WaPo Ombud Accidentally Reveals Paper's Double Standard

Writing in today's Washington Post, ombudsman Deborah Howell focuses on political cartoons and how in many cases they can cause offense. I was struck in particular by a few of Howell's offhand admissions most. The first is that the top editorial cartoonists across the country are mostly liberal.

That concession came after Howell had briefly profiled Pat Oliphant, one of America's best-known cartoonists, who attracted controversy over a recent cartoon that ridiculed GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's Pentecostal faith and its belief in glossolalia, the ability to speak unknown languages in a moment of inspiration.

That is where the second admission comes into play. The Post, which has the ability to reprint any Oliphant cartoon as part of its deal with his syndicator, chose not to reprint the cartoon in its print edition even though it did so on its web site, something it did not do with the famous Mohammed cartoons:

 Most complainers thought that the Oliphant cartoon appeared in print. It didn't. I showed it to several Post editors. While it was clever in some ways, most editors -- including me -- would not have run it. The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes. That was why The Post did not run the Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad.

Oliphant wasn't surprised that it didn't run in print. "Many publications are too timid" to run some of his work, he said, but "the Web is giving us more of a solid venue."

[Post editorial page editor Fred] Hiatt and his deputy, Jackson Diehl, decide what cartoons are run in Saturday's Drawing Board on the op-ed page.

The online world is different. Syndicated cartoons are not chosen at washingtonpost.com; they are posted through an automatic feed, said the Web site's executive editor, Jim Brady. "I have always opted for the approach that we should not limit the cartoonist's freedom of speech. We prefer to present the cartoon and allow the reader the choice to read or to express their own freedom of speech if they're bothered or offended by it."

The hypocrisy is thick enough to cut with a knife.

Posting a cartoon online which makes fun of Islam is "defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes" while posting one that ridicules a branch of Christianity is noble by "not limit[ing] the cartoonist's freedom of speech."

To her credit, as Michael Calderone notes, Howell did say she wouldn't have run the Palin cartoon. It seems she would not have run the Mohammed cartoon either so at least she is consistent.

Back to the first point now. Twice, Howell admits that most of the top political cartoonists are liberals:

  • "[Oliphant is] a political liberal, as are many, though not all, of the better-known political cartoonists."
  • "Ann Telnaes started in print and is a pioneer in animated editorial cartoons; she does three a week for washingtonpost.com. [...] She, too, is a liberal"

That lefties dominate the cartoon pages of American newsprint should come as no suprise considering that the vast majority of large newspapers and magazines are run by lefties.

Just two of the top twenty editorial pages in the U.S. lean conservative. Only one of them, the New York Post, actually runs cartoons. I've made a chart showing the disparity. 

RankNewspaperOwnershipViewpointToons?
1 USA Today Gannett LiberalYes
2 Wall Street Journal News CorporationConservativeNo
3 New York Times NYT CompanyLiberalNo
4 Los Angeles Times Tribune CompanyLiberalYes
5 Chicago Tribune Tribune CompanyLiberalYes
6 Washington Post Washington Post CompanyLiberalYes
7 New York Daily News New York Daily NewsLiberalYes
8 New York Post News CorporationConservativeYes
9* Denver Post / Rocky Mountain News MediaNews / E. W. Scripps MixedYes
10 Dallas Morning News A. H. Belo CorportationMixedYes
11 Philadelphia Inquirer Philadelphia Media Holdings  
LiberalYes
12 Houston Chronicle Hearst NewspapersLiberalYes
13* Detroit News / Detroit Free Press MediaNews Group / Gannett LiberalYes
14 Star Tribune Avista Capital PartnersLiberal?
15 Star-Ledger Advance PublicationsLiberal?
16 Boston Globe New York Times CompanyLiberalYes
17 Arizona Republic Gannett CompanyLiberalYes
18 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Cox NewspapersLiberalYes
19 Newsday CablevