Matthew Sheffield on The Washington Post’s Cartoon Double-Standard

Matthew Sheffield, writing on his blog at Newsbusters, has an insightful examination of the Washington Post’s double-standard regarding political cartoons. At the heart of the issue is the Washington Post’s decision to run a cartoon mocking Palin’s church, which lies in stark contrast with the Post’s refusal to run the Danish Muhammad cartoons for fear of offending Muslims.


The cartoon is clearly quite offensive to Pentecostals. But in the rules of politically-correct discourse, conservative Christians somehow fall in the “unprotected” category. Mormons do as well, as evidenced by the treatment of Mitt Romney during his run for the presidency.

Writing in today’s Washington Post, ombudsman Deborah Howell focuses on political cartoons and how in many cases they can cause offense. I was struck in particular by a few of Howell’s offhand admissions most. The first is that the top editorial cartoonists across the country are mostly liberal.

That concession came after Howell had briefly profiled Pat Oliphant, one of America’s best-known cartoonists, who attracted controversy over a recent cartoon that ridiculed GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s Pentecostal faith and its belief in glossolalia, the ability to speak unknown languages in a moment of inspiration.

That is where the second admission comes into play. The Post, which has the ability to reprint any Oliphant cartoon as part of its deal with his syndicator, chose not to reprint the cartoon in its print edition even though it did so on its web site, something it did not do with the famous Mohammed cartoons:

Most complainers thought that the Oliphant cartoon appeared in print. It didn’t. I showed it to several Post editors. While it was clever in some ways, most editors — including me — would not have run it. The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes. That was why The Post did not run the Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad.

Oliphant wasn’t surprised that it didn’t run in print. “Many publications are too timid” to run some of his work, he said, but “the Web is giving us more of a solid venue.”

[Post editorial page editor Fred] Hiatt and his deputy, Jackson Diehl, decide what cartoons are run in Saturday’s Drawing Board on the op-ed page.

The online world is different. Syndicated cartoons are not chosen at washingtonpost.com; they are posted through an automatic feed, said the Web site’s executive editor, Jim Brady. “I have always opted for the approach that we should not limit the cartoonist’s freedom of speech. We prefer to present the cartoon and allow the reader the choice to read or to express their own freedom of speech if they’re bothered or offended by it.”

The hypocrisy is thick enough to cut with a knife.

Posting a cartoon online which makes fun of Islam is “defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes” while posting one that ridicules a branch of Christianity is noble by “not limit[ing] the cartoonist’s freedom of speech.”

To her credit, as Michael Calderone notes, Howell did say she wouldn’t have run the Palin cartoon. It seems she would not have run the Mohammed cartoon either so at least she is consistent.

Back to the first point now. Twice, Howell admits that most of the top political cartoonists are liberals:

“[Oliphant is] a political liberal, as are many, though not all, of the better-known political cartoonists.”
“Ann Telnaes started in print and is a pioneer in animated editorial cartoons; she does three a week for washingtonpost.com. [...] She, too, is a liberal”
That lefties dominate the cartoon pages of American newsprint should come as no suprise considering that the vast majority of large newspapers and magazines are run by lefties.

Just two of the top twenty editorial pages in the U.S. lean conservative. Only one of them, the New York Post, actually runs cartoons. I’ve made a chart showing the disparity.

Rank Newspaper Ownership Viewpoint Toons?
1 USA Today Gannett Liberal Yes
2 Wall Street Journal News Corporation Conservative No
3 New York Times NYT Company Liberal No
4 Los Angeles Times Tribune Company Liberal Yes
5 Chicago Tribune Tribune Company Liberal Yes
6 Washington Post Washington Post Company Liberal Yes
7 New York Daily News New York Daily News Liberal Yes
8 New York Post News Corporation Conservative Yes
9* Denver Post / Rocky Mountain News MediaNews / E. W. Scripps Mixed ?
10 Dallas Morning News A. H. Belo Corportation Liberal Yes
11 Philadelphia Inquirer Philadelphia Media Holdings
Liberal Yes
12 Houston Chronicle Hearst Newspapers Liberal Yes
13* Detroit News / Detroit Free Press MediaNews Group / Gannett Liberal Yes
14 Star Tribune Avista Capital Partners Liberal ?
15 Star-Ledger Advance Publications Liberal ?
16 Boston Globe New York Times Company Liberal Yes
17 Arizona Republic Gannett Company Liberal Yes
18 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Cox Newspapers Liberal Yes
19 Newsday Cablevision Liberal ?
20 Plain Dealer Advance Publications Liberal ?

