To publish or not to publish

I make it a rule not to spike any of Robert Ariail‘s cartoons. Well, maybe it’s more of a guideline than a rule, but I can’t remember any time in the last several years when he wanted to run something, and I just said "no." Occasionally, I talk him out of a cartoon, usually because I just don’t think it works. Just as often, I egg him on, persuading him to go with an idea that he’s not sure about.

We have a close working relationship based on mutual respect of each other’s respective senses of what makes an editorial cartoon work. We don’t always agree, though, and when he is certain about a cartoon I have doubts about, my standard procedure is to get out of his way and let him go with it. After all, I consider him to be one of the top five, maybe even top three, cartoonists in the country. Who am I to stand in the way of genius? I might have a good sense of what makes a good cartoon, but he actually has the talent to turn an idea into reality. Most of the time, you have to bow to that.

Which brings me to the matter at hand. Thursday morning, I was rushing about, Arimug and Robert (pictured at left) decided to consult with Associate Editor Mike Fitts about an idea. I remember being vaguely aware of Robert standing in the doorway of Mike’s office as I hustled by down the hallway. The sound of Mike saying the word "salacious" sort of half-registered on me, but I quickly forgot it, intent on my errand.

Shortly afterward, Robert blocked my passage back down the hall and showed me a sketch. It wasn’t quite the same as the one pictured below. In the first version, which was simpler, the woman holding the pot of coffee was the wife of the man, and the scene was set in their kitchen. Shortly after this first conversation, Robert would produce yet another version that had the same couple sitting on a sofa watching television. As we went back and forth on the subject that morning in a series of brief exchanges, I convinced him that the sofa scene was too static, and that it would be funnier if the woman were a stranger to the man, sort of coming out of nowhere to startle him with her off-point observation. So he made her a waitress, and set it in a diner.

Anyway, you can use this intermediate version as a fair guide to what I first saw, and from that you can judge how stupid I was when I first looked at it. Aging newshound that I am, I still think of Watergate as current events. I’m aware that many people have little or no memory of it and see it as dim history, but that seems ridiculous to me. So I particularly appreciated what I saw at first asAri06ex2_2 the one and only point of the cartoon: Robert was making fun of people who, their attention spans drastically curtailed in our TV-shaped world, can’t remember past the most recent scandal, and get their recent history all fouled up. To put it more charitably — in a way, that’s all of us, because we’re so overwhelmed with information, who can truly be blamed for mixing up the facts a little?

Well, I was already pronouncing the cartoon a winner when the half-heard word from a few moments before crept hesitantly out of a corner of my mind, and certain connections started to be made. The all-too-slow process sort of went, "Salacious… Monica Lewinsky… stained dress… ‘Deep Throat’ — the movie, dummy, not the source… Oh." Still, the sexual double entendre struck me as just a secondary level on which you could react; it was by no means the main point.

I told Robert I was going to have to think about this one. I sought Mike’s opinion, and was a little surprised when he said that while he thought it was a good cartoon, and really funny, if he were me, he wouldn’t put it in The State newspaper. Reluctant to reject a good cartoon just because a lot of nice folks would be offended (assuming their minds were dirtier than mine), I decided to seek other opinions.

I did something I do fairly frequently, although usually only when I’m sure I’m going to go ahead and run something: I gave Publisher Ann Caulkins a heads-up. After all, you don’t want your boss getting a bunch of angry phone calls without knowing ahead of time that they were coming. Ann reacted about the way I did. She appreciated it on the level of a standard misunderstanding gag. But since she knew there had to be a reason I was showing it to her, she examined it more closely, and then it dawned on her, too. She was immediately concerned, but she wasn’t about to forbid me to run it; she doesn’t do that. She just let me know she didn’t feel good about it.

