, they won’t be pulled from their slot.

#4 Alan Gardner
September/15/2011
@ 2:52 pm

@Stephan says,

I see it as another dismissal of comics as kid stuff, even the obvious ?not for kids? Doonesbury. This book is already being heavily discussed on TV at times the kids can watch (like they would want to).

By pulling Doonesbury, aren’t they being the opposite of dismissive? Aren’t they showing that a strip like Doonesbury *should* be taken seriously?

#5 Alan Gardner
September/15/2011
@ 2:55 pm

We?re going to see more responses to this book from comedians and TV shows and some of them aren?t going to be as kind (or as good) as Doonesbury. The difference is that, unlike a comic strip in a newspaper, they won?t be pulled from their slot.

But by the time other comedians get to use this material everyone will have access to it and investigative journalists (they still exists?) will have a chance to determine which of the material is based on any truth. Right now, there’s no way to do it.

#6 Gerry Mooney
September/15/2011
@ 3:55 pm

Nope, Palin is a dimwit and an embarrassment who has forsaken any claim to evenhanded treatment. What has she done to deserve the public notice and platform she has been granted by the media? Nothing. Oh wait, she resigned as governor because she was, what, bored? She parades her children around like stage props but no one is allowed to mention them. Her daughter gets knocked up and becomes the spokesperson for teenage abstinence. I frankly don’t care if she’s treated fairly. She has brought all this on herself. None of it is undeserved.

#7 Dave Stephens
September/15/2011
@ 3:56 pm

A lie can travel twice around the world while the truth is still in bed answering emails… Is the book a bunch of made-up garbage distilled from the creative minds of a couple of hate-filled liars? Time will tell, but if it is, it would not be the first book of BS to sell in America…

#8 Bernard Crowsheet
September/15/2011
@ 5:15 pm

okay, how many have gone a read these strips? hands up….oh, you didn’t here http://www.doonesbury.com/strip/archive/2011/09/12

Go ahead, read the four strips that have done the unforgivable editorial sin of previewing a book and the ludicrous statements within it. i’ll wait.

done?
now, these strips are that controversial as to warrant being removed from the newspaper? Really? Why aren’t we protected from reports about wikileaks then? why aren’t we protected by the noble sagging-sales newspaper editors from things that matter? oh, sagging sales of newspapers, who buys those things anyways? This is nothing more than a too late stirring of controversy to try and drum up sales and someones _ANYONE’S_ interest in stale old newspapers with news three four days old. To do so at the expense of Mr. Trudeau is pathetic, he makes jokes about how goofy Ms. Palin is, that is not news. He is not the only person to get advance copes of the books is he? NO he’s not, newspapers are just helping bury themselves with irrelevance. I used to love reading the paper, but nowadays, why bother? I can get any news or information i need off the internet for free, and faster. Newspaper editorials are becoming mouthpieces for an aging demographic that doesn’t understand this new-fangled innernet, but once your grandma gets the tablet computer from the fruit company or the peeping tom company, you know the one you set up for her so she can read the news, i don’t think she will miss a pile of old newspapers she has to try and cart to the recycle bin.
I wish newspapers had value, don’t get me wrong, but this is not the way to do it.

#9 Stephen Beals
September/15/2011
@ 7:02 pm

I’m writing about this in the context of newspaper content and I’m not assuming the validity of this book or any liberal/conservative point of view. I honestly don’t think, in the newspaper world, Trudeau’s strips are any different than a review written about an advanced copy of a book. If some sort of line has been crossed, it’s in the exclusive world of newspapers. That’s the problem and it has been for decades.

I love newspapers. I always have. In the eight years I’ve been working with newspapers I have seen an astounding change in the way business is conducted. Contracts don’t have to be signed and they are way more flexible with their advertising prices, to put it mildly. But there are still some who act as if the game hasn’t drastically changed.

A newspaper can’t wield empirical power over a city and say “No, you can’t see this” anymore. Today has to have more than one point of view. They could make us wait for the book with “Reagan’s brain” in the ’80s, but they can’t even make us wait a minute today. I don’t think they’re protecting themselves legally. It’s editorial and it’s suicide. I don’t think they’re making Doonesbury important by removing it, they’re making themselves less important.

