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The Poynter Institute’s Jim Romenesko (always the go-to source for journalism news) reports that Newsday and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have joined the Chicago Tribune in refusing to run this week’s Doonesbury strips, which include excerpts from Joe McGinniss’ book The Rogue, an unauthorized and extremely salacious biography of former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Shawn McIntosh, editor of the Journal-Constitution, has this response to readers who commented:
Mr. Trudeau has based this series of comic strips on an as-yet unpublished book by author Joe McGinnis about Sarah Palin. Since the book is not yet published, Ms. Palin has not had an opportunity to comment publicly on the content included in the book and picked up in the cartoons. Nor has the book yet been reviewed for accuracy. In essence, the cartoons would be reporting news, not commenting on news that is already public.
That raises an interesting question: Would the papers run the cartoons two weeks from now, after the book has been published? According to The Washington Post, McGinniss sent cartoonist Garry Trudeau an advance copy and later approached him about “an exclusive first-serial arrangement.” Honestly, this sounds as much like blatant product placement as an attempt to break news on the comics page.
Doonesbury is fiction, but Trudeau incorporates real people and events into the story, so it really straddles the boundary. Roland Hedley Jr., the character who is reading the Palin book, is a figment of Trudeau’s imagination. Fox News, the network for which he works, is real. The strip is skewering Fox’s tendency to rework the news to fit its conservative ideology; that part is over the top, but no one is complaining about that. Editors didn’t pull strips that depicted George W. Bush as a feather or Bill Clinton as a waffle. As Michael Cavna said in The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs blog, “Cartoonists who editorialize, of course, have the responsibility not to be fair.”
So what’s the problem with the Palin material? Is it that it’s a bit of purported truth embedded in a fictional story? Is it the nature of the material that the editors are objecting to? I wouldn’t be surprised if fear of a libel suit had something to do with this.
On the one hand, I want to defend Trudeau’s right to publish his strip (editors who sign up for Doonesbury know what they’re getting into from the beginning, after all) and readers’ right to read it. On the other hand, if I were an editor, I would be complaining to the syndicate. The strips are awful heavy-handed, even by Trudeau’s standards; he’s clearly eager to get the juicy bits out there before anyone else. I’m no Palin fan, but from the excerpts I have seen online, McGinniss’ book is mean-spirited and journalistically dodgy, relying heavily on anonymous sources and folks with axes to grind, and the Doonesbury strips just amplify that. They should have been sent back for a rewrite, but that’s the job of his syndicate editor, not comics-page editors at individual papers.