Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Whitney Houston was inspiration to read comics online

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One of the great ways that newspapers serve a useful purpose is a strong comics section. But even as a working journalist, I have read comics online for some time. And Whitney Houston is the reason why I made the switch.

This story goes back a few years when Aaron McGruder was still drawing “The Boondocks.” Though I am a white guy, I love the sensibilities of the characters and even watched the TV show.

In a particular storyline, I had read elsewhere that the Boondocks strips that I was reading in the Chicago Tribune weren’t the regular ones, but were reruns. I certainly didn’t know this from reading the Chicago Tribune. Turns out the newspaper censored the regularly scheduled comic strips because the storyline implied (inferred?) that Whitney Houston was on drugs.

Well, in reading the comic strips online, I didn’t think there was much controversy, except by the Chicago Tribune for censoring the strips. The Tribune was worried about being sued or a threat of a lawsuit for implying that the singer took drugs.

Even if somehow Whitney Houston wasn’t on drugs (the comic strip didn’t come out and say it), the chances of a lawsuit, much less a successful suit, were extremely slim. And again, the other issue was a lack of disclosure.

All of this may sound a little callous given what we did find out later about the singer’s drug use. In the end, the comic strip was on solid ground, and the newspaper looked foolish.

Comic strips have standards and are subject to libel, slander, and innuendo. Comic strips are distributed by syndicates that painstakingly make sure that their strips fall under compliance.

Censoring a comic strip or any other part of the newspaper should be an absolute last resort, and readers should always be aware of what you’re doing. That certainly wasn’t the last time the Chicago Tribune censored a comic strip.

The most recent example was earlier this month when the Chicago Tribune censored a Doonesbury strip. The censorship didn’t come from a fear of a lawsuit, but as a note in the Tribune pointed out: “The Tribune’s editorial practices do not allow individuals to promote their self-interests.” At least this time, the paper ran a note.

The Doonesbury strip had a QR code that went to DonorsChoose.org. Garry Trudeau says he doesn’t have a relationship with DonorsChoose.org, pointing out that the Tribune did run a strip where a QR code went back to his Web site, an admitted self-interest. And if the Tribune had a problem with DonorsChoose.org (too far to the left?), the newspaper ran a Doonesbury strip some time back that tied into the charity organization.

The Chicago Tribune stood virtually alone in not running the week of “Doonesbury” containing excerpts of the Joe McGinniss biography of Sarah Palin.

These examples are not severe moral dilemmas within a newsroom. The last one smelled of obvious political bias by the newspaper.

Sometimes the truth is ugly. Newspapers used to pride themselves on telling it as it is. As they struggle for relevancy, they run away from what made them great. And they’re running scared.

As much as I love newspapers, or the concept of newspapers, too often they have an arrogant sense of feeling like nobody can give them what they publish. For local news, this is likely true, though with newspapers cutting back, we get less and less and pay more for the privilege.

When it comes to comics, newspapers have lost this battle. Consumers can get a better comic strip experience bypassing the newspaper. Reading comics online offers some disadvantages: you can’t read a bunch at a time and you might get exposed to a new comic strip you otherwise may not have known about. However, reading comics online offers you color during the week, you can increase the size so you can actually read what the characters are saying, and most importantly, you get the comic strips as the creator intended.

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