Pulling Doonesbury was no stunt. There are many examples from the last four decades of newspapers refusing to run “cutting edge” comics, and often they were comics from the same man. Garry Trudeau is possibly the is one cartoonist I would hold up as somebody who could get a hold of an advanced copy of a book and write strips about it. What clout hasn’t he earned over 40 unbelievable years?

The paper is bigger than my phone yet has much less to offer. Cutting unique content because of an editorial stance developed over the course of decades isn’t going to do anything positive for them right now. All it does is steer the reader to a different source as fast as their connection speed.

That’s why I (very respectfully) disagree with you on this, Alan.

#10 Milt Priggee
September/15/2011
@ 8:29 pm

Pulling Doonesbury does not bode well specifically for their own editorial cartoonist (Scott Stantis)…or newspapers in general.

Newspapers….you might remember them ….they were those paper based readers.

#11 Mike Rhode
September/15/2011
@ 8:35 pm

I’m going to have to disagree with you here Alan. It’s not like Trudeau got the book by say, breaking into a hotel room and stealing it – he got it from the author and publisher. And honestly, even if he did, I still think he’s well within the usual sphere of Doonesbury’s satire. Generally episodes like this feel to me like they reflect the cowardice of editors who think comics should be, well, comic. That doesn’t do anyone any favors over the long run.

#12 Carl Moore
September/15/2011
@ 11:01 pm

The fact that McGinniss felt the need to move in next door to Palin to gather material for his book speaks volumes. “Creepy” doesn’t quite cover it. This guy is a champion slimeball and will make a ton of dough and Trudeau is an even worse sleazebag for promoting this crud. It’s a big step down for both of them.

#13 Jeff Stanson
September/15/2011
@ 11:20 pm

Don’t understand the hubbub. Doonesbury is and always has been and editorial cartoon in strip form. The bigger issue is that Doonesbury should only have a home on the editorial or op-ed page, and should never be part of a general audience comics page. Beyond that, papers should only run the strip if/when the editorial staff wants to put the opinions expressed in Doonesbury in front of its readership. Let’s stop making this about what cartoonists choose to depict and start making it about what papers choose to run. I haven’t noticed that Trudeau is forcing any paper to run his drivel. Papers are responsible for the opinions they express, no matter who originates them and in what form they are presented.

#14 Mike Peterson
September/16/2011
@ 2:51 am

Not clear on the relevance of the rest of his dead-tree rant, but Bernard makes a good point that Wikileaks revelations were carried in the paper before the people involved had a chance to ramp up their spin machines. I understand the discomfort over having the accusations out before the book, but it’s a fairly common occurance — if I were pulling the strip, it would be because McGinnis and Trudeau have contrived a bit of free advertising for the book, but, again, that’s hardly new ground. Bill O’Reilly’s column is basically a promo for his TV show, but papers are willing to run it.

However, the idea that newspapers have some sort of “liability” if the statements in the book turn out to be false is a disturbing thing to see in a cartooning forum. Of course they don’t.

To begin with, Palin is a public figure, so, in order to establish legal liability, you’d have to show that the newspapers knew the accusations were false but ran them out of malice. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Times_Co._v._Sullivan )

The first defense is that they didn’t go out and get Doonesbury for the purpose of running this particular sequence of strips and that, in fact, they have reason to trust his reporting, even if they don’t always agree with his opinions.

The second line of defense is that Doonesbury is not saying that Palin did any of these things — Trudeau is reporting that the new book says she did. If the book doesn’t say those things, then McGinnis can sue Trudeau. But Palin doesn’t figure into it — assuming that the book says the things that Trudeau reports it as saying, any liability touching upon her belongs solely to McGinnis.

And, given that nobody at the Chicago Tribune or other papers has seen the book, they don’t have knowledge of whether it says what Trudeau says that it does.

