No right or wrong on political cartoons
A reader called the Sentinel’s editorial department Thursday and left an angry voicemail demanding a “justification” for the political cartoon that appeared in that morning’s newspaper.
There is no justification. We mean that in two distinct ways.
On one hand, we can state very clearly that selecting and publishing a cartoon doesn’t mean we “own” the cartoonist’s message. It’s an idea, presented in visual form, for readers to digest and accept or reject as they see fit. In that way, a cartoon is no different from a column or a letter to the editor. We print a variety of views, including many that challenge positions we take as an editorial board. So, publication of anything on the editorial page (besides what you read in this space) shouldn’t be viewed as having this newspaper’s endorsement.
On the other hand, we do have a selection of cartoons to present to readers, so we have to own our choices. Many found Thursday’s cartoon distasteful. In hindsight, we can’t disagree. It was insensitive to the residents of the Houston area who are fighting for their lives.
The political point the cartoonist was trying to make came at too high a cost — making light of a tragic situation.
We strive every day to present an accurate, thought-provoking and interesting product. But we’re human. Sometimes we make errors in judgment.
Having said that, we won’t shy away from publishing edgy cartoons. Part of our role is nudging readers out of their comfort zone. Cartoons seem to elicit reactions that are far more visceral than columns. Which raises an interesting point. People are far more likely to call the editor of this page and complain about a cartoon than a column or an editorial. For whatever reason, readers seem to think that political cartoons are the truest reflection of the newspaper’s political bent.
Saying that’s not true is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. Perception is reality. However, there should be no “right” or “wrong” in publishing any cartoon. Even in this case, where we clearly regret presenting a ham-handed treatment of an unfolding catastrophe, the cartoon has its place in the marketplace of ideas.
In that way, we don’t need to “justify” publishing a cartoon. The repudiation is justification enough that it served a purpose, however perverse. At the same time there’s no justification for choosing a cartoon so crass that it got a second life as fodder for an editorial.
We take our role in the community very seriously. So do our readers. Sometimes it takes something as simple as a cartoon to tease out the complexities of the relationship.