Stripping ‘Doonesbury’: Tribune silences satire

Monday, September 12, 2011

It was less than a year ago that the Chicago Tribune went to some lengths to explain that it wasn’t censoring the comic strip “Doonesbury.”

“Every now and then, a comic strip takes a vacation, and the syndicate that provides it gives us reruns,” the newspaper told its readers in November. “Sometimes we use a cartoon’s time off to give other — brand-new — comics some exposure. Because most comic strips can be viewed online, conspiracy theorists see the repeats and accuse us of silencing a satirist. Worse, we are accused of censorship — and lying about it. The reality just isn’t that interesting, folks.”

Yet this week the Tribune is in fact “silencing a satirist,” removing “Doonesbury” from its pages because “the subject matter does not meet our standards of fairness (because) the strip includes excerpts from a book that is not yet on the market and therefore unavailable for review or verification by the Tribune,” according to a report by Poynter’s Jim Romenesko.

This week’s “Doonesbury” features excerpts from author Joe McGinniss’ upcoming biography of Sarah Palin. McGinniss and “Doonesbury” creator Gary Trudeau collaborated on the strip, which portrays Palin in a distinctly unflattering light.

The First Amendment guarantees that a newspaper can decide what to publish — or not publish. The Tribune is entirely within its rights, but it’s certainly an uncomfortable position for any news organization that aspires to reflect the full marketplace of ideas.

Comic strips are sometimes lifted for taste reasons, but it’s highly unusual to see a strip removed because the newspaper couldn’t verify its source material. Does that mean the Tribune routinely reviews each strip to ensure its factual integrity? Granted, “Nancy” rarely comments on President Obama’s health-care plan, but there’s also no question that comic strips are more topical and pointed than ever. Is the Tribune saying that it’s vouching for the fairness of all of those it publishes?

As a former newspaper editor, I know the challenge of dealing with syndicated material that you find unprofessional or unfair. As an editor, you make daily choices about what to publish, but if you pull a regular feature, the public is more likely to see you as a censor than an editor.

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