Note: It’s been a while since I’ve seen some of the papers in the chart so it’s missing a few stats from the last column.

Of course, liberal bias isn’t just a hiring problem for right-leaning cartoonists. They also face an uphill battle when it comes to earning distinctions.

When Investor’s Business Daily cartoonist Michael Ramirez won the Pulitzer prize for cartooning earlier this year, he was actually the first conservative since 1998 to be given the award.

5 Responses to Matthew Sheffield on The Washington Post’s Cartoon Double-Standard

  1. Diane says:

    I was recently talking to a 6th grade parent at a mixer hosted by my son’s secular private school. My plate was loaded down with Chinese chicken salad and a turkey sandwich; hers contained a sprinkling of potato chips. I quickly ascertained that she is Indian, a Hindu and a lifelong vegetarian. It occurs to me that the sight of people devouring animals – including cows, a creature sacred to Hinduism – at every social encounter in our culture might just be a little bit offensive to Hindus. Yet, I have never heard of a single instance of Hindus complaining about this reality of the West, or requesting (let alone demanding) special accommodations to their religious/ethical sensibilities.

    This is just to put in context how off-the-wall are Muslim expectations that at every turn American people and American institutions defer to their sense of what is respectful and proper.

  2. David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – Web Reconnaissance for 10/01/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  3. Rich Rostrom says:

    Diane: One difference between Hindus and Moslems is that Hindua are used to being governed by non-Hindus who ignore Hindu expectations. Huge parts of India were ruled by Moslems for centuries; the whole of it was ruled by the British.

    Also, the Indian independence movement was dominated by people attracted to “Enlightenment” thinking (Nehru, et al). For them, enforcement of religious prohibitions smacked of reactionary superstition. They preferred to show how modern they were by ignoring them. Thus there has never been a prohibition on cow slaughter in India. (Also, while some Hindus are vegetarians, most are not.)

    Most Indian immigrants come from the same urban, modernizing cultural segment, and do not care to identify with extreme religious devotion.

    However, this may change in the next 50 years. It may already be changing in India. The country has been ruled entirely by Hindus for 60 years now – for the first time in about 800 years. Hindu cultural nationalism is becoming a strong political force, with violent fascist manifestations. (Shiv Sena, RSS)

  4. Pete says:

    Well, intimidation works. Muslims threaten death and mayhem, an editors house gets burned,(in UK) and suddenly a serious book cannot be published, cartoons, even when they become a global story, don’t be published. It’s clear most editors are spineless, and freedom of the press becomes a sad joke. “Freedom of press, if its suits someone’s purpose”.

  5. ellen says:

    This former political cartoonist (some of my work appears within these blog pages) would like to address a couple of the points which were brought up in Sheffield’s piece…

    a) “That lefties dominate the cartoon pages of American newsprint should come as no suprise considering that the vast majority of large newspapers and magazines are run by lefties.”

    The glut of politically left-leaning cartoon pages may not be reflective of the politics of the print media as much as it is indicative of the artistic personalities behind the cartoonists. Without the over-the-top imaginations of artists, comediennes, and editorial cartoonists, the world would be an overwhelmingly sad and painful place. Political conservatives are, quite frankly, conservative. And reserved, cautious behavior isn’t all that funny. Liberals may be more dangerous, but they are also a lot more fun.

    b) Posting a cartoon online which makes fun of Islam is “defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes” while posting one that ridicules a branch of Christianity is noble by “not limit[ing] the cartoonist’s freedom of speech.”

    Not exactly a fair analogy,as editors – even liberal ones – are required to exercise common sense. It may not be fair, but the reality on the burning ground beneath our feet is that cartoons about mohammed are currently considered highly provocative, whereas fundamentalist Christians can still keep a lid on it – and are therefore still fair game.

    So while I have already noted that liberals are more fun, they are not all that brave – especially the editor types. It’s easier and more fun to target safe game.

    It scandalous that a dangerous precedent was set by editors who surrendered on the Danish cartoon incident. The bulk of those cartoons were within bounds and tastefully provocative – by Western standards.

    But that being said, eleven years ago Tatiana Suskind drew a pig wearing a keffiya and posted it up on a wall in Hebron. She was sentenced to 2 years in jail for incitement. Although I disapproved of the severity of her sentence, she did engage in an explosively provocative act, and endangered the Jewish residents and soldiers in Hebron. Too bad she didn’t have an editor – even a liberal one – standing over her shoulder…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>