Star Tribune Editor: The 'Doonesbury' decision

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 17, 2012 - 4:25 PM

It wasn't ideology, but suitability, that led us to pull last week's strips.

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Garry B. Trudeau, cartoonist and creator of "Doonesbury."

Photo: Douglas Healey, Associated Press - Ap

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The calls and letters that poured in this week were filled with everything from eloquent musings to venomous epithets.

One reader demanded that I resign immediately. Others called me an idiot, or suggested the Star Tribune had been corrupted by conservatives.

The offense last week was the decision not to print five days' worth of Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" strips dealing with Texas abortion laws.

The readers who were the most angry were ardent supporters of Trudeau's position attacking the laws that have divided Texans.

Those laws, which Texas began enforcing last month, require every woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram, listen to the doctor describe what he or she sees, then wait 24 hours before making a final decision to have an abortion.

Now, we all know that the politics of abortion have divided this country for decades; our job in the newsroom has always been to avoid taking sides while reporting all views regarding this issue.

For that reason, I want to be clear about this: The decision not to run the strips was not based on political sympathies one way or the other.

Rather, we made the call based on what we consider to be suitable content for the comics pages. Some of the installments were quite graphic, and, in our view, did not belong in sections of the newspaper intended for family reading.

One, in particular, crossed the line. It portrayed a doctor informing a patient that she has to have a vaginal sonogram, inserting a large wand-like device into the woman and declaring: "By the authority invested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape."

This, in our view, was not appropriate for those pages.

Some readers asked why we didn't move the strip to the editorial pages. We considered that, but the "Doonesbury" strip is often full of political satire and we don't want to be in the practice of judging from one week to the next whether to run the strip in the opinion section or the comics section.

Also, our news and editorial pages are separate and independent from one another, and we don't want to blur that distinction for readers. Instead, we made "Doonesbury" available online, and volunteered to e-mail or mail it to any reader who wanted to see it.

As editors of a mass-medium publication, we make these types of judgment calls about what is suitable to publish all the time, taking into account what might be considered offensive to readers.

We hold back graphic photographs from accidents or war scenes. We edit obscenities or particularly gruesome details out of stories, unless they are absolutely pertinent to understanding the news -- in which case we will publish a warning in advance of the material.

A few years ago, we had a similar controversy over a decision not to publish some highly controversial cartoons circulated in a Danish newspaper that caricatured the prophet Mohammed.

Those cartoons became the center of a worldwide controversy and news story; we chose not to run them in the Star Tribune because they would have been inflammatory and offensive to many readers.

That time, it was conservatives who were infuriated. Commentator Katherine Kersten ripped us and other news organizations that decided not to publish those cartoons.

As a 24-hour news organization, we are making tough calls every day on the nature and suitability of news stories, photographs, comics, quotes, videos, blog posts and even tweets.

Readers will not always agree with the calls we make, but we must make those judgments based on what we think is newsworthy and appropriate for our wide and varied audience, not our personal political agendas or beliefs.

Thank you for reading the Star Tribune.

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor.

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