Offensive? Misunderstood? Benign? To make sense of Sean Delonas’s hotly debated cartoon in Wednesday’s New York Post, we spoke with some editorial cartoonists and their editors about the resultant controversy.
Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor, The New Yorker:
My best guess, from being a cartoonist and knowing cartoonists, and knowing how they think and work, is that the intention of the cartoonist was not to play off of the invidious cartoon characterizations of African-Americans in the past, but to use the recent news event, in which a chimpanzee was shot, as a topical reference with which to criticize the stimulus bill.
That’s a standard formula for this kind of thing; find one topical event and combine it with another, however flimsily to make your point. But I can understand how the image would be misinterpreted and evoke a past both shameful and, it is hoped, truly past. There is in cartoon humor, by its very nature, a degree of ambiguity that can lead to misinterpretation, and sometimes even covers of well-known magazines suffer the same fate.
I think it’s for the cartoonist to do what the cartoonist does, which is not worry too much about political correctness, and then for the editor to do what the editor does, which is to worry too much about it.
Richard Burr, associate editor, editorial page, Detroit News:
This is so inside baseball that I didn’t get it the minute I looked at it. It’s a little bizarre. It’s nice to give cartoonist editorial license, but I think this exceeds the taste boundary.
It’s not obvious to me that it’s racist. One of the major critiques of the stimulus bill is that Obama let it get away from him, and let Pelosi and Reid take control. Whether our president is white or black, this cartoon would be beyond the pale. The violent image is what stops you first, before you start thinking about who wrote the stimulus bill.
Henry Payne, editorial cartoonist, Detroit News:
I think the reaction was silly. I think the fact that Al Sharpton was leading the protest tells you something a lot.
Sean Delonas is a pretty provocative cartoonist. It’s nice to have guys like who want to push the envelope a little. Still, I don’t know if it’s one of his best, but on the other hand, I didn’t see anything offensive.
Most cartoonists are very sensitive that chimps were used in the past as a used as a derogatory symbol for blacks, just as Jews were drawn with big noses, and you try to avoid them at all costs. Any responsible journalist is sensitive to these stereotypes and we try to avoid them, not only because they’re insensitive, but because they muddy any point we’re trying to make.
Jonathan Todd, former freelance cartoonist, Shreveport Times:
I think it’s saying, we don’t like the stimulus bill; it’s just like a monkey wrote it. I’m African-American, and I can totally see how people are going to take this the wrong way, but as a cartoonist, I think no racial intention was made.
You have to think about how people could misunderstand this, and I can see how people how can misconstrue it. Editorial cartoonists are against censorship of any kind; this one, I think, shows bad judgment.
Mike Luckovich, editorial cartoonist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
We cartoonists, when we’re trying to make our points, we look for things that people can relate to. For example, for the cartoon on Groundhog Day, I had a couple of guys looking at a dead groundhog, and one says, “He saw his 401k.” So, you take something in the culture that people are aware of, and then you tie something else to it.
In this case, if he’d stepped back from it, he would have thought, “I can’t do that.”
I think he really screwed up, but not for a racist reason. It’s in bad taste to take an ape that injured a woman. The symbolism is too heavy, it’s not funny. Also, African-Americans have been, in racist ways, compared to apes through out our history. If that had occurred to them, they would’ve pulled it.
It’s happened to me before. About once every five years, according to my editor, I draw something and people react very negatively. In those cases, the symbolism that I’ve chosen overwhelms the message I’m trying to make. I’m not trying to let the guy off the hook, but he just didn’t do a good enough job looking at the big picture, so that a small mistake turned into a big one.
You still have to show sensitivity because of the African-American experience with racism. You can’t ignore that, even though we’re making strides. With Obama, we see him as a human being, we don’t see him as black or white.