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Chicago Tribune

Chicago, Illinois, June 1, 2003


When a cartoon offends readers

Don Wycliff

 Click image for cartoon

click for cartoonIN MY nine years as the Tribune's editorial page editor, the moments of greatest controversy and personal anguish all were the result of editorial cartoons. In the early '90s there was the late Jeff MacNelly's irreverent depiction of the thoughts of a group of Catholic priests as they watched the singer Sinead O'Connor on television. That one prompted then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to take up the cudgels against the newspaper -- and made me wish I had a bunker instead of an office.

A bit later on there was another MacNelly panel in which he compared Slobodan Milosevic's Serbs in Yugoslavia to a barnyard animal wallowing in filth. That brought a torrent of angry phone calls and a number of visits from members of the local Serbian community.

In the late '90s MacNelly hit upon a visual device with which to hammer a Monica-bedeviled Bill Clinton: He drew the lantern-jawed president naked, except for a necktie that covered his private parts. Result: another torrent of rancorous phone calls.

The editorial cartoon is a permanent stranger in its own environment. With written material -- editorials, commentary articles, even letters to the editor -- we nip, tuck, trim, fine-tune and adjust so that the piece will say just what the writer and editor want it to say, no more and no less. The best editorial cartoons, by contrast, have all the nuance and delicacy of a stick in the eye.

But even at its roughest and bluntest, there are lines that a cartoon should not cross. On Friday, our editorial page ran a cartoon that crossed all the lines.

Drawn by former Tribune cartoonist Dick Locher, the cartoon depicted President George W. Bush on one knee on a bridge over what was labeled "Mideast Gulch." The president is laying down a carpet of bills -- U.S. currency, presumably -- in front of a portly male figure with a large, aquiline nose and clad in a black suit marked with the Star of David.

As a Yasser Arafat-like figure looks on with arms crossed, the black-suited man -- is he Ariel Sharon? a generic Israeli? a generic Jew? -- remains riveted on the money, and says, "On second thought, the pathway to peace is looking a bit brighter."

Locher could not be reached for comment Friday evening. But editorial page editor Bruce Dold said,

"I think Dick Locher intended to comment on the influence the U.S. can exert through the foreign aid it provides to Israel. I think that's all Locher intended. But the cartoon carried several other messages that could be seen as drawing on anti-Semitic symbols and stereotypes. It also implied that the U.S. is bribing Israel to support the road map to peace, but there is simply no evidence to support that. On those levels, the cartoon failed."

Did it ever.

The telephones began ringing early and continued to ring late. E-mail inboxes started to show that telltale subject line: "cartoon." Some callers identified themselves as Jewish; some did not. But all identified themselves as offended.

"One need not be a supporter of either Ariel Sharon or many current policies of the state of Israel to be deeply offended by today's editorial cartoon, which suggests that money alone is the incentive for Israel/Sharon to engage in peace talks," wrote long-time Chicago political activist Don Rose. "The cartoon is blatantly anti-Semitic, reinforcing the long-held racist image of Jews as avaricious and greedy."

My own reaction was very much the same as Rose's. It is no secret to readers of this column that I have been no fan of Sharon and his policies. But I was jolted when I looked at the cartoon and saw that figure with the hooked nose, the Star of David and those words (particularly since money has never been the decisive issue in the Middle East dispute).

Since the Tribune does not currently have a staff editorial cartoonist, each day's cartoon is selected from a batch bought from various syndicates. Locher's cartoons come through Tribune Media Services. Dold was out of town on Thursday, so the selection of Friday's cartoon fell to his deputy, John McCormick, with help from Voice of the people editor Dodie Hofstetter. McCormick said he settled on the Locher cartoon because the policy issue it depicted -- the use of U.S. aid to influence the Israeli government -- was one that had often been discussed in editorial board debates. There is no question in my mind that McCormick and Hofstetter, two of the most honorable people I have ever worked with, did not knowingly try to smuggle an anti-Semitic cartoon into the newspaper.

But that this cartoon did indeed give grievous offense to many good people is beyond question.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune
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