Jan 5, 2007

New York Pressing issues.

While cleaning out my mess of a computer, I also ran across a story I wrote ( edited by Josh D. Fischer) about how the New York Press handled the Danish cartoon controversy. This was days after the editor that hired me to do a full-time comic middle fingered the publisher and peaced out on deadline. That night I was polishing the cover illustration at home while the newsroom catfight was at full throttle. The cover was of cupid blowing his brains out with a double barreled shotgun. Very romantic. The blood bath was created from small red hearts so it's much less gruesome than it sounds and more visually pleasing than it looks (can that happen?). The cover was killed because of the heated quarrel between editor and publisher over the inside Danish cartoon story. They believed that having an unrelated and controversial cartoon (but very timely in honor of valentines day) on the cover along with controversial story/ inflamitory cartoons inside was a bad move. They were probably right.

New York Pressing Issues
By Justin Bilicki

The New York Press, tried not to lose its head over publishing the controversial and incendiary Danish cartoons. Earlier this month, the entire editorial staff of the luckless New York press collectively resigned during the eleventh hour over a decision not to publish the cartoons alongside an accompanying story.

“I had sold the entire company on running the cartoons,” says former New York Press editor, Harry Siegel. “Any suggestion that this happened because there wasn’t enough time to make a uniform decision is nonsense. We left [Unger] with 6 hours to make a rational decision. It was obvious we weren’t running the cartoons in a gratuitous fashion.” With respect to himself, Siegel attests, “I’m not trying to be a free speech martyr. Resigning was the honorable thing to do.”

Nick Thomas, Associate Publisher of The New York Press disagrees with Siegel. “This was not a question of the images being printed under the guise of ‘free speech,’ as they were originally printed months ago,” he states. “This had to do with the value in reprinting them. New York Press was not interested in the shock value of saying that we were not intimidated – that really wasn’t what the issue was for us.”

The issue for Thomas was not free speech or news censorship. Rather, it was about “cultural sensitivity.” Says Thomas, “At this point in time, I believe that sensitivity becomes the real issue and that reprinting the images would merely be a ploy for increased ratings or circulation.”

This was a significant impasse for Siegel. “Fundamentally, I could not in good conscious put out an issue without the cartoons,” says Siegel “We would not have been the first paper to run these. There is not one Muslim street in America that would rise up and have violent ramifications.”

The poisonous cocktail of religion and politics is being mixed once again: the politics of free press with the religion of Islam. The cartoon controversy is now affecting and lightly dismantling free press as we know it. Does this mean that the terrorists win? Think about it: The Patriot Act is a measure designed to limit freedoms in order to combat terrorism. Similarly, the fear of this new outrage is editing our papers. Can American press cover this issue with tact and respect without being, in some people’s opinions, blasphemous?

Thomas says, “There’s a responsibility for news organizations to inform the public of current events. As an alternative weekly, New York Press provides editorial commentary, not breaking news. That said, I think many New Yorkers would agree that there’s a limit to how much is needed as far as visual representation of a story in the media. Are new events important to know about? Yes. Do I need to see the catalyst of the event repeatedly? At some point, it becomes overkill.”

“The paper is not fundamentally there to cover late breaking news,” Siegel agrees, however, he adds, “We were pontificating on a story that had been in play all week.”

New York based editorial cartoonist Ted Rall authors “Search and Destroy” featured in the Village Voice, the competing alternative weekly to the New York Press. An incendiary figure himself, even he feels Thomas was in the right. “[The New York Press is] joining a media pile on,” he says. “Weeks earlier, they should have printed the cartoons. It's a question of timing. Right now it would be gratuitous to reprint photos of people jumping out of the World Trade Center.”

I drew a cartoon featured on the first issue of The New York Press without Siegel and his cast of editors. The cartoon shows a cute bunny rabbit holding a flower with the following caption: “To avoid bloodshed management has approved the following editorial cartoon for this week’s cover…” In response to the cover, Siegel responds, “Like the Phoenix admission, [the bunny cartoon is] a way of appearing to be brave and take things head-on without actually having to.”

I think the latest bunny cover jests on a humorless topic. I originally drew it as an editorial cartoon with a similar caption and its intention was to communicate how America is content with its ignorance. My cartoon was not originally intended to deflect the Danish cartoon issue. I’m just as horrified at the violence as most people are. However, I can understand—though not approve of—how an extremist religious group would act with extreme measures when riled. Who was right at The New York Press? Both sides are right in their own arguments. But, they are arguing two different issues. Siegel was right to exercise free speech and the management was right to be aware of the cultural ramifications. It was a difference of opinion and prediction.

As I write, it’s been announced that yet another bounty has been placed on a human being’s head for creating such controversial work. While the people who created these cartoons were commissioned illustrators and not necessarily editorial cartoonists, as an editorial cartoonist myself, I believe they, along with their editors, opened up a Pandora’s box that is making editors fearful of anything slightly offensive and therefore slowly suffocating free press as we know it.

Inside the newspaper, a New York Press self-promotional ad claims, “we’ve got issues.” Well… welcome to the new jugglery of issues for the American “free” press.