Opinion/Commentary: Birth of a Cartoon by Dennis Renault
Birth of a Cartoon:
The Nation of Islam and The Sacramento Bee
by Dennis Renault
1994 did not start out well for The Reverend Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI). A few weeks earlier his closest associate, NOI national spokesman Khalid Abdul Mohammed, delivered a 3-hour anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-white diatribe at Kean College in New Jersey that was finally beginning to register with American and foreign media.
The B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League, the 98-year old Jewish organization devoted to fighting discrimination, was impatient for media coverage of the NOI. So January 16th, 1994, it purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times, presenting excerpts of the inflammatory New Jersey speech.
February 2nd the U.S. Senate voted 97-0 to censure Khalid’s speech as “…false, anti-Semitic, racist, divisive, repugnant and a disservice to all Americans.” It was the first such action by the Senate in its history and it blew apart the Congressional Black Caucus’ support for the NOI.
According to The Washington Times, an unrepentant Farrakhan told an African American audience in Harlem, “…you will never succeed because of the Jews…they’re plotting against us even as we speak…But I’m not trembling. I’m not afraid. They want to use my brother Khalid’s words against me to divide the house. They are terrified. Oh, America, I warn you!”
That warning was ignored by much of the nation’s press, including The Sacramento Bee. Farrakhan attempted to defend his Nation of Islam spokesman at a press conference by cynically hiding behind the First Amendment and declaring, with a big smile, “You can’t be a racist by talking, only by acting.”
The following morning I presented The Bee’s Editorial Page Editor with a rough sketch for a cartoon in the next edition depicting a Ku Klux Klansman reading Farrakhan’s statement and saying, “That nigger makes a lot of sense.” He looked at it and handed the drawing to a black staffer who happened to be in his office and the response was, “It looks fine to me.”
Herblock, at The Washington Post, responded similarly to the absurd NOI statements.
Within a week The Bee’s Farrakhan cartoon produced resolutions of condemnation directed at the newspaper from the Sacramento City Council, County Supervisors and State Assembly (where it failed to come to a vote), ostensibly for the use of the word “nigger.” Local television was all over the story.
The Bee also came under attack from within, when black employees in its newsroom and classified departments urged an apology and took the occasion to demand greater minority representation throughout the newspaper. Outside The Bee, black spokesmen wanted larger contributions to their causes from the newspaper, a kind of reparation or atonement, apparently.
Despite The Bee management issuing five apologies — probably qualifying for the Guinness Book of Records — a boycott against the paper was launched and ultimately 1,640 subscribers canceled their subscriptions. It was apparent that a phone-tree was utilized when subscribers called to cancel and admitted not having seen the cartoon, just heard about it. And there was general suspicion that boycott assistance came from the legislative office of the State Assembly Speaker, who was a frequent target of Bee cartoons and editorials.
The cartoon immediately reached across the country into newspaper columns, journalism schools, Editor & Publisher Magazine , college publications and finally in July, into a “Unity ’94 Conference” in Atlanta, GA, titled “Political Correctness and The Media.” 5,000 minority and white re-porters, editors and producers from around the country discussed what is and what isn’t “acceptable” language in the press. That event was recorded and broadcast nationally by C-SPAN.
As the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko put it when he defended the Farrakhan cartoon and lampooned its critics, “…nigger was used in a totally satiric, ironic sense. Intent. Context. It isn’t the word, it’s how the word is used.”
African American Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy makes the same point in his thoughtful and thoroughly researched book, Nigger; The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (Random House, 2002), adding, “The very conditions that have helped to stigmatize nigger have also been conducive to the emergence of certain troubling tendencies [such as] unjustified deception, over-eagerness to detect insult, the repression of good uses of nigger, and the overly harsh punishment of those who use the N-word imprudently or even wrongly.”
It can be assumed many African Americans and other critics knew this, understood the irony and “got” the cartoon, but chose to push their own agendas. One word, taken out of context, was expected to leverage benefits for various purposes. At a minimum, some critics, like the NOI, hoped the racial controversy would cause the apologetic Sacramento Bee to curtail future criticism and possibly bring the newspaper onboard activities it might otherwise ignore.
And then there were those opportunists who simply enjoyed tossing brickbats at such a large, liberal institution that had opposed their favorite candidates or issues in the past.
Within the journalism profession, as reflected in a July Editor & Publisher editorial titled, “Stop Apologizing,” there was some concern that capitulating to critics like this simply set the stage for similar challenges throughout the publishing industry.
On this point, the recent announcement by the Atlanta publishing house New South Books that its forthcoming edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will eliminate the author’s use of “nigger” in the text and substitute “slave” in its place is a pathetic rejection of the principle of context and intention when using unpopular or inflammatory terms.
Finally, given the financial condition of the nation’s newspapers today and the conflict between profits and robust journalism, it’s fair to ask how many editors would publish a satiric and timely editorial cartoon if the prospect of losing 1,640 subscribers was a possibility.