Karen McKay's editorial page cartoons were tricky. She pricked at the conventional view of the Vineyard. The nastiest distortions and silliest disharmonies of life here, mostly regarded complacently through that "special"-colored lens of which we are so fond, attracted Karen's interest. She made each frayed thread in the artful mosaic of Island life a sty in the reader's eye. The Times editorial page featured Karen's cartoons, although some readers did not appreciate them the way we did. We published several letters from readers who objected to what they regarded as a distortion of their perception of Island life. Since Karen died last summer, we've been on the lookout for another cartoonist with a fresh eye, but she was one of a kind.
I don't need to tell you what brought editorial cartooning to mind. As the mayhem brews worldwide over the publication in Denmark of cartoons offensive to Muslims, one has to wonder what the editor of the Danish newspaper that first published them was thinking. And, what did the editors of several continental European newspapers have in mind when they followed suit? This is not the question of whether, in covering the Muslim reaction to the cartoons, newspapers can explain the offending drawing without publishing a facsimile of it. To do a proper job of explaining to their readers, the image belongs with the news story. After all, the story of the acquisition of the Mona Lisa by the Louvre would certainly include an illustration of the picture, even if Italians were rioting in the streets, claiming that the French had stolen Leonardo's masterpiece.
But, as to the question of whether the Danish editor who said yes to the cartoon originally ought to have thought twice, I am reminded of a conversation between prominent editorial cartoonists and editors during the J. Montgomery Curtis Memorial Seminar, sponsored by the American Press Institute in 1998. API published the transcript of those conversations, excerpts of which follow:
Susan J. Albright, editor of the editorial pages of the Star Tibune in Minneapolis, began by asking, "... to what extent you think about various group sensitivities to stereotypes. I guess what I'm talking about is political correctness, if you will."
Pat Oliphant, a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist whose work is widely known, was impatient with the notion. "I think they should just put up with it," he said.
"But would you do blacks with watermelons all over their clothes and things like that, for example," Ms. Albright continued.
"No," said Mr. Oliphant.
J. Bradford Tillson, publisher of the Dayton Daily News, approached the matter warily, aware of how painful debates about the appropriateness of editorial cartoons can be for the newspaper leaders, who have to pay the bills. "Well, I have another variation on the political correctness question, and it goes to cartoons dealing with religious issues or religious leaders. We get more flack about that than anything else, and I'd like to know how you all have dealt with this issue over the years."
"Well, I've had fun with them," said Mr. Oliphant, who apparently was in the mood to give no quarter.
"I think it's a matter of respecting peoples' opinions ... and I don't think giving your own opinion necessarily means you're insulting anybody else's ... and this kind of gets back to something we talked about earlier, this fairness thing. You try to be fair, but I'm sure the people we draw don't feel we're completely fair because when you're drawing, if it's somebody you admire, the caricature may not be as tough as how you'd draw someone you don't like ... but I don't think you attack somebody for the wrong thing or twist what somebody said." That was Herbert Block - Herblock, as he styled himself - the late Washington Post editorial cartoonist who won three Pulitzer Prizes and is probably the best-known cartoonist of all time among newspaper readers.
And then, the voice of considered judgment: "I'd just like to say that I'm not sure [Ms. Albright's] point is as black and white as the three of you want to make it. I mean, if a cartoonist wants to be politically incorrect, that is your right. [No one, not in the Western world, but especially not in the United States, questions the free speech right to publish.] But is there not a sort of parallel today that as our values change, what was acceptable before is no long acceptable? You no longer draw blacks with melons and so forth. Maybe what's happening is that society is changing so fast and demography is changing so fast that the evolutionary process has been crunched to a great extent," Haroon Siddiqui, editorial page editor emeritus of the Toronto Star offered.
"... I'm thinking more about the caricaturing of people and groups that at times leads to problems," Mr. Siddiqui continued. "Why is it that you will not draw blacks the way you used to draw them 15 years ago? Because our values have changed. And a lot of other groups in society are now saying that your perception of them needs to change, because those perceptions are outdated, or that maybe you are not sophisticated enough to realize that society has changed. And, I think that this is where most of the battle lies at this point. It's easy to caricature Iranians and Arabs and get away with it, but you cannot get away any more with Africans, Canadians, or Jewish groups ... so, again, I think a lot of people are having trouble coming to grips with this and understanding that what was acceptable yesterday is no longer acceptable today. And, my question is, do you agree?"
"I do," said an apparently chastened Mr. Oliphant.
So, it's not a matter of press freedom, perhaps. And, it's not a matter of condoning murderous reactions as are clattering today across the globe and especially the incendiary Middle East. But, it may be a matter of adapting to changing cultures and new requirements for deeper understanding of their constituents by those who document these changes.