April 26, 2004

Son of a Bush!

What gets said about and what gets shown of the war in Iraq - and who gets to say it or who gets to show it - was the topic for newspaper ombudsmen on Sunday, with photos of caskets receiving more universal support than a common cuss phrase.

Michael Arrieta-Walden of the The Oregonian took on the argument over publishing pictures of dead U.S. soldiers and came down on the side of the First Amendment.
His column quoted Paul McMasters of the First Amendment Center:

"The combination of Pentagon restrictions and press interpretations of just what the public will bear is a potent combination when it comes to determining whether the face of war is realistically depicted . . ." he says. "Newspapers, especially, have a duty to show all aspects of a war, its ugly side as well as its public policy side." (Emphasis added.)

Gary Trudeau blew off most of B.D.'s (now an officer in Iraq) left leg in Doonesbury at the beginning of last week and by end of the week B.D. was screaming "son of a bitch!" as a doctor sawed through the limb.

Some newspapers scrubbed the strip entirely (too much "graphic, violent battlefield depictions," said one), others ran it and got praised for doing so and some truncated the expletive ("son of a ...," gee, what does that mean, Mom?).

Minneapolis Star Tribune's Lou Gelfand didn't mince words in favor of publishing the strip: "Gary Trudeau is bringing the obscenity of war into our living rooms. His detractors would say it should not come in the guise of a comic strip. In whatever state it arrives, society will be better off."

Ironically, Mike Needs of the Akron Beacon Journal, which altered the words in the offending panel, used the phrase "son of a bitch" to describe what had been edited out. He supported the content of the strip but suggested it belonged more appropriately in editorial pages "It's unfortunate," he wrote, "the comic strip isn't still located on the editorial pages, where the itch to change the wording wouldn't have occurred. That way, the emphasis could have remained on what's really important, the casualties of war."

Finally, Elsa McDowell, Charleston Post and Courier, which also sanitized the phrase, said "a number of readers have made clear in their previous comments that they are offended by visions of war atrocities," she added that no readers of the paper "registered complaints about the strip's content."

Reporting on war without reporting on the deaths resulting from that war is incomplete journalism that doesn't give readers the full story.

How will those newspapers who thought the Doonesbury cartoon "too graphic" treat those inevitable veterans who return home from Iraq minus a limb or two? Will photos of these damaged men also be unwelcome in their hometown papers?

Posted by Tim Porter at April 26, 2004 06:59 AM

Strange, but this debate over Doonesbury and the coffin photos brings to mind something that "Sopranos" creator David Chase has said: That his goal is to make people squirm, to make them uncomfortable.

I think that's part of the media's job--to make people uncomfortable, to make them squirm, to make them feel sick if necessary. I don't mean shock for its own sake, but the shock of uncomfortable and painful realities that force us to challenge our assumptions.

Posted by: Jonathan Potts on April 26, 2004 08:37 AM
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