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Doonesbury Is Still Published? Who Knew?

Earlier this evening I noted that today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune reminded us why that paper is regarded as one of the most left-wing in the United States. The second article I want to highlight from today’s Strib is by the paper’s Editor, Nancy Barnes. Ms. Barnes explained why the paper killed a series of Doonesbury comic strips last week.

Doonesbury was once, many years ago, a hot cultural phenomenon. In recent decades, however, the strip has come to the attention of most newspaper readers only when news outlets have reported that papers refused to run it. That is what happened last week. Thus we found out that Garry Trudeau is still alive, and Doonesbury is still being published. Ms. Barnes wrote:

The calls and letters that poured in this week were filled with everything from eloquent musings to venomous epithets.

One reader demanded that I resign immediately. Others called me an idiot, or suggested the Star Tribune had been corrupted by conservatives.

Never fear.

The offense last week was the decision not to print five days’ worth of Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” strips dealing with Texas abortion laws. … Those laws, which Texas began enforcing last month, require every woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram, listen to the doctor describe what he or she sees, then wait 24 hours before making a final decision to have an abortion.

Great material for comedy, obviously.

I want to be clear about this: The decision not to run the strips was not based on political sympathies one way or the other.

Rather, we made the call based on what we consider to be suitable content for the comics pages. Some of the installments were quite graphic, and, in our view, did not belong in sections of the newspaper intended for family reading.

One, in particular, crossed the line. It portrayed a doctor informing a patient that she has to have a vaginal sonogram, inserting a large wand-like device into the woman and declaring: “By the authority invested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.”

This, in our view, was not appropriate for those pages.

Here is the strip in question:

One could say a number of things about this comic strip: It is politically strident. It is almost unbelievably stupid. It purports to address a serious political issue, but doesn’t say anything remotely serious about it. It is, at the same time, not funny. So why would anyone carry such a lousy comic strip?

Ms. Barnes didn’t try to answer that question. Rather, she drew an analogy to another instance where the Strib refused to publish a “cartoon.”

A few years ago, we had a similar controversy over a decision not to publish some highly controversial cartoons circulated in a Danish newspaper that caricatured the prophet Mohammed.

Those cartoons became the center of a worldwide controversy and news story; we chose not to run them in the Star Tribune because they would have been inflammatory and offensive to many readers.

That time, it was conservatives who were infuriated. Commentator Katherine Kersten ripped us and other news organizations that decided not to publish those cartoons.

But the two cases are not remotely similar. The Danish cartoons were not comic strips from a cartoonist that the Strib regularly published on its comics page. Rather, the “cartoons” were drawings of the Prophet Muhammad that became a major news story after they were published in a deliberate exercise of free speech, and at least 139 people were killed in riots by Muslims who believed the drawings were not sufficiently deferential to the Prophet. The Strib reported on that news story, as did just about every newspaper in the world, but it declined to reproduce the drawings themselves. This was significant because in order to understand the news story, readers needed to see the cartoons and judge for themselves whether they fell within the broad range of fair political comment, or were somehow so “offensive” as to justify the murder of more than 100 human beings. That judgment, in turn, was important to Americans’ understanding of Islam as a political force.

There was another factor, too: many news outlets reproduced the drawings of Muhammad in order to support free speech and the First Amendment, and demonstrate that they would not be intimidated by threats of violence. I don’t think the Star Tribune had any obligation to join in this demonstration, but the idea that its declining to do so was somehow of a piece with its refusal to run Doonesbury cartoons that were too outrageous even for the Strib’s liberal sensibilities is not just confused, but perverse.

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