By Jefferson Flanders

What were the editors of the New York Post thinking when they published that now infamous cartoon by Sean Delonas, a cartoon that could be construed (in the words of Foon Rhee of the Boston Globe) to “tie President Obama to a rampaging chimpanzee killed by police,” and therefore be considered racist.

The cartoon linked the recent passage of the economic stimulus package and the shooting of a violent pet chimp in Connecticut. Delonas depicted two police officer looking at the dead chimp, with one remarking: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” (View the cartoon here.)

Al Sharpton quickly attacked the Post: “Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama and has become synonymous with him, it is not a reach to wonder, are they inferring that a monkey wrote the last bill?”

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post echoed Sharpton:

“At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Most provocatively, it compares the president to a rabid chimp. Either way, the incorporation of violence and (on a darker level) race into politics is bound to be controversial.”

For his part, an unrepentant Delonas characterized the uproar as “absolutely friggin’ ridiculous” and told CNN: “Do you really think I’m saying Obama should be shot? I didn’t see that in the cartoon. It’s about the economic stimulus bill. If you’re going to make that about anybody, it would be Pelosi, which it’s not.”

Delonas received support from left-wing editorial cartoonist Ted Rall who said he didn’t think the cartoon was aimed at Obama or that it was racist: “It’s about his economic advisers who wrote the stimulus bill, and they’re a bunch of white guys.”

The editors of the New York Post eventually offered a qualified apology for the cartoon: It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period….But it has been taken as something else – as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologise.”

That didn’t quiet the critics, and after threats of a boycott by civil rights groups, Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the News Corporation (the owner of the newspaper) had to offer his own apology (“Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted…I can assure you — without a doubt — that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation.”)

Was the cartoon racist? Certainly any use of chimps or monkeys as symbols for black people trades on centuries-old racial caricatures, as Brent Staples of the New York Times pointed out in his piece “The Ape in American Bigotry, From Thomas Jefferson to 2009.” (Yes, Mr. Jefferson made a bizarre connection between male orangutans and black women, according to Staples).

But it’s a stretch to see the Delonas cartoon as deliberately racist: that grants the cartoon more coherence than it deserves. Delonas is guilty of dead-line laziness, trying to graft a high-profile news story (the chimp attack) onto the stimulus package, not racism. And the cartoon consequently makes little sense: the authors of the stimulus (whether Congress or Obama) weren’t stopped (“shot”), so what exactly is Delonas trying to say? Beats me.

Should Americans newspaper editors be sensitive to racial or religious slurs in cartoons and comics, intended or unintended? Yes. The editors at the New York Post should have caught the potential for insult in the Delonas cartoon before publication. (The dangers of cartoonists employing monkey imagery in connection with African-American candidates was a topic of discussion in a media course I taught at NYU last semester, months before the controversy.)

Should they overreact, as did the Washington Post in apologizing preemptively for a humor column (“Monkey Business“) that had absolutely nothing to do with African-Americans? No. I read the column and looked at the allegedly insulting illustration and I couldn’t find any troubling racial overtones, (unless they reside in the psyches of Washington Post editors). Perhaps the apology really should go to Gary Hart, whose presidential bid in 1988 collapsed when it turned out he vacationed with a young woman (not his wife) on a yacht aptly named Monkey Business.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved
Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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