- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

Preserving a free press is a noble calling. But inflated concerns about censorship can sully news judgment and backfire on a national stage.

This befell Mike Pride, editor of the Concord Monitor, a 23,000-circulation daily in New Hampshire. His paper infuriated the White House, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and thousands of readers with a single editorial cartoon.

On Feb. 8, the paper showed President Bush as a gleeful kamikaze pilot, steering a toy aircraft labeled "Bush Budget" toward the World Trade Center towers, one marked "Social" and the other "Security."

The Monitor, once praised by Time magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review, was lambasted for violating American sensibilities in a post-September 11 world.

The cartoon which gained a huge audience via the Internet was rebuked by White House and Giuliani spokesmen who called it tasteless, insensitive, wrong and inappropriate, among other things. "This is a heartless and callous way to exploit our misfortune," said one New York attack survivor.

Some critics were annoyed for political reasons. "This whole mess has no point except to show another liberal got away with it," wrote a visitor to an online news site. Another asked if cartoonist Mike Marland still would have his job "if he had a right-wing reputation and had labeled the towers Daschle and Byrd?"

The paper went through the usual mea culpas. Mr. Pride penned an apology on Sunday. "I thought that rejecting the cartoon would be censorship," he wrote, adding that he had assumed enough time had passed "for the terrorist attacks to take their place in the history of political satire."

Mr. Pride conceded he had been burned by the sudden, unexpected audience afforded by the Internet. "A local editor no longer makes decisions in a vacuum," he wrote.

The cartoonist, Mr. Marland, took the folksy route in an apology published yesterday, writing that "I should have listened to my wife," who thought the cartoon was "not a good idea." Mr. Marland defended his past, noting that he received only 30 protests about the 4,000 cartoons he had drawn in two decades.

The artist revealed his reasoning: Mr. Bush's proposal to use Social Security surplus to fund a deficit budget could "collapse" the system, forcing the president to "bear some responsibility for a destructive event that, like September 11, would shake every person in the country."

Another Monitor editor, meanwhile, said he had reservations about the cartoon and "should have listened to them more strongly."

Indeed, the traditional newsman's good intuitions went dormant here as they did during other media mishaps among the few who misjudged the national pulse. In the last few months, journalists at the Oregon Daily Courier, Texas City Sun and Los Angeles Times issued various apologies for inopportune or insensitive reactions to the terrorist attacks. ABC President David Westin apologized for claiming that journalists should remain neutral toward the attacks.

On Jan. 3, the Austin American-Statesman ran a parody picture of the burning towers in an entertainment section for a story on the city's flagging music scene. This disgusted some of its readers, who called for the editor's resignation.

Statesman Editor Rich Oppel apologized, noting that he preached "values, standards, good taste and judgment" but later accused his critics of "bumper-sticker patriotism."

*Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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