Chicago, Illinois, June 1,
cartoon offends readers
image for cartoon
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
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
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
© 2003, Chicago