A Hill Talk Editorial:  The Washington Post descends into sensationalistic journalism

On December 22, 2015, The Washington Post published a cartoon rendered by acclaimed sketch artist Ann Telnaes.  Telnaes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 2001, depicted GOP presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz in Santa Claus attire, performing an organ grinder and clutching two leashes controlling two monkeys also dressed in Santa Claus garb.

Those readers who would like to view the cartoon for reference, can do so here.

That this cartoon appeared is not problematic given the slow deterioration of our civilization and, as a result, crassness seeping into political culture whether it occur by the hands of journalists or politicians.  The cartoon’s disturbing core is it appeared under the headline “Ted Cruz uses his kids as props.

Depicting the children of political candidates is both a breach of good manners and journalistic ethics, no exception.

Not a well-meaning representation of Cruz’s children, the Post yanked the cartoon and placed in the spot formerly occupied by the cartoon an explanation written by editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who briefly described his position:

“It’s generally been the policy of our editorial section to leave children out of it.  I failed to look at this cartoon before it was published. I understand why Ann thought an exception to the policy was warranted in this case, but I do not agree.”

Inspired by a 90-second Cruz political advertisement, where the senator sits with his wife and two children in an idyllic setting with a Christmas tree in the background while Cruz reads a humorous story emblematic of the state of affairs in the United States, Cruz’s children do indeed play an active role in the politically-themed spot.

That Cruz chose to involve his two daughters does not authorize them as targets in a callous and thoughtless depiction for wide public consumption.

While this cartoon may have been good for giggle for a handful of hardened ideologues who consider those residing in the opposite political monolith legitimate prey in any context for cartoonish depictions, it certainly was deemed sufficiently offensive to the Post to remove it.

Unlike written word, cartoonists intend to influence through image and are inclined to make light of political, social, economic and cultural conditions or events.  Political cartoons showcase talent and creativity; often they elicit laughter while remaining constructively critical of their targets.  In this case, Telnaes was deliberate in harnessing her drawing as instrument to injure.

The assumption Telnaes intended to inflict harm was given further credence when, in a fit of defiance subsequent to Hiatt’s decision to withdraw her awfully, sadly undisciplined performance, Telnaes ignored animus and tweeted:

“Ted Cruz has put his children in a political ad — don’t start screaming when editorial cartoonists draw them as well.”

If uttered in the public forum, an error is characterized as a misstatement or gaffe.  If written, it is declared an inaccuracy and retracted.  Aware of the risks, Ms. Telnaes willfully submitted this cartoon to fit her own political prerogatives.

More troubling is the response from Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor.  Hiatt wrote:  It’s generally been the policy of our editorial section to leave children out of it.”  The fact Hiatt mentions “generally” is questionable.  Under what conditions would the Post, Mr. Hiatt or Ms. Telnaes consider children to be included in a parody of this nature?

Further, Hiatt averred:  I understand why Ann thought an exception to the policy was warranted in this case, but I do not agree.”  Why would an exception be made in this case?  Politicians have included children in political campaigns as “props” for decades, but no record of this sort of denigrated depiction of children exists.

Finally, Hiatt admits he had not seen the image prior to publication.  Instead of a decisive repudiation of Telnaes’ work, the Post’s readers were treated with the self-serving and preposterous explanation its editorial page editor had not performed his most basic function, closely examining submissions for publication.  Does Ms. Telnaes have the freedom to publish without her work being properly evaluated by superiors?

The contention Mr. Hiatt did not review the work is ridiculous, unless Hiatt holds beliefs or engages in practices which malign or attack an individual or entire group for their political positions and his statement on the matter gives no ground for assuming Hiatt retracted the cartoon for any other reason it caused an upheaval.  Hiatt’s response also indicated the Post lacks bold and principled leadership.

There is a price to be paid for this kind of slapdash journalism:  Some who were formerly willing to be guided by the Post are likely to retreat to other newspapers or entirely new news sources.

For a newspaper which prides itself on progressive values, openness and honorable reporting, it failed miserably to proceed with caution and due respect for journalistic tradition in allowing this indelicate image to appear in its pages.

Searching through the rubble, the Post seeks to minimize damage to its image.  While there have been no cries to dismiss Ms. Telnaes for her self-inflicted wound, the newspaper may want to carefully re-examine its relationship with her in order to salvage its reputation.

Print journalism’s goal is to form a partnership with the public to inform.  Despite frequent adventure with highs and the intermittent low, this incident depicting Senator Ted Cruz’s children as animals represents the print media is a dishonest institution and, particularly in the case of the Post, demonstrates the increasing frequency journalism is reduced to an avenging arm.

Ms. Telnaes may have a martyred look, but her work more closely resembles another middling talent, Herblock, than the great Thomas Nast.

 

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