"Despicable." "Deplorable." "Sickening." Monday morning did not start well. Some of our readers were quite unhappy.
The target of their collective wrath: an editorial cartoon.
This one showed a lone coffin draped with an American flag. The caption read, "The White House plan for bringing home the troops … one at a time."
It was a potent image, aimed at provoking a response.
Were we wrong to publish it? We'd like your views on that question. And we'd also like your thoughts on the idea of a general political cartoon policy, as well. More on that later.
First, some background on our editorial cartoons. Like most papers, we don't have our own cartoonist. We subscribe to the Copley News Service, which provides a variety of work from cartoonists across the nation.
As the editor who typically chooses the cartoon of the day, it's become clear to me that some cartoonists tilt to the left, some to the right. A few bounce from side to side.
For example, Michael Ramirez, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, tends to be rather conservative. I like his work, as it is clear and pointed. Likewise, Steve Breen, of the San Diego Union, is a political moderate whose work is lucid and clean.
The cartoon in question was drawn by Chris Britt of the Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill. I find Britt to be on the liberal side, and his work is sometimes to the far edge of the left. A profile of Britt which I found online described him as a "bomb-thrower."
In any case, we have a variety of images from which to choose each day. Our tradition, though it is not etched in a set of official guidelines, is to choose cartoons generally reflecting a moderate to conservative point of view, though we do from time to time venture into more liberal images.
Selecting a cartoon is usually a pleasant chore. It can turn difficult, though, when the day's menu contains work that is obscure, poorly rendered, or too regional in nature. For instance, Breen's work is outstanding, but he sometimes takes up issues of great importance in San Diego but of scant relevance in Lodi.
When I take the day off, the task of choosing a cartoon falls to Jennifer Bonnett, our city editor. This was the case with the Britt panel depicting the flag-draped coffin.
Jennifer said she chose it partly because the message was cleanly depicted - and partly because there wasn't much else to choose from on a late Friday when the following Monday's opinion page is put together.
Being in the business more than half her life, Bonnett has handled her share of reader complaints. But one caller Monday cut to the bone when he questioned the journalist's views on the war. He impugned her for a stance she's not even clear on herself.
"Some days I support the war, other days I don't," said Bonnett. "No matter, soldiers are dying in Iraq and that's what the cartoon depicted."
As I mentioned at the top of this column, the reaction from some readers was nothing short of outrage. They felt the image was especially insensitive to those who have family members serving in Iraq. (That concern is one reason we are not reprinting the cartoon with this column. However, it is available online at http://cagle.msnbc.com/politicalcartoons/PCcartoons/britt.asp )
I spoke to Britt late Friday and he was articulate in defending his work - and the traditional role of political cartoonists in a democracy.
The opinion pages of newspapers, he said, should be places where strong and diverse views are presented. There should be a willingness to challenge readers with political cartoons, he said. Too many papers, Britt believes, want to "play it safe." Such reticence doesn't help readers and doesn't fulfill our First Amendment obligations, he feels.
"During a time of conflict, it is all the more important to speak out and express various views," he said. "It's the ability to disagree and debate that makes the country great. Our strength lies is our diversity of opinion."
He quoted the late, great cartoonist Bill Mauldin: "Editorial cartoons have too many gags and not enough guts."
Britt believes cartoonists are out front in challenging President Bush and the war.
"I know some people say my cartoon is disgusting. What's disgusting to me is a president who leads men and women into war for reasons that now appear to be disingenuous. What's disgusting is that some leaders would equate raising questions and disagreeing with being unpatriotic."
Britt said he received plenty of negative feedback on the cartoon, but also some praise.
"I had the parent of a soldier killed in Iraq tell me 'bravo' - that I was making a crucial point," he said.
A digression: Most editors and cartoonists agree that readers are more easily offended now, more reactive to opinions, whether written or drawn, that differ from their own.
Some in journalism believe this has led to a blunting of political cartoons, a sort of sanding away of the rougher, more pointed edges.
There is no question that the art and craft of political cartooning is waning; there are no more than 90 such journalists nationwide today, down from perhaps 200 in the early 1990s.
Reaction to the Britt cartoon has stirred some useful internal discussion. It may be time to sit down and lay out some guidelines on how we choose cartoons.
The lack of such guidance is one reason I can in no way fault Jennifer, who was simply filling in for me and doing her best on a busy Friday. Her choice was driven by considerations that were deadline-driven and practical, not political.
This week, I've been reviewing the possibility of cartoon guidelines with our publisher, Marty Weybret, and our chairman, Fred Weybret.
We'd like you, the readers, to help us in creating any such guidelines.
Consider, if you will, these questions:
1. Were we wrong to publish such a sure-to-inflame cartoon?
2. Should we publish only cartoons that reflect a generally conservative readership?
3. Should we instead print work reflecting a variety of political viewpoints, even some that may challenge or inflame some readers?
I would enjoy hearing from you at email@example.com, or you can call me at (209) 369-7035.
Richard Hanner is the editor of the News-Sentinel.