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Published: Friday, 7/16/2004

Doonesbury decision not an easy one

David Koeninger was one of a number of readers who were upset that The Blade didn't run three days' worth of the Doonesbury comic strip.

"Please explain such a ridiculous decision," he wrote. "It is hard to imagine that many readers actually would be offended," by the comics' thinly disguised use of a famous obscenity, he argued.

"More importantly, and rather ironically, the censorship occurs in an edition of the paper that trumpets the influence of the 'culture wars' on the Presidential election it appears that The Blade already has chosen sides in these wars."

What's the verdict? The decision, rightly or wrongly, had nothing to do with politics, according to Ron Royhab, executive editor and vice president of The Blade, and everything to do with taste. "We decided not to use the comic strips because they violated our policy regarding obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity in stories," he said.

"We do not use any form of abbreviation to substitute for a vulgarity, as was done in those comic strips. I don't think parents would want their children reading a comic strip that includes vulgarities, even though they are abbreviated, rather than spelled out."

Michael Wiley of Maumee also objected to Doonesbury's disappearance, saying our not running the strip felt like censorship.

Kurt Franck, managing editor of The Blade, said, "Our decision not to run Doonesbury was not censorship. We made it because we felt it would have been in poor taste to run a series of comic strips where the characters are using such foul language that they have to be bleeped out. Censorship is the effort to suppress ideas or content it's not that we wanted to withhold information from our readers; we felt that as gatekeepers, we have a responsibility to be aware of our readers' sensibilities.

"We felt this strip shouldn't run on the same page as Cathy and Beetle Bailey. Readers go to the funny pages to escape the ugly realities of today's world."

What does the ombudsman think?

This was a tough call - and one the editors had every right to make.

They are charged with being gatekeepers and deciding what best fits both the information mix and the climate and sensibilities of this newspaper. Whatever the merits of the decision, it was not political; The Blade's editorial pages have been highly and sharply critical of President Bush and his administration.

Were it up to me, I would have run the strip - but I would have put Doonesbury on the editorial page where I think it belongs, because it is essentially political satire, rather than a traditional comic strip. And I agree with the editors that the newspaper ought to avoid unnecessary vulgarity. As Carl Bernstein once said, just because we have the freedom to print trash doesn't mean we have to furnish trash with an outlet.

But in this case, Doonesbury was lampooning the use of a similar vulgarity by the vice president, who directed it toward Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) on the floor of the U.S. Senate June 22, and has since refused to apologize for doing so.

That is something that would once have been unimaginable, and Doonesbury was satirizing what the nation's second-highest official said. The Blade ran a short story June 26 about the incident, but without details. In my view, the comment and the attitude were so extraordinary

that the readers deserved to know what exactly was said, not because of the words involved, but because of who the speaker was.

But reasonable and honorable men can disagree - and that decision was the editors' to make. And any reader with access to the Internet or cable television can easily find out in graphic detail everything he or she missed.

Anyone with a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 189 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202



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