Don’t apologize for editorial cartoons: They’re editorial

I’ve been following with interest the reader’s letter about “The City” cartoon [“Recent ‘The City’ Cartoon Offensive and Bigoted,” July 7 Xpress], the editorial response indicating the cartoon “was published in error” and the numerous readers’ comments that have subsequently accumulated on your website. Your mea culpa was troubling, as it seems that you were bending over backwards to placate (or even side with) an offended reader when, at very most, a simple apology would have sufficed. As one of the online comments so astutely suggested, “Let an editorial cartoon be an editorial. Its creator is the proper locus of all feedback directed at that editorial. An editorial cartoon expresses an opinion but in a form other than that of an opinion letter.”

That said, I understand that it’s standard policy for any publication to accept or reject content — be it an editorial, a cartoon, a feature, or even a reader’s letter — based on its journalistic merits and overall relevance to the specific publication’s mission. And in the case of cartoons, they carry an additional gray-area quality in that some readers view them as editorials while others view them as humor content. (The Xpress might minimize this problem by doing what a lot of alternative newsweeklies do: having a dedicated spot in the paper where all the cartoons appear together each week, rather than letting them “float.”)

But the whole incident made me recall a similar one back in the late ‘80s, when I was an editor at Creative Loafing in Charlotte. The cartoon was Matt Groening’s “Life In Hell,” and it was a strip or series of strips involving the recurring, ambiguously gay characters Akbar and Jeff: A reader wrote in expressing outrage over the “non-Christian homosexual agenda” C.L. was “clearly promoting” by publishing the Groening cartoon. (This all may seem vaguely hilarious now, but hey, that’s what the cultural climate in Charlotte was like two decades ago.)

We printed the letter, along with several follow-ups both pro and con, but we never once considered backpedaling and saying we were wrong in the first place for publishing the cartoon; in theory, any content has the potential to piss off someone, so preemptive second-guessing can simply result in an unnaturally heavy editorial hand. If memory serves, we just issued a boilerplate statement along the lines of, “It is never our intention to offend our readership; however, opinions expressed in the paper are those of the individual writers.”

That seemed to be sufficient for us back then, and it would seem to be sufficient for the Xpress now.

— Fred Mills

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9 thoughts on “Don’t apologize for editorial cartoons: They’re editorial

  1. Dionysis

    If an editorial cartoon doesn’t generate some controversy, what’s the point to begin with? I agree, no apology should have been issued. Let those who take exception exercise their prerogative to communicate their point of view.

  2. Piffy!

    Jeff Fobes is too scared of offending the nebulous right wing wacko demographic.

    quick! bend over backwards to cater to a minority opinion!

  3. TokyoTaos

    Ah … hello? I’m as left wing as they come and I found the cartoon offensive.

  4. Dionysis

    “Ah … hello? I’m as left wing as they come and I found the cartoon offensive.”

    But do you think it should have been censored, or that an apology was appropriate?

  5. cwaster

    I was in Charlotte in the late 80’s and remember that ruckus in CL. I thought the cartoon was funny then, and still do. I love cartoons that offend people. If they offend you, you are taking yourself entirely too seriously. No apology needs to be issued in my opinion.

  6. Ken Hanke

    But do you think it should have been censored, or that an apology was appropriate?

    While I had no problem with the cartoon and do not see any need for the apology and would have run it without question had I been making the decision, all forms of publication practice some form of censorship by merely deciding what they feel is appropriate or inappropriate for them and their readership. It’s inevitable.

  7. Mark Beckstrand

    I am the individual who wrote the letter (Recent “The City” cartoon offensive and bigoted, July 7), which has prompted these email opinion.

    First, I think it is important to note that I wrote my comments in an email that was sent directly to the cartoonist, Derf, not to the Xpress.

    Derf did not respond to my email, but forwarded the email to the Xpress, who in turn, emailed me to ask if they could print it as a letter to the editor. I agreed.

    Never did I ask for or consider censorship or retraction, it was simply my statement(s) to the cartoonist, that I found his effort to be offensive and in poor taste (personally).

    What I do find interesting however, are the individuals who are defending a cartoon that labels church attendees as “White Trash Pentacostals”, but calling those who find it offensive, “nebulous right wing wackos”.

    Freedom of speech cuts both ways, and so often it seems that those who trumpet tolerance and cooexistence, are the most closed minded of all.

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