New York Post Cartoon Depicts Author of Stimulus Bill as a Dead Chimp? Is that... racist?

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You might have heard that the New York Post ran a cartoon today that depicts one (white, male) police officer saying to another (white, male) police officer who has just shot a chimpanzee on the street: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." There's a blogstorm going on about whether the cartoon is racist. The Post editors saying that it's obviously a mashup of two recent news events: Tuesday's signing of the stimulus bill and Monday's police shooting of a pet chimp who attacked a Connecticut woman. Actually, it's an obvious act of irresponsible journalism.

First, let's look at this as a matter of editorial judgment. Editorial cartoonists have wide latitude to criticize public figures and comment on public events, which is a good thing. Editors have the responsibility to ensure that their editorial art meets certain basic standards. For one thing, it should have a clear point, just as a written opinion piece should. It can be provocative, but it shouldn't be the equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. If a public figure is the subject, it doesn't have to be literally true, as long as the untruth can be understood to be satire.

If the reactions of public officials, bloggers and commenters on the NY Post website is any indication, the cartoon failed on just about every count. There's a lot of confusion about what the cartoon was trying to say, for starters.

Sam Stein at the Huffington Post couldn't tell exactly what Delonas was trying to say:

At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so
bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Others believe it compares
the president to a rabid chimp.

Media critic Eric Deggans thought the Post's editors should have realized that the cartoon would be seen as racist and wondered:

[W]hy would a major newspaper in the most diverse city in America publish a cartoon which could be taken this way?

Gawker offers a gallery of controversial Delonas cartoons, although most of these seem to have a clearer point than this latest offering.

Richard Prince's excellent round-up notes a New York Times blog post reporting criticism from NY Sen. Kristin Gillibrand ("intentionally hurtful"), questions from Gov. David Paterson ("I hope that they would clarify") and an anonymous report from a Post staffer that many of the newspaper's employees were upset by the cartoon.

Joy Reid says that the people who are most offended are those who think of Pres. Obama as the prime mover behind the stimulus package:

[I]f you think Congressional Democrats are that crazy monkey, your
outrage level is probably at about level 5 (if you're a Dem, zero if
you're a Republican.) If you think Obama was responsible for the bill
(and you're not one of those inevitable nuts on the Internet who compare every monkey on Youtube to a black person ... scroll down to the comments, you'll see what I mean...) then let's just put you down for 10. ... or maybe 12.

According to Reid, that accounts for the anger emanating from the National Association of Black Journalists, whose president, Barbara Ciara called the cartoon "nothing short of racist drivel," adding:

I question the judgment of the editorial editors to move this to print
as well as the diversity of its staff that would let them think this
passes as comedy.

On the other hand, the bloggers at These Bastards say it's obvious that the cartoon wasn't about Obama:

Grow up, breathe, and go cover the probable dozens of things in today's
Post that were 30-40 times more racist than the cartoon. For Christ's
sake, they run columns by Ann Coulter.

And New York Daily News blogger Elizabeth Patterson accuses the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the first to demand an explanation from the Post editors, of "grinding a bit of an historical axe" because Delonas and the Post have lambasted him in the past. On his website, Sharpton asked:

In a statement on his website, Sharpton argued:

Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of
President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has
become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder whether the Post
cartoonist was inferring that a monkey wrote it? Given that the New
York Post cartoonist has come under heavy fire in the past for racially
tinged cartoons including the infamous cartoons depicting 2001 mayoral
candidate Freddy Ferrer and me in very unflattering ways (that
ultimately was used as a campaign tactic to inflame racial prejudices),
one cannot ignore that history when looking at this morning’s cartoon.

Both Delonas and the Post have been dismissive of their critics. The Post's editor-in-chief, Col Allan, chose to attack Al Sharpton instead of responding to the questions and concerns raised by a wide range of people:

"The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the
shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. said Col Allan,
editor-in-chief of the Post. "It broadly mocks Washington's efforts to
revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more
than a publicity opportunist."

CNN's Kyra Phillips read a statement on air that she attributed to Delonas:

"It's absolutely friggin ridiculous. Do you really think I'm saying Obama should be shot?"

"I didn't see that in the cartoon. The chimpanzee was a major story in
"The Post." Every paper in New York, except 'The New York Times,'
covered the chimpanzee story. It's just ridiculous. It's about the
economic stimulus bill, and if you're going to make that about anybody,
it would be Pelosi, which it's not."

Allan and Delonas' responses don't make sense. As CNN contributor Roland Martin notes, if the chimp was supposed to be a representation of the stimulus bill itself, instead of a person, then the convention would have been to label the chimp in order to make the meaning clear. But if that had been the point, why would the cop refer to the writer of the bill? I think Martin is right when he says this is a matter of the Post failing to take responsibility for an error:

President Obama earned kudos from the media when he said he screwed
up in nominating Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services
despite his problem with paying taxes.

Too bad the leadership of
the New York Post didn't follow the lead of the president in admitting
that an editorial cartoon they ran today by Sean Delonas was offensive,
careless and racist.

Many commentators recalled the long, sordid history of pseudo-scientists and media-makers who associated black people with apes, leading some to retort that no one cried foul when former Pres. George W. Bush was depicted as a chimp. The J-Walk blog asked, "Is it, all of a sudden not politically correct to call a president a chimp because he's black?" Never mind that the chimp in the cartoon is bullet-riddled.

Never mind, also, research such as this 2008 Stanford University study showing that many Americans still associate African Americans with apes, not accepting them as fully human. A Stanford news release reports:

[T]he findings show that society is more likely to condone violence
against black criminal suspects as a result of its broader inability to
accept African Americans as fully human, according to the researchers.

Co-author Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford associate professor of
psychology who is black, said she was shocked by the results,
particularly since they involved subjects born after Jim Crow and the
civil rights movement. "This was actually some of the most depressing
work I have done," she said. "This shook me up. You have suspicions
when you do the work—intuitions—you have a hunch. But it was hard to
prepare for how strong [the black-ape association] was—how we were able
to pick it up every time."

For me, this cartoon sounds two distinct echoes. The first is of the press coverage of the Black and Latino youth accused of the 1989 rape of a young white woman who was jogging in Central Park -- the teenagers were cast by the New York Post and other outlets as "savages" and "super-predators" despite the lack of evidence tying them to any violent acts. It turned out that the teenagers ended up spending years in prison for a crime they didn't commit.

The second has to do with another controversy over the depiction of a person of African descent as a cartoon ape. In this case, the cartoon appeared in Focus, an employee magazine sent to the homes of 300,000 employees world wide. The cartoon depicted ATST customers around the world. While of the customers were people in some culturally identifiable costume (a French person in a beret, for example), the lone African caller was a monkey. The cartoon sparked letters of indignation from employees, customers, and civil rights groups, prompting profuse apologies. The free-lance cartoonist was fired, and he too. claimed he'd meant no harm and he was being criticized unfairly. The incident is now a classic case study in crisis communications.

Here's the thing. I had worked at Focus magazine, although I left in 1990. I knew the editor, and I had worked with the design firm. At the time that I worked there, a lot of people were telecommuting, so there weren't as many eyes on the galleys as there should have been. We had a new system that allowed pages to be shipped directly to the designer. The page got by the staff, which would never had let something like that run.

But the bottom line is that the editor, and the company, took responsibility for their screw-up. It would be nice to see the Post do the same. Not that I'm holding my breath.

After all, Liz Cox Barrett at the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that all of the controversy is playing into the New York Post's hand, putting it, perhaps: "right where the tabloid wants to be?"

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