By Bill Breisky, Editor, Cape Cod (MA) Times
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1(April 1989), p. 5.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
It seemed a good idea at the time – yanking the Doonesbury episode that dealt with a comic-strip hooker’s recollections of Jimmy Swaggart.
Even though our explanation did sound sanctimonious:
“In taking a tasteless swipe at the Rev. Swaggart,” we told our readers,” Mr. Trudeau seemed to be belittling the faith of countless millions of Americans – people who deplore Swaggart’s hypocrisy but believe in the principle of forgiveness, and are hurt and troubled by what the Swaggart affair has done to their beliefs.”
What’s more, we proclaimed, Trudeau has a habit of pushing his newspaper clients to the edge, with commentary that is needlessly offensive to many in the audience of a general-circulation daily newspaper. In the Swaggart episode, we said, he had violated our sense of fair comment.
Don Addis’s “Bent Offerings” panel, we announced, would take Doonesbury’s place on the op-ed page for a week.
But we had no intention of cheating our readers. Doonesbury addicts had merely to call or drop us a line and we would send them photocopies of the missing episodes, postpaid.
That, we persuaded ourselves, is creative editing.
A bunch of readers applauded.
And several bunches hooted.
More than a few of the hooters took the trouble to set us straight as to our role, and Mike Doonesbury’s role, in a free society. Others challenged our notion of what is offensive and what isn’t.
“It isn’t Doonesbury that is offensive, but the preachers who swindle the believing public by selling God and salvation, deceiving simple souls who think they can deliver what they sell. Compared to them, New Orleans hookers are decent, harmless, honest people. (I’m a 74-year-old woman, not an atheist, and never was a hooker.)”
–Louise A. Bugbee, Oak Bluffs
“Next, why not move Bloom County to the editorial page, then one day just stop printing it? After that, news of flimflams, robbery, rape, arson, murder, war – tasteless, offensive and disturbing, all – will surely have to go. We will be down to pretty pictures of gulls and boats, and recipes for broccoli.”
–Rosamond England, Sandwich
“Offensive or not, Trudeau makes me think. We all agree on that, I think.”
–Thomas Garrahan, Hyannisport
Some Doonesbury fans teased us. Others formed a firing squad, and took aim:
“Some mornings, I find the stinging observations of Doonesbury the only sane antidote for all the other insanity in your paper.”
–Edward R. Thomas, South Yarmouth
“Tried to do without Doonesbury this week, but have the shakes. Help!“
–Leo Hook, South Chatham
For scores of readers, the issue was not merely a matter of getting along without Garry Trudeau’s cast of characters for a week. The issue, they said, was press freedom.
“It is hard to know which is worse – Swaggart’s behavior, Trudeau’s poor taste or the Times’ censoring.”
–Howard S. Grossman, Wellfleet
“On Sesame Street this evening, the cast chanted, ‘Let the Ducky speak,’ in support of Ernie the Muppet’s rubber duck and its opinion. Freedom of expression – ever heard of it? You people have a responsibility to present your paying readers with information and opinions, whether they agree with you or not. It is an awesome task, one you are apparently not up to.”
–Mike Doiron, West Yarmouth
“A free press is always the cry from journalists. How about a free press for your readers?”
–Florence D. Prince, Monument Beach
Those were sobering thoughts. But there were more – concepts that were sobering not only to the newsroom staff but to the circulation manager.
“Does this mean if you don’t like some of your subscribers or disagree with them you will discontinue selling papers to them?”
–Jane A. Pierce, Forestdale
“I will not request a copy of the missing strips. I will buy a paper that runs them.”
–Marie Jennings, East Falmouth
But that was not the unkindest cut of all. This was:
“I suggest that Bent Offerings be employed as part of a new banner – When the news offends, we bend.’”
–Richard O. Perry, Brewster
We knew when we were licked. But some readers will kick you even when you’re down.
“Stop being stupid with Doonesbury. Grow up.“
–James A. Harper, Chatham
Grow up? I think we did – just a little. We learned a lesson regarding how to handle satire.
“Knowing in advance that satire is not intended to promote feelings of comfort and complacency, you should either decline to publish a satirical feature or run it without interference.”
–Christopher W. Stimson, East Falmouth
Being ethical means having a set of principles, and remaining true to them. One of our principles is to edit our paper well, but not to censor it. Our readers persuaded us that yanking an “offensive” sequence of Doonesbury or Bloom County is, however we justify it, an act of censorship.