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On cartoons, cutbacks, and the values that ought not to come as surprises
After he recorded and published an appalling rant filled with racist sentiments, a well-known cartoonist has found himself dropped from newspaper pages nationwide and cancelled by his syndicate. While these are appropriate consequences for his actions, they raise another problem to the surface.
■ As newspapers have contracted (both physically and in staff counts), daily editorials have begun to vanish. Gannett has made that a policy. Lee Enterprises has consolidated some days of the week. Even the New York Times has begun editorializing only once every few days.
■ There was a time when even local television and radio stations broadcast their own institutional editorials. That hardly happens at all anymore. And it's a shame, because institutions -- especially the ones that describe the world for their audiences -- ought to be consistent and transparent about where their values stand.
■ An institution always has values, whether they are made explicit or not. They're unavoidably embedded in the decision-making process. Better to be clear about them than not. And far better to be clear long in advance of a crisis created by someone associated with the institution -- like a cartoonist on a pathetic rant.
■ Values evolve over time. That's OK, but part of the continuity of any institution is bound up in explaining what changed: The facts? The interpretations? The whims of ownership? The social habits of the editor-in-chief? Was the old reasoning faulty, or was it simply limited by the prevailing conditions of the time?
■ Newspaper readers (and indeed all media audiences) deserve to be advised of changing values and opinions, especially since they invariably influence coverage. It's disingenuous to suggest otherwise: Limited resources put constraints on coverage, and navigating those constraints is an act driven by judgment and values.
■ Frequent editorials also help to make clear whether news coverage is active or reactive. Are the editors trying to see around corners, or are they just waiting to respond to whatever events they cannot avoid? Better the former than the latter. Had some been looking more carefully, they might have realized sooner that one of their syndicated cartoonists had long been playing with fire.
■ It's good to see institutional responses that expel racism. That's good riddance. But this incident reveals why it's important to hear from the editors all of the time, not just in the event that their hands are forced by the need to cut ties with a prominent bad actor. Consequences like those should be obvious because the values driving the decisions should be obvious as well.
■ The landscape for jobs in conventional media remains awful, and that means some people -- perhaps many -- will be let go without any regard for their performance, whether in print, on the air, or online. The choices that drive who stays and who goes are also inevitably driven by values, and those ought to be made explicit, too. Sometimes, those will involve what might be called "bad riddance" -- choices made against expected values. The fewer of the choices to cut ties come as surprises -- whether for good cause or not -- the better.
A newspaper reader (Dall-E)