It is time to practice what we preach.
On the Opinion page, we often urge public officials or public figures to admit their mistakes, learn from them and apologize when necessary. Now it is The Columbian’s turn to apologize for an editorial cartoon that was published in Wednesday’s paper.
The cartoon was selected from an artist in Georgia, which we received through a syndication service. It depicted looters — apparently people of color — in the wake of protests that have followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The point, as I saw it, was that looting will not ease the pain from the death of an African American caused by a white police officer, for which the officer has been charged with murder. Nor will looting appropriately advance discussions about race and police brutality — discussions that are desperately needed in the United States.
But judging from the emails and phone calls we received, the cartoon did not meet the standards expected by our community or the standards we demand for ourselves; at best it was insensitive and at worst it was racist. “Offensive,” “inappropriate” and “disrespectful” were among the more gentle descriptions.
Several of the emails used identical language, and a few inferred that the cartoon was published on the front page of the paper. In truth it ran on PageA4, the location of that day’s Opinion page.
But those are minor details. The important thing is that we heard from readers and that we listen to what they have to say.
And what we hear is that this nation is feeling pain that, for many, was heightened by the cartoon. Stress from disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been exacerbated over the past 11 days by Floyd’s death, which was captured on a video that has gone viral. That has led to widespread protests — including large ones in Portland and Seattle and small demonstrations in Vancouver.
Those peaceful and powerful protests have sometimes been accompanied by vandalism and looting. CNN has reported: “The FBI and other agencies are tracking groups from both the extremist right and left involved in the riots and attacks on police” — a report that has been echoed by other media outlets. The violence appears to be perpetrated mostly by actors who have an agenda different from those desiring to mourn Floyd or to demand reforms in policing and race relations.
All of that is a lot to unpack and a lot more than can be depicted in a single editorial cartoon. The Columbian publishes at least one cartoon each day, providing a broad range of opinions and perspectives over time. Tuesday, we published a powerful cartoon depicting Floyd under the knee of a police officer as the Statue of Liberty wept. Thursday, we published one showing how peaceful protesters are being overshadowed by those intent upon sowing discord and violence.
Political cartoons have been a staple of public discourse since the mid-1800s, using satire and caricatures to make their points. At their best, they condense issues that reporters spend 30 inches explaining to a single panel, teetering on the edge of irreverence and blasphemy. As French artist Camille Henrot is credited with saying: “The political cartoon, in a way, is one of the highest forms of expression about our times.” Or, as another assessment puts it, “By taking a sideways look at the news and bringing out the absurd in it,” a cartoon provides, “if not exactly a silver lining, then at least a ray of hope.”
But at their worst, cartoons cross over that edge of irreverence into offensiveness. That, readers have told us, is what the Wednesday cartoon did. We removed the cartoon from our website and prepared this column, recognizing that the cartoon did not provide a ray of hope but obscured it.
And so, we apologize and promise to continue using our Opinion page to provoke discussion about important issues. And we vow to use feedback from readers as an opportunity to learn and grow, helping us to better represent and inform our community.