Freep’s comic ethics

Nov 8, 2000 at 12:00 am

Readers of the Detroit Free Press comics page probably didn’t notice last week, but the paper’s editors took a blue pencil to Doonesbury, censoring material from the strip produced by Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Trudeau.

A few other papers around the country had problems with the strip as well, but News Hits knows of none that mishandled the situation so badly.

Last Wednesday’s strip had Duke (the drug- and booze-addled regular who’s been running for president under the banner of a third-party splinter group) trying to figure out why polls show him getting zero percent of the vote. An adviser points out, “Well, there seem to be concerns about your … your lifestyle.”

Duke replies, “My lifestyle? What about Dubya’s? He’s got a history of alcohol abuse and cocaine!”

At least that is the way Trudeau wrote it. Freep editors cut the reference to alcohol and coke, allowing Duke to observe “Dubya has a history,” but stopping there, letting the thought dangle with an ellipsis.

The Freep could have done what a few other papers did — simply not run the cartoon. Or, at the very least, the Detroit daily could have mirrored the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., which edited the cartoon, but then posted a note alongside the strip telling readers what it had done.

The Freep, on the other hand, didn’t fess up until the following day, and even then not on the comics page. On page 8A of Thursday’s edition, mixed in with the rest of its national political coverage, the paper ran a story with a Kansas City, Mo., dateline and a headline that announced: “It’s another dustup over ‘Doonesbury.’” The article reported that at least two newspapers — the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the San Antonio Express — had pulled the Wednesday comic. They didn’t want a cartoon character repeating rumor as fact.

Buried at the bottom of that story was the Freep’s revelation that it had altered the comic to remove “unsubstantiated comments about Bush and cocaine abuse.”

“The edits didn’t substantially alter the message of the comic strip,” assured managing editor Carole Leigh Hutton in print.

Although News Hits couldn’t make contact with Trudeau, a spokesperson for Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes the comic, sent us the cartoonist’s response to the way the North Carolina paper messed with his work: “Our view is that while client newspapers obviously have the right to run or not run any given strip, it is unethical to alter the content and represent it as a work by me.”

Trudeau notes that the News & Observer at least provided an immediate explanation available to anyone reading the strip. “The disclaimer helps,” he observed, “but it would have been better to drop the strip than disfigure it.”

The Freep didn’t even run the disclaimer. But Hutton was unapologetic, saying the paper is “responsible legally, ethically and morally to edit any content” it deems necessary.

“All work that appears in the Free Press is subject to editing,” she told News Hits. “We even put clothes on Modesty Blaise from time to time.”

Contacted by phone aboard his broken-down campaign bus on the final day of his election marathon, presidential hopeful Duke shook off the haze of a nasty bourbon hangover, took a long slow hit off his first joint of the day and offered this opinion of the Freep: “If they don’t have the balls to print the rantings of a lunatic cartoon character, what the hell good are they? However, as a presidential candidate who believes the mass media are directly responsible for this nation’s moral decay, I applaud the paper for having the courage to make sure Modesty Blaise is appropriately attired at all times.”

Read the Nov. 1 Doonesbury strip as it was drawn, sans edits.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]