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The sad erosion of political speech on the comics page

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Apparently Johnny Hart’s “B.C.” comic strip, intended to run on the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was too much for the San Antonio Express-News.

The daily pulled his Dec. 7 strip that defined “infamy” as “a word seldom used after Toyota sales topped 2 million.”

Says managing editor Brett Thacker: “More than just a feeble attempt at being topical, it’s a regressive and insensitive statement about one of the worst days in American history.”

But, notes the paper’s ombudsman, Bob Richter: “Some readers might accuse the Express-News of censoring Hart or nodding to the Japanese business interests that selected San Antonio as the site of their new facility to build Toyota trucks which, incidentally, began rolling off the assembly line last month.”

Shocked, shocked I am that newspaper economics rather than editorial judgment might influence decisions on running controversial comic strips. (Think Doonesbury here.) But I have no idea of the extent, if any, to which economics may have trumped editorial judgment at the Express-News.

In my career, I’ve been in discussions about spiking controversial comics and editorial cartoons. That, presumably, is the job of newspaper editors — exercise good judgment based on professional training and experience, intelligence and knowledge of the community the paper serves.

Richter says that’s what happened at the Express-News:

Others would call it ordinary editing — the same practice staffers here endure day in, day out, thoughout their careers. … There was, in fact, a good discussion and debate this week on the Dec. 7 B.C. strip. The decision was not unanimous, but the top editors agreed that a newspaper may edit or delete copy, photos and features, and does so routinely.

Fine. That’s their privilege. Editors can put into their paper — or keep out — anything they wish, because it’s their paper.

But over time and over many such decisions at numerous papers, the bite — the sarcastic wit, the trenchant bombast, the satirical snark, the pointed political lightning bolt — has been edited out of the comics pages. They’ve become bland. Many are now reruns or imitations of formerly popular strips whose creators have been dead for some time. Editors have shrunk them both physically and creatively. How many comic strips do you actually read in the Sunday paper?

Says cartoonist Darby Conley, creator of Get Fuzzy:

Newspapers are in 1959 in terms of morality. They’d rather have a dead comics page than have people writing in.” [quoted from the March 14, 2007, Freedom Forum calendar]

Perhaps the Express-News’ decision was not based on concern that running the strip would offend a big advertiser and a big San Antonio employer. Maybe they just don’t want to deal with the complaints any more. (See the comments on Richter’s blog.)

Perhaps editors (and not just in San Antonio) have become accustomed to editing defensively because top management and ownership no longer understand the role of newspapers, including their comics pages, in holding government accountable.

But, no matter what the reason, curtailing controversial speech (OK, OK, censoring it) serves the public poorly.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

December 10, 2006 at 3:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Any reports of how readers responded to papers that ran the strip?


    December 10, 2006 at 9:42 pm

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