Anyway, a little later, Robert came to me and said he was letting me off the hook by just sending the finished cartoon (below) to his syndicate. He didn’t seem entirely sure he wanted it to run in The State himself. (After all, it’s one thing to e-mail a funny, but somewhat prurient, cartoon out to strangers, and another to have your mom and everybody else in your own community see it and Ari06ex_1share their reactions with you.)

Somewhat later (mind you, all of this is going on in brief episodes as we’re all doing lots of other things on the last day of the legislative session) I told Ann about Robert’s plan, and told her I didn’t like it. If other newspapers were going to have a Robert Ariail cartoon, I wanted us to run it. So she urged me to consult the rest of the board before I made a final decision. Meanwhile, Robert had come up with a different cartoon for Friday’s paper, so I just decided to bring it up at the next morning’s staff meeting.

Things didn’t go so well for the cartoon the next morning. I passed out copies of the sketch, and heads started shaking all around. It was unanimous; nobody thought it would be a good idea to put it in our newspaper. In fact, they all thought I was daft — the dirty joke was the point, and only a wonk like me could have thought it was mainly about something else.

Well, I’m surrounded by smart people for a reason, and that is to listen to them when they’re this adamant about something. So we didn’t run the cartoon. The last straw was when this occurred to me: We had run Ariail cartoons that I considered just as suggestive back when the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was dominating the headlines. The difference is, you couldn’t avoid the unsavory nature of the whole thing then. But to drag it into this completely unrelated situation for the sake of a joke seemed gratuitous, and therefore less excusable.

And no, I don’t consider putting it on the blog for the sake of discussion as being the same thing. One of the reasons I started this forum to begin with was to have an even more wide-open, transparent dialogue with readers than is possible in the finite constraints of newsprint. Letting you in on our decision-making process (even ad nauseam, it occurs to me as look back at the length of this posting) is an essential part of that for me.

Anyway, what would you have done?

8 thoughts on “To publish or not to publish

  1. Phyllis Overstreet

    Frankly, I find this one much less offensive than the one in today’s (6/5/05)paper. Maybe Mr. Arial needs to be reminded that there is such an animal as patriotic dissent in this country.

  2. Chris Carey

    Brad – I thought the cartoon itself WAS funny…but I agree it’s not something you publish in your paper!!!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this new blog…it’s awesome!

  3. Michael Brantley

    I grew up in Jasper County and moved to Columbia in 1987. I’ve been shocked before when I picked up the State and saw where you censored comic strips. I have to pick my jaw up from the floor after reading about how the State debated whether or not to censor this Ariail cartoon. I understand that some in our state might be shocked by this if it were printed, but I’m worried more by the fact that you censor because of this. BTW, I like to think that I’m a “nice” person too. I don’t agree with all of Ariail’s viewpoints but I’m not going to to say that he shouldn’t express them. People need to wake up and smell the coffee and understand the reality of the world they live in. Political cartoonists help us to do this. Unfortunately, I don’t think that your censorship helps to convey reality to people, in fact, it nurtures a distorted opinion of current events.

  4. Happy Dawg

    I agree with Phyllis. Arial lost me when he started smoking wingnut crazy weed.
    Note to Arial: point your toe when goose stepping.

  5. Laurin

    Mr. Warthen, I think you should have listened to your journalistic instinct not to stifle a genius. The benefits of sharing ideas, even silly/bawdy ones, greatly outweigh the costs. However, I certainly understand the Mama-reads-this factor, a consideration I deal with every time I post to my blog. Nonetheless, a publication as widely read as The State has an obligation to the public. Plus, I think many of the folks who would, in theory, be offended by the innuendo in this cartoon would probably miss the joke! (My mama certainly would. 🙂 )
    Keep up the good work on the blog!

  6. Phyllis

    I’d like to add that I think Robert is a great editorial cartoonist and that even though I didn’t care for his 6/5 cartoon, I was glad you ran it. He does exactly what he is supposed to do, and he does it eloquently and elegantly, with just enough wiseacre to make it entertaining. And I think you should have printed this one, as well.

Comments are closed.