What is a comic strip worth? Is it worthy of a battle to keep it from being removed by critics offended by its political jabs? Why make a fuss over something that’s drawn in pen and ink with at most 50 or so words? The creator of Doonesbury has even suggested it’s best not to lose one’s cool over something so common. “A comic strip,” Garry Trudeau recently told Rolling Stone, “isn’t one of those things you want to seem too worried about.”
Maybe, though, in this political climate it’s worth the time of journalists to take a stance on this small thing. That’s what the publisher and senior editors at The Anniston (Alabama) Star believe. After learning that the consortium that provides The Star with its prepackaged Sunday color comics was removing Doonesbury, against Trudeau’s advice we decided to not keep our cool. Of course, we would find a new spot for Doonesbury on Sundays. But it’s not fair, we thought, for Continental Features to single out this strip, which is not popular with conservatives.
Earlier this year, Continental, which operates as a sort of cooperative, decided to poll its 38 members on whether or not to keep Doonesbury. The strip lost, 21-15, with two nonvotes. Why subject one strip—and only one strip—to an up-or-down vote? “This is a business decision,” Van Wilkerson, Continental president, told The Star. “It doesn’t have anything to do with personalities or Garry Trudeau or Doonesbury or anything else.” But this whole episode smelled like “censorship by plebiscite,” as Star Publisher and President H. Brandt Ayers wrote in his letter to the consortium.
It was the C-word—censorship—that riled many, as news of our protest reached media Web sites. Once Matt Drudge and conservative Web forums linked to those stories, the e-mails started flooding in. Censorship, my e-mailers informed me, was not possible at the hands of a private business concern. Only government can censor, they wrote.
Checking a series of dictionaries, I could find no explicit reference to censorship only coming at the hands of government. A censor is, according to Webster’s New World, “an official with the power to examine publications, movies, television programs, etc. and to remove or prohibit anything considered obscene, libelous, politically objectionable, etc.”
Can government do that? Yes. Can others do it? Sure. Is all censorship bad? No.
A television program cancelled over poor ratings can fall victim to censors. The tale is told in the circumstances. Cancel “The Drew Carey Show” and few will raise an eyebrow. Cancel the Smothers Brothers show, with its edgy and political content, and we might have something more nefarious. Stop playing the music of the Dixie Chicks after they say unkind things about President Bush, and we have a problem.
Thus, when Ayers’ letter told Continental that its actions were “offensive to First Amendment freedoms,” it was not to claim an outright violation of free speech. It was, instead, to suggest something more nuanced. Overt government censorship is rare these days. The job of battlefield censor has changed thanks to advances in wireless technology that make transmitting the story and photo from the scene only a laptop and satellite phone away. Government censors no longer wield a heavy pen to black out offending copy before it is sent back to the copy desk. Instead, the Pentagon relies on softer ways of trying to get its message across.
During the most recent war in Iraq, American media outlets themselves did the work of government censors. Many embedded reporters, all Pentagon-trained and -approved, became cheerleaders. They played down the unseemly images of war and number of civilian casualties. They actively boosted the mythological exploits of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, and during the lead-up to war were too willing to swallow the administration’s story.
What is practiced these days is not censorship with a U.S. government stamp. There are plenty of others in the media who are ultrasensitive to what will set off protests from a vocal segment of readers or viewers who are willing to do the work of the censor, either purposely or unknowingly. Many of these censors do not have a hidden agenda when they do away with unpopular content. They are answering the call of the marketplace. That is their right, but it should be done with great care. A newspaper that only gives its readers what they say they want is not serving its highest calling.
Many Southern newspapers are still wrestling with the shame of pleasing their white readership by staying silent during the Civil Rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Most recently, Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader offered an apology for its timid coverage of African-Americans’ struggle against segregation. While not of the same magnitude, this struggle over the removal of Doones-bury does have a familiar ring.
True, most newspapers are operated as businesses. But when freedom of the press is mentioned so prominently in the Bill of Rights, it must be operated with something more than the bottom line in view. An independent press exists to check government. We must serve as a forum for a wide variety of views.
Better to attempt to explain the value of Doonesbury as a voice that challenges the conventional wisdom than to kill it outright. Make it an exercise in democracy that goes beyond a majority-rule vote. It’s a lesson in citizenship. Our nation’s founders believed strongly in protecting the minority viewpoint. Fostering debate and dissent is deep within the nation’s DNA. Read Trudeau’s work or not, but appreciate it for what it is—one person standing up and saying “that’s not right.”
Offer up a vote on the prominence of news stories, and that item on Halliburton’s sweetheart government contracts is shoved to the back of the section by the same critics anxious to keep Doonesbury out of their daily paper.
To us, this ugly scenario seems worth losing our cool over. We wouldn’t want to see it become a trend.
Bob Davis is the editorial page editor of The Anniston (Alabama) Star.