Cartoonists Struggle With Patriotism, Terror Attacks

Thanks to a wave of patriotism following the terrorist attacks on the United States, cartoonist Aaron McGruder's strip "The Boondocks" really has gone to the boondocks — and even disappeared — in some newspapers.

Last week, Huey Freeman — McGruder's Afro-wearing, pre-pubescent black revolutionary in "The Boondocks" — called the FBI's terrorist tip line and said he had the names of several Americans who helped train and finance Osama bin Laden, the United States' prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on America. When the FBI agent on the other end of the phone asks for the names, Huey responds, "All right, let's see … the first one is Reagan. That's R-E-A-G …"

Huey, trying to convince the FBI of his leads, then accuses the CIA of training bin Laden in terrorist tactics against the then-Soviet Union during the Reagan-Bush administration and suggests the current Bush presidency has funded the Taliban government U.S. forces are now fighting. [The CIA has denied training bin Laden or his associates in terror tactics.]

Print editions of the New York Daily News, perhaps leery of the outrage the series of strips would cause, especially in New York, decided to yank "The Boondocks" for three days that week. Long Island's Newsday also chose not to run "The Boondocks" but replaced them with previously run, less controversial editions of the strip.

Un-American, Too Political, … or Not Reader-Friendly?

Cartoonists say the controversy over "Boondocks" reflects a dilemma they face in whether and how to address attacks, especially in volatile times where contrarian views seen as unpatriotic are in danger of being suppressed.

"I find that a little scary, that just because someone can take another point of view that they're seen as unpatriotric or sympathetic to the terrorists," said Rick Stromoski, cartoonist of "Soup To Nutz" and spokesman for the National Cartoonists Society. "And that's not true at all. What Aaron's done is to try to get people to step back and ask why things have happened. Things don't happen in a vacuum, and Aaron's trying to get people to discuss why things are happening."

The Daily News defended its decision to pull "The Boondocks," saying the material was more suited to political commentary and editorial pages than the funny pages.

Newsday had a similar response. "The points he [McGruder] made we've had in newspaper reports and editorials," said Newsday editor Anthony Marro in Monday's edition of the paper.

Another factor may have influenced the New York tabloids' decisions to yank The Boondocks: fear of offending — and losing — readers. The Boondocks is no stranger to controversy as McGruder has tackled racism, politics, black self-hatred and other issues, causing some readers to label the strip racist and divisive.

"Sales and subscriptions are down [in general], and papers are afraid of offending their communities and losing even more readers," Stromoski said. "And I think it's going to continue. … Newspapers and cartoonists are going to be gun-shy about running anything that will be offensive to readers."

Compromise in The Lone Star State

Still, The Dallas Morning News — which runs in President Bush's home state of Texas — found a compromise solution. The editors there decided to run the strips but moved them out of the comics page and into the paper's Variety page, which features various columnists and crossword puzzles. (Both pages are in the paper's "Texas Living" section.)

"We've been running "The Boondocks" since the beginning, and we've received countless messages and letters from people that complain it doesn't belong on the comics page and want it removed from the paper entirely," said Sue Smith, deputy managing editor of Living section. "When I got the week of strips [in advance], there were several editors who got together, and we discussed, 'How are going to do this? What are we going to do?' It seemed to us it was a good idea to put him on the 'Variety' page. It put him on a page by himself but also kept him in the paper."

Smith said she is getting complaints anyway, but is convinced that she and her staff made the right choice.

"Most of those who complain feel that no matter what, no matter who you are, at this time, we should all pull together, and everyone should stand unified behind President Bush so that we can do what we need to do," she said. "They say things like, 'It's un-American to express the things that he [McGruder] does.' But I have to tell you I have gotten some good letters — not as many as the complaints. One man wrote that he didn't agree with us taking The Boondocks off the comics page but at least it's still there for him to see. And I thought, 'Yes! Someone got it!'"

The Newspaper’s Right to Reject Content

Other cartoonists are still wrestling with the dilemma of how, or if, they will tackle the terror attacks.

Even political cartoonists have been less critical of Bush since the attacks. Stromoski said he will not likely address the attacks because the issue does not seem consistent or relevant to his strip. Gary Trudeau — whose satirical "Doonesbury" has been yanked from newspapers in the past — will have one character, Mike, attend the funeral of a former boss who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. Mike will also struggle with his own racial profiling when he finds himself seated next to a Muslim man in the flight to New York.

But is McGruder being censored? His distributor, Universal Press Syndicate, says no, and points out that many more of the newspapers that carry "The Boondocks" decided to run the series in question.

"Keep in mind that just as newspapers purchase the right to distribute content they also purchase the right to turn content down," said Lee Salem, Executive Vice President and editor of Universal Press Syndicate. "About 200 papers carry "The Boondocks," so if two newspapers — which come out of New York where the community is very affected by the attacks — refused to carry the comics, then we have a lot more newspapers that actually ran the strips. I would probably feel differently if the numbers were the other way around. … I'm surprised that there weren't a lot more papers [that refused to run last week's strips]."

"We've gotten calls and letters from people, asking where to find the comics," Salem said. "Some people have argued, 'Well, this is censorship,' but I don't see it that way. To me, censorship is the government coming in and intruding, and that hasn't happened here. I see it as a city editor making an editorial decision for his newspaper. I've tried to explain to Aaron that these are singular times, that we've never dealt with anything quite like this. … I think both sides need to have a little latitude."

The Spice of Patriotism

McGruder fears that the nation has blindly embraced a war without asking questions and is becoming dangerously close-minded to different points of view, telling Newsday, "I feel America started moving very quickly in a dangerous direction with the drumbeating and warmongering. 'They're evil and we're not' — that's such a fifth-grade way of looking at conflict."

Stromoski argues that allowing diverse, unpopular points of view is at the core of patriotism, and forgetting that defies the ideals U.S. forces are fighting for against terrorist forces.

"Comics have always been a reflection of what goes on in our society," Stromoski said. "What we do is really a privilege … allowing us to express our opinions freely and keep our leaders in check, that is what really makes our country great. But I think with the groundswell of sympathy for the victims — and rightfully so — there's always a danger of a darkside. … And with such a controversial strip, it's really a credit to Aaron that he's not afraid to tread where other artists are afraid to go."