No Time for Weak-Kneed Press

By now we have all grown used to the sight of Dick Cheney temporarily sprung from his latest undisclosed location to grace one of the Sunday morning talk shows, or John Ashcroft standing proud before that statue of Lady Justice (resplendent now in her $8,000 sarong), sounding in unison what has become the essential message of the Bush II administration: Anyone who disagrees with anything George W. has said or done is guilty of treason and, with any luck at all as the sacrosanct War on Terrorism moves forward, will be subjected to the arbitrary whims of an expanded version of today's military tribunals.

Still, speaking personally, I was unprepared for this:

"CONCORD, N.H. (AP) &emdash; The Concord Monitor was wrong to run an editorial cartoon that depicted a plane labeled 'Bush Budget' slamming into two towers labeled 'Social Security,' the newspaper's editor said.

"'The decision to run Mike Marland's Friday editorial cartoon was mine alone, and it was a mistake,' Editor Mike Pride wrote in a column that will be published in today's newspaper. 'I'm sorry we ran it. Marland intended it to provoke, not offend. Generally I try to see things not just through my own eyes but also through the eyes of readers. I wish I had been wise enough to do that in this case.'

"Pride said the newspaper's email queues and voice mails 'were soon filled with messages from New York and elsewhere expressing disgust and anger at the cartoon.'

"White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, 'Equating the president's budget with terrorist attacks that took 3,000 lives is as wrong as wrong can be. This is tasteless and an affront to the people of New York.'"

I guess I should not really have been surprised to learn that we are well past the point at which a smalltown editor, faced with a handful or even a deluge of critical responses from readers, would feel constrained to defend a position as eminently reasonable as this one. One need not be a flaming left winger to realize &emdash; as the Washington Post mainstream columnist E.J. Dionne did two days later &emdash; that Bush's corporate tax cuts combined with his proposed military spending increases virtually ensure that "a decade from now, the Treasury will be so strapped for funds ... that a Social Security crisis is inevitable."

But the concern here is less with the rightness or wrongness of Marland's position than with the flak his cartoon managed to generate. We have come to expect people like Cheney and Ashcroft to play their despicable political games, but it is stretching a point when the primary White House spokesman, who knows a thing or two about tastelessness, descends to the depths of pettiness required to mount this sort of criticism.

I feel' fairly certain that the vast majority of New Yorkers, being tough birds by definition, are likely to survive even such a massive affront as can be delivered by a single editorial statement in a boondock daily maybe six or eight of them ever have heard oft much less read.

What I don't understand is the subtle difference between the good thing, provoke, and the bad one, offend. During my own late and unlamented career as a boondock editor, I regarded the two words as interchangeable, and my moments of greatest achievement occurred when any ed page commentary caused even a few readers to respond in anger, or better yet, outrage. That, after all, meant they had been moved to think or feel, to react, which is the only valid reason to have ed pages in the first place.

Given the current political climate it probably would be expecting too much for Democrats in Congress to say out loud what they really think of George W. Bush. All appearances to the contrary, these guys &emdash; most of them anyway &emdash; really can read and even decipher the political risks involved in attacking even the most inept president when his approval rating tops 85%.

Journalists, however, are &emdash; or should be &emdash; something else. I do not know what pressures were applied to Tom Pride &emdash; my guess would be they came from his publisher, possibly after a heart-to-heart with a delegation of their town's movers and shakers &emdash; to bring about his recantation. That's a problem I never had &emdash; my own publisher always was supportive, though that paper, like most of them, long since has lost its feistiness and its courage.

The good news in any event is that the Washington Post has not seen fit to demand a retraction from E.J. Dionne. Yet.

Joe Lersky is a retired newspaper editor who lives in Grove City, Ohio.

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