Protesting Doonesbury's Dismissal: 'What Is Practiced These Days Is Not Censorship with a U.S. Government Stamp.'

By Davis, Bob | Nieman Reports, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Protesting Doonesbury's Dismissal: 'What Is Practiced These Days Is Not Censorship with a U.S. Government Stamp.'


Davis, Bob, Nieman Reports


"What is a comic strip worth? Is it worthy of a battle to keep it from being removed by critics offended by its political jabs? Why make a fuss over something that's drawn in pen and ink with at most 50 or so words? The creator of Doonesbury has even suggested it's best not to lose one's cool over something so common. "A comic strip," Garry Trudeau recently told Rolling Stone, "isn't one of those things you want to seem too worried about."

Maybe, though, in this political climate it's worth the time of journalists to take a stance on this small thing. That's what the publisher and senior editors at The Anniston (Alabama) Star believe. After learning that the consortium that provides The Star with its prepackaged Sunday color comics was removing Doonesbury, against Trudeau's advice we decided to not keep our cool. Of course, we would find a new spot for Doonesbury on Sundays. But it's not fair, we thought, for Continental Features to single out this strip, which is not popular with conservatives.

Earlier this year, Continental, which operates as a sort of cooperative, decided to poll its 38 members on whether or not to keep Doonesbury. The strip lost, 21-15, with two nonvotes. Why subject one strip--and only one stair--to an up-or-down vote? "This is a business decision," Van Wilkerson, Continental president, told The Star. "It doesn't have anything to do with personalities or Garry Trudeau or Doonesbury or anything else." But this whole episode smelled like "censorship by plebiscite," as Star Publisher and President H. Brandt Ayers wrote in his letter to the consortium.

It was the C-word--censorship--that riled many, as news of our protest reached media Web sites. Once Matt Drudge and conservative Web forums linked to those stories, the e-mails started flooding in. Censorship, my e-mailers informed me, was not possible at the hands of a private business concern. Only government can censor, they wrote.

Checking a series of dictionaries, I could find no explicit reference to censorship only coming at the hands of government. A censor is, according to Webster's New World, "an official with the power to examine publications, movies, television programs, etc. and to remove or prohibit anything considered obscene, libelous, politically objectionable, etc."

Can government do that? Yes. Can others do it? Sure. Is all censorship bad? No.

A television program cancelled over poor ratings can fall victim to censors. The tale is told in the circumstances. Cancel "The Drew Carey Show" and few will raise an eyebrow. Cancel the Smothers Brothers show, with its edgy and political content, and we might have something more nefarious. Stop playing the music of the Dixie Chicks after they say unkind things about President Bush, and we have a problem.

Thus, when Ayers' letter told Continental that its actions were "offensive to First Amendment freedoms," it was not to claim an outright violation of free speech. It was, instead, to suggest something more nuanced. Overt government censorship is rare these days. The job of battlefield censor has changed thanks to advances in wireless technology that make transmitting the story and photo from the scene only a laptop and satellite phone away. …

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