Next class, we’ll discuss whether Trudeau might, in fact, be making up things in order to mock McGinnis, and whether this would give McGinnis legal standing to sue him or whether it would fall under the protection of satire. Please read up on Falwell v. Flynt and be prepared to discuss not whether a reasonable person would believe these things of Palin, but whether a reasonable person would believe that McGinnis would engage in sloppy reporting. At that time, Mr. Moore will deliver his report on why journalists should not try to be in the same area as the people they report on.

#15 Tom Wood
September/16/2011
@ 5:49 am

“Next class, we?ll discuss whether Trudeau might, in fact, be making up things in order to mock McGinnis …”

Wow, that would be cool! And since Palin *is* a cartoon, then Doonesbury would be a cartoon mocking a book mocking a cartoon. Makes ‘Inception’ look like child’s play…

#16 Pete Murphey
September/16/2011
@ 7:50 am

These days it?s a pretty moot point , considering everyone can see the strips online anyway. My question, echoing Carl?s post, is what was Trudeau thinking here? The book is obviously sleaze-ball, low life journalism, even the NY Times thinks so. He doesn?t seem to be satirizing the book in the strips, it just seems like he?s exploiting an arrangement with McGinnis to slam Palin. As a cartoonist, Trudeau?s under no obligation to be fair to Palin, but it seems like pathetically weak humor and satire when connected to this book.

#17 Alan Gardner
September/16/2011
@ 2:04 pm

I’ll add a couple of things. The argument that columnists receive advance copies and print information about non available content all the time has to be considered. However, what we might not always see is the sentences that the editor removes from the columns because they can’t be substantiated or the source isn’t credible. You can’t do that to a cartoon – you run it or you don’t.

One other thought regarding comparing this to a columnist or news story – in cases like this journalists use the words, “alleged” or “the book alleges”. They typically don’t print stuff like this as if it was a fact.

#18 dave nelson
September/16/2011
@ 2:51 pm

1st, I think the punchlines Gary wrote are pretty clever in these strips. I also think the humor would be more credible if it weren’t spending so much time quoting what seems to me to be a questionable source.

2nd, If I were an newspaper editor, I’d need to come up with a standard line to give to readers who complain about editorial cartoons. Like “On the whole, our readers enjoy Doonsbury even though they may not agree with certain individual strips. Your concern about the recent strip(s) has been noted and we hope that you will continue to read …” IE, I don’t think I’d pull it just because it’s repeating gossip in its own fashion. If I could, I’d attempt to remind my offended readers that Doonesbury shouldn’t be construed as news any more than Jon Stewart or Rush should.

#19 Jimmy Delach
September/16/2011
@ 7:43 pm

For the record, I am an independent voter so I don’t lean toward one particular party. However, I have voted mainly Democrat since I was eligible to vote (first time I voted was in 2000; voted against Bush twice – and I live in Florida BTW – and voted for Obama in 2008 and am considering voting for Obama again next year).

That said the only thing about Sarah Palin I enjoy is the Tina Fey impressions of her on Saturday Night Live. I think Sarah is a total nut job and I don’t get the fascination most people have about her. I was also not a fan of Bristol participating on “Dancing With The Stars” yet she kept advancing and I suspect the reason she kept advancing is because a lot of her voters were either Palin or Tea Party fans because her dancing was TERRIBLE! In the end, I was so elated that Bristol didn’t win despite making it all the way to the Finals.

At least I haven’t heard Sarah throw her hat into the presidential race which is a good thing because she definitely wouldn’t get my vote.

#20 Jimmy Delach
September/16/2011
@ 7:48 pm

BTW doesn’t it seem weird that the Chicago Tribune decided to pull “Doonesbury” while at least four Tribune-related papers (Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel) are running “Doonesbury”?

#21 JW Wills
September/18/2011
@ 1:14 pm

The Los Angeles Times will tell Tribune to shove it when it comes to censorship. What the loons in Chicago think has no impact in LA. A sh!t storm would develop in no time if they tried to pull anything like that. It’s no surprise the Denver Post pulled Doonesbury. It’s run by MediaNews, enough said.

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