Why didn’t Xpress publish Brent Brown’s cartoon?

A week ago, Mountain Xpress opted not to publish one of Brent Brown’s weekly cartoons. Not one to leave the public uninformed, Brown decided to self-publish the strip, saying on Twitter: “MX wouldn’t print it, so see new cartoon here: http://fb.me/YlKVT4Mo “

After that, some people on Twitter, including former Xpress Managing Editor Jon Elliston, wondered why Xpress chose not to publish the cartoon.

For everyone’s edification, here’s what Xpress opted not to put in print:

I, for one, had a hand in the decision. I felt that the cartoon unfairly depicted issues around Native American rights to land that was, in many instances, unlawfully taken from them. Brown’s cartoon compared the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian members’ ginseng gathering from the national park to kids stealing copper wire from public utility poles.

I tweeted Elliston, asking him for his views, which he offered (in this case, via six tweets). They are assembled in the next paragraph.

Elliston: “Yes, I think I would have published Brent’s cartoon. It’s timely, topical, kind of funny and very well drawn. I’ve been following the debate over granting Native Americans an exemption to harvest in protected parklands. The ‘toon gets at a very real tension in the debate that should be fair game for editorial cartooning. Of course, I don’t know what the reservations were. I’ll add that I think Xpress’ humor features are better [without] sacred cows. And I don’t understand the standard here; if local people like Chad Nesbitt and Mumpower can be skewered on a regular basis … then why would one group be singled out for an exemption from cartoon critiques?”

These are interesting times, with Brown able to self-publish and with virtually everyone able to do so themselves as well, via the Internet.

I’m comfortable with my position of not wanting to publish the cartoon in Xpress. I would probably feel differently if Xpress had reported on the issues the cartoon raises. Such reporting would have acknowledged that there is a debate here, and would have informed readers of the details of the different perspectives. In that context, then Brown’s perspective would be one of several; he’d join the conversation.

I wonder what others think. If you’d like to join in, the comment thread is open below.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

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About Jeff Fobes
As a long-time proponent of media for social change, my early activities included coordinating the creation of a small community FM radio station to serve a poor section of St. Louis, Mo. In the 1980s I served as the editor of the "futurist" newsletter of the U.S. Association for the Club of Rome, a professional/academic group with a global focus and a mandate to act locally. During that time, I was impressed by a journalism experiment in Mississippi, in which a newspaper reporter spent a year in a small town covering how global activities impacted local events (e.g., literacy programs in Asia drove up the price of pulpwood; soybean demand in China impacted local soybean prices). Taking a cue from the Mississippi journalism experiment, I offered to help the local Green Party in western North Carolina start its own newspaper, which published under the name Green Line. Eventually the local party turned Green Line over to me, giving Asheville-area readers an independent, locally focused news source that was driven by global concerns. Over the years the monthly grew, until it morphed into the weekly Mountain Xpress in 1994. I've been its publisher since the beginning. Mountain Xpress' mission is to promote grassroots democracy (of any political persuasion) by serving the area's most active, thoughtful readers. Consider Xpress as an experiment to see if such a media operation can promote a healthy, democratic and wise community. In addition to print, today's rapidly evolving Web technosphere offers a grand opportunity to see how an interactive global information network impacts a local community when the network includes a locally focused media outlet whose aim is promote thoughtful citizen activism. Follow me @fobes

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28 thoughts on “Why didn’t Xpress publish Brent Brown’s cartoon?

  1. mat catastrophe

    I think there’s two issues at play here:

    First, the larger issue of whether it’s ok to poke fun at a “group” of people – in this case, the Cherokee – and, if it isn’t then why can we poke fun at Mr. Nesbitt and Mr. Mumpower?

    Second, does what is posted by the Xpress (whether or not by staff) on Blogwire, constitute “coverage”?

    In the first case, I’m afraid Brent is using the analogy of poking fun at public figures with poking fun at ethnic groups. They are not the same thing and it should not be used as an excuse that cartoons about Nesbitt or Mumpower are published regularly. They are, after all, public figures by their own doing and are subject to, and should expect, criticism and satire (Chad’s tantrum over his twitter doppelganger notwithstanding).

    Now, I would diverge from this point and mention that I think the humor in this piece doesn’t rest with the Cherokee as much as it does the two clueless white kids who think that stealing copper from their “native lands” equates with the Cherokee harvesting ginseng. But, there’s an entirely different issue of historical and cultural problems that I doubt this forum can handle, especially not if the “don’t blame me for things my great-great-grandfathers did” crowd appears.

    So, we’re back to Blogwire. More than a year ago, I challenged Mr. Fobes on his publication of an un-doctored press release on Blogwire, stating it seemed to lend a certain veneer of legitimacy to an otherwise ridiculous item (I recall something about Buddhism and the workplace, but I’m probably wrong).

    Whether or not staff are the people posting to Blogwire, there is a legitimate reason to believe that the average viewer would assume this constitutes “coverage”. Again, this is part of the issue of media literacy that has been touched on time and again, both here and elsewhere, and is something that the winner of the city and county’s CMI contract needs to take up as a major issue. I know I will, if it’s me that gets that job.

    Putting widgets willy-nilly on a site without clear copy on what they contain is an abdication of journalistic responsibility in the name of looking cool and Web 2.0 and I think it’s paramount that Xpress address the nature of Blogwire and include a disclaimer that stories there are not checked or vetted by Xpress staff officially and, therefore, are not true “coverage”.

  2. mat catastrophe

    As Brent just told me on the facebook, it was Jon Elliston and not Brent, who made the connection between individual and public figures and the collective identity of the Cherokee.

    Apologies to Mr. Brown.

  3. Jon Elliston

    Thanks, Jeff, for publishing the cartoon here and extending the discussion. To help frame the debate, I think we should note that much of any outrage over the juxtaposition in Brent’s cartoon will not be because of “kids” stealing copper; what he’s depicting is methamphetamine addicts stealing copper, which happens pretty regularly. In other words, people might bristle at drawing any parallels between Cherokees harvesting protected plants and drug addicts harvesting precious metals.

    I guess that’s kind of what I liked most about the cartoon: its sophisticated, if sideways, marinating on the way our society and laws deal with harvesting of scarce resources by different groups. It wouldn’t have dawned on me to frame the issues this way, but I like a newsy cartoon that challenges me to think in a new way.

    I also rely on the likes of an independent weekly to publish art and opinions that challenge our orthodoxies and taboos. And to my thinking, this cartoon did this in a deft, if slightly provocative, manner.

    One of the things I appreciate most about Xpress’ humor features is their ability to press some margins in a thoughtful way. There’s nothing easier for an altweekly to do than poke some fun at conservatives and fundamentalists, which Xpress does regularly and well. And it can be hard to poke fun at a constituency that’s seen so much injustice through the years (I’m part Cherokee, by the way, but that really doesn’t figure in my thinking on this).


  4. Barry Summers

    I disagree that the issue of opening up ginseng harvesting to natives is something that ‘deserves attention’. It’s attention like this, publicizing the high monetary value of illegally-harvested ginseng, that has reduced the growth of this important resource.

    I’m not sure why it’s important to expend XPress resources telling people, “Hey, this stuff is worth X dollars, and here’s where it grows,” especially in hard economic times. This strikes me as incredibly irresponsible. If the native Appalachian ginseng is eradicated due to over-harvesting, it will be because of “reporting” like this.

    At least you haven’t (yet) included a picture of the plant and a description of exactly where to find it, like the AC-T did a few years ago.

  5. brebro

    Thank you Jon, for inviting both this discussion in general and my input in particular. I think Mat has correctly inferred the intent of the cartoon’s humor (namely, the dopey thieves’ ludicrous attempt to parrot the legitimate claims of the Native Americans for their own, obviously illegitimate use).

    Jeff’s misunderstanding of this comparison between the two as not comically disproportionate but conversely, claiming some kind of equivalency between the two, caused him to view it as attacking the group with the legitimate claims. If such an opposite interpretation of the same cartoon can be made, perhaps it’s my fault for not making it clearer by not just ending the Native American’s dialog after “Thanks for understanding.” in the second column. I try to inject some humor into all the panels I can though, and not just save up one punchline per comic strip.

    This IS a comic STRIP, after all, not a one-panel political cartoon. It strikes at some political or topical issues, but that’s more a function of the mandate it has to be a “local” cartoon and therefore it has to either feature local “types” of people or local issues. Therefore, it follows a more narrative structure than a one shot gag cartoon has. There needs to be a story with characters and premises setup and concluded. To achieve this, sometimes I combine two different topical stories and use the juxtaposition to achieve the humor, as was the intent in this case with the story of the Park Service rulings and the recent spate of copper thefts.

    The Native American characters set up the premise and the light bulb over the heads of the backpacking white kids should have shown the reader that they got the IDEA from watching what transpired with the park ranger, and used what they saw as working for others for their OWN misguided means. That they were in no way serious about their “traditions” was evident by the one meth-head’s inability to articulate them in any convincing way to the officer and by the second thief’s outright admission of their true goal.

    Now, if five paragraphs explaining a three panel comic strip is not ridiculous enough, let me add a link to another Native American themed comic strip I did last year where another comparison was made. This time between the marketing campaign of a “passport” to Cherokee and the Trail of Tears.


    That was a reversal of the original tragic historical situation. This time onto the white people by the Cherokee. I viewed the cartoon we are discussing here as doing something similar, so you can imagine my confusion when it was rejected for extremely nebulous reasoning. The only thing I can figure, again, is my inference that the Native Americans’ intentions were also not genuine by the text talking about how valuable the ginger is. If you follow Jon’s links to the AC-T article and read the many comments, you will see that those suspicions are widespread and I wanted to acknowledge them as well but keep the characters true intentions more ambiguous than than the obvious intent of the actual thieves, plus it was funnier that way.

    I hope that reveals some of my reasoning and intentions with the strip. I know MX is very wary to offend and even more wary of possible litigation, even if unwarranted, and I try to step around that minefield by being as subtle and unspecific as I can (which I kind of prefer anyway since this isn’t an actual political-editorial cartoon), yet still somehow address “local” issues that people recognize as such. As Jon correctly observes, it’s a tricky line to walk, especially when you don’t know where it is.

  6. Jon Elliston

    Barry: The monetary value of ginseng is not a secret. All interested parties know it and are talking about it and acting on it. The cat’s out of the bag, so why pretend otherwise?

  7. Thunder Pig

    Let the Cherokee maintain their own lands for “medicinal” plant harvesting…and not on public land.

    The cartoon should have been published and not refused publication because of political considerations that it was perceives as attack on a “protected minority”.


    LOL. I suppose only city slickers don’t know the value of ginseng or what it looks like or where it can be found or where to sell it (Atlanta is the best place to sell it). Anyone with half a brain, and access to the Internet (or Public Library), should be able to find out all he, or she, wants to know about ginseng harvesting…including tips on how to do it in National Parks without getting caught.

    If you think the Xpress shouldn’t report on Ginseng harvesting or be allowed to post photos of Ginseng, then should Google (or other search engines) filter the results on these searches? Should Librarians either remove books from shelves or report patrons who express an interest in Ginseng to the authorities? So much for Freedom of the Press, eh? [Send me a list of items that are forbidden to report on, or plants that are similarly verboten.]

    It is the duty of the media to report on the news, not shape it to produce a desired outcome.

  8. bill smith

    So, basically, politically correct hand-wringing from the graying pony-tail crowd prevented a cartoon expressing a commonly-held sentiment. We can make fun of hill billies, rednecks, the police, local politicians, Christians, pagans and hippies, but not ‘Native Americans’?

    MX needs an intervention.

  9. shadmarsh

    What I find interesting, and slightly disturbing, is that you would not run the cartoon based on a concern that it could be misinterpreted as an attack on a minority group. That is clearly not the intent of the cartoon.

    Does Cherokee casino run advertising in the Xpress? If so, why not just let the advertising department run the editorial/news department? That way, at least, you would have some transparency.

  10. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Up front, I must say I like this cartoon on many levels, especially since it was based in recent local news and represents all persons as being quirky and conniving but intelligent

  11. tatuaje

    Wow, this website is having all sorts of issues, one of them being that I can’t seem to log in.


    It seems like the MX is using the cartoon after all in a piece about not using the cartoon.

    Sure hope Brent is getting paid for the use of his cartoon.

  12. Dionysis

    “I would probably feel differently if Xpress had reported on the issues the cartoon raises.”

    Does that mean the the MtnXpress has no standing to publish a cartoon if it hasn’t “reported” on the issues? Is that or will that be a consistent test?

    While understanding the views expressed, to me there is something fundamentally bothersome about suppressing anything (that isn’t illegal or defamatory).

    I believe in the ‘marketplace of ideas’, which goes back at least to John Milton, through Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and others.

    Others may well disagree.

  13. Gene

    I find it hard to believe that Mountain Express would censor Brents cartoon. It’s legal for the Cherokee people to harvest ginseng, have gambleing casinos and we can’t have cartoons to make a representation of 2 sets of rules? O ye, they’re under the Feds. protection.

  14. Margaret Williams

    As an editor with a graying pony tail, I can weigh in to this discussion. I’m the first to set eyes on cartoon submissions from Brent Brown and Molton, and I was the first to raise an itty-bitty red flag about this particular cartoon.

    It made me uncomfortable because it implies the Cherokee are doing something illegal. I wondered if that was fair. In addition, I didn’t think it was Brown’s best work. Usually, his ‘toons give me a good laugh … and often, I pass the ‘toon around to other staff for their amusement.

    In this case, I passed the ‘toon to our publisher and to another senior editor for their input. They had a similar take on the cartoon; so with a majority having concerns, we held it.

    It never passed my mind whether Harrahs Casino advertises with us or not. I simply thought the cartoon doesn’t work as well as most of Brown’s other compositions. And my take on public figures vs. ethnic groups is close to Mat’s (yes, I just agreed with Mat Catastrophe).

    As for hillbillies and rednecks and blogwires, I’ll save those discussions for another day.

  15. Jon Elliston

    I have a hunch what some of my ancestors would say about this situation:

    “Hiano gesvi uwedolisdi, ah lay adadehohistodi.”

  16. Margaret Williams

    My (very distant) Creek ancestors need a translation? And my (very recent) Scots-Irish ancestors are have no idea what you mean :)

  17. Christopher C NC

    Well to start with it is currently illegal in my understanding from reading the above articles in the NYT and AC-T for the Cherokee to harvest ginseng in the national park. Is that understanding incorrect Jeff and Margaret?

    If some haole dude was caught in the park taking ginseng he would be arrested and charged with theft. As a matter of fact one of my neighbors held at gunpoint some people he found digging sang on his private property until the feds came and got them. Without permission from the land owner that activity is called trespassing and theft. Should my neighbor give indians carte blanche to dig sang on his private property?

    It seems to me if the Cherokee have a traditional use for ginseng it would be in the use of it and not the gathering so much. The fact that their governing body is behind this request to gather an endangered plant species is really rather shameful. They are supposed to have more respect for the ‘aina than that.

    If they need ginseng, and ramps it seems, for traditional purposes then they should just grow their own. They have plenty enough land to do that for the entire tribe’s needs. It isn’t that hard. There is even a book with step by step instructions by a local researcher and extension specialist with North Carolina State University. http://www.amazon.com/Growing-Marketing-Goldenseal-Woodland-Medicinals/dp/0914875426

    Brent Browns comparison of theft to theft is completely within bounds.

  18. mat catastrophe

    “(yes, I just agreed with Mat Catastrophe).”

    Why is that noteworthy? Nevermind, I shall take it as a compliment…

  19. Orbit DVD

    In addition, I didn’t think it was Brown’s best work. Usually, his ‘toons give me a good laugh … and often, I pass the ‘toon around to other staff for their amusement.

    Since when has being funny a criteria for an Xpress cartoon?

  20. John Platt

    Editorially, would you have considered holding the cartoon, assigning a reporter to cover the issue, and then running the cartoon once the paper had run the article?

  21. anonymous news consumer

    [b]Since when has being funny a criteria for an Xpress cartoon?[/b]

    Indeed. I consider Molten a Weapon of Mass Un-Funny.

  22. Fallin

    @Thunder Pig: The lands you refer to would not be “public” had they not been taken from the Cherokee in the first place.
    As a direct descendant, I admit my jaw dropped a little at first, but then it slowly turned into a grin.
    FREEDOM OF SPEECH is paramount!

  23. Margaret Williams

    Since when has being funny a criteria for an Xpress cartoon?

    Humor (and the perception of it) is certainly very personal. And looking at things from an editor’s point of view seems to diminish humorous sensibilities. We’ve also noticed at Xpress, where several generations of journalists reside, that age seems to be a factor too :)

    And of course humor by consensus is an odd fish, by any measure.

    Sometimes I pass a ‘toon around cuz I don’t get it but I’m open to whether others think it is. I wasn’t the only editor who didn’t laugh or giggle or snicker or smile at this one … which told me if it needs a lot of explaining or analysis, it ain’t working.

    Betty, I wasn’t in the loop back when the Pigdemic cartoon ran. I wouldn’t have passed it through.

    For the record, we’ve held a few Moltons this year, and on occasion we’ve had space constraints and have cut ‘toons that were perfectly funny (or not, depending on your point of view). In general, these decisions are made fairly quickly (for better or worse).

    Johh P., I didn’t have a reporter available to cover an issue that’s a bit outside our core area.

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