Sometimes freedom of expression is not very popular — just ask some cartoonists who have criticized the war on terrorism and U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The mainstream media — including comic strip and editorial cartoonists — have often been accused of having a liberal bias. However, it seems that not even conservative supporters of President Bush can escape the wrath of some critics.
Last month, Pulitzer Prize-winning, conservative editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez of The Los Angeles Times drew a cartoon reminiscent of a famous 1968 photograph showing a Vietnamese police officer shooting an alleged Viet Cong member in the head. Ramirez's cartoon featured a man pointing a gun at the head of Bush. The gun was labeled "Politics" while the buildings in the background were labeled "Iraq."
Ramirez said he meant to convey that Bush was about to become a victim of a political assassination because of the flap over the 16 words in his State of the Union speech that erroneously linked Iraq to uranium purchases from Africa.
However, the Secret Service saw the image of a man pointing a gun at Bush as a threat, not sympathetic. An agent contacted Ramirez, who initially thought he was the victim of a prank call.
Later that day, the Secret Service agent came to The Los Angeles Times office, and lawyers for the newspaper turned him away. Secret Service officials have said they must investigate anything that could be perceived as a threat to the president and that they were only doing their job.
Ramirez was neither detained nor did he suffer any other repercussions. But the attention his cartoon attracted from the government he fully supports amused — and scared — some of his colleagues.
"That's crazy. … I e-mailed him [Ramirez] and teased him and told him he better give up on his beloved Bush government and change his name to mine and give them my address," said Lalo Alcaraz, author of La Cucaracha, a comic strip that focuses on racial politics. "Some people should not be allowed to read cartoons because they just don't get it."
"Ramirez is the polar opposite of me in this business. I'm the liberal and he's the right-wing defender of all that's wrong to me," said Joel Pett, editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader of Kentucky.
"It [the incident] was seen as a comedy of errors to me. The response was off-the-chart ridiculous. It seems funny that this happened given that we just got the 9/11 report that said the various agencies don't talk to each other very well and don't communicate with each other. And here comes the CIA with their Keystone Kops brigade routine."
Ramirez probably would not have attracted the Secret Service's attention if he had used another, less graphic, image to make his point. But has the general public become hypersensitive to — or intolerant of — any opinion and image critical of the White House, especially in this post-Sept. 11 world consumed with terrorism and U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
"I have always gotten [hate] mail because I deal with racial politics, but there was a big spike after Sept. 11 because I continued to be myself and speak out against the government," said Alcaraz.
"I think some people just don't seem to be able to accept anything that challenges their worldview. After the patriotic hysteria that gripped the nation following the attacks, more people felt confident about speaking out. I was getting letters that said things like, 'How dare you criticize government in a country that allows you to criticize the government?' "
Aaron McGruder's syndicated daily comic strip The Boondocks — which focuses on the adventures and political musings of a 10-year-old afro-sporting, African-American, self-styled radical named Huey Freeman — came under similar fire following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Before the attacks, fans and critics of The Boondocks loved and hated the strip for the same reasons: its cutting-edge humor and unapologetic, sometimes unpopular, views on various issues, including race.
But in the months following the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, The Boondocks generated a heated backlash when Huey suggested that the U.S. government's — particularly the Reagan administration's — past relationship with Osama bin Laden laid the groundwork for the attacks in a series of strips.
Newspapers such as New York's Newsday and the Daily News refused to carry the strip, while the Dallas Morning News opted to take The Boondocks off the comics page and put it on the paper's Living section.
Traumatic Events, Frayed Nerves … and Conservative Empowerment?
A recent Boondocks strip drew outrage from readers when Huey, accompanied by his best friend, the dreadlocked and almost equally well-read Caesar, marvels at his beautiful surroundings. When Caesar asks whether he had heard that South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond — a one-time segregationist — had died, Huey muses, "I have never seen the sky so blue, the clouds so puffy. …"
McGruder was pointing out that some African-Americans — especially those who lived in the South under segregation — may not have shared the same warm feelings as those who praised the nation's longest-serving senator when he passed away.
Post 9/11-world or not, that Boondocks strip may have generated outrage anyway. But traumatic events and emotional times — like war — can serve to make the public less tolerant of controversial opinions, no matter how provocative or well-informed.
"There was a hypersensitivity after 9/11, which I anticipated, which is why I went to softer material for the better part of a year or so," said Wiley Miller, who draws the daily strip Non Sequitur.
"I stayed away from topics that could be scrutinized as too political because nerves were so raw," he said. "When you have something like this [the Sept. 11 attacks] — and we hadn't had anything this impactful since Pearl Harbor — it makes it really difficult to be funny. You naturally go to lighter material."
Lingering raw nerves over the Sept. 11 attacks and mounting tension over the ongoing conflict in Iraq may fuel the anger of some critics toward comic strips and editorial cartoons. Others may have right-wing political beliefs and feel empowered by the Republican power base in the White House and the Senate.
"That's what you get with anyone from the extreme right — and the radical left, for that matter — when you challenge anything that someone they favor does as wrong," said Miller. "But even that has been waning of late. Maybe some of this will continue to wane as the truth comes out over what's been going on."
The Unpredictable Audience
Since readers can be unpredictable, newspaper editors often try not to underestimate — or overestimate — the tolerance of their audience.
With syndicated cartoons like La Cucaracha, The Boondocks, Doonesbury, and Non Sequitur — which are all distributed by Universal Press Syndicate — newspapers buy the strips and decide whether to use them if a particular story line seems controversial. Editorial cartoons involve some collaboration between the cartoonist and a newspaper editor to convey a message in an entertaining way.
"There's always a danger of both underestimating and overestimating your audience's tolerance level. It's hard to say whether audiences are more or less tolerant of contrary thought," said Tony Marcano, ombudsman for The Sacramento Bee.
"With cartoons like The Boondocks one that ran on Strom Thurmond, my first thought is to run them. We've gotten letters from readers that say that this doesn't belong on the funny pages and should be on the editorial page. But to me, they should stay with the rest of the comics. They're cartoons."
The Two-Sided Right to Offend
Los Angeles Times officials stood by Ramirez following the flap over his cartoon, but pointed out that he does not speak for the newspaper.
"Michael Ramirez's cartoons reflect his opinion and appear on the newspaper's op-ed page. Official opinions of The Times appear on the editorial page," said Times spokesman David Garcia.
Ramirez continued to stand by his cartoon — and his president — even after his encounter with the Secret Service.
"The controversy over what the president said in his speech is ridiculous because those 16 words were true," Ramirez said. "Those with political motivations are using the uranium story as a method to attack the president. The image, from the Vietnam era, is a very disturbing image. The political attack on the president, based strictly on sheer political motivations, also is very disturbing."
However, Ramirez did poke some fun at the Secret Service and the controversy in a recent strip. In an Aug. 2 cartoon, he drew himself with a cannon marked "Secret Service" pointing at his head. Staring at the cannon, the wide-eyed caricatured Ramirez thinks to himself, "Over-reacting a little bit, aren't you?"
Perhaps there is one lesson from Ramirez's story: Cartoonists and their readers should remember that they're all human and react to the same tumultuous world events. And unlike many others around the globe, they have the freedom to express themselves.
"I've had an 80-something-year-old grandmother write me and tell me she wishes I had died in the [World Trade Center's] twin towers," said Pett, of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "She was just mad at what I drew and thought of the meanest thing she could say to me."
But he's OK with that.
"For the most part, these people [critical readers] are doing what we're doing and not getting paid for it. They're just blowing off steam about things that piss them off and using highly charged rhetoric to do it. I don't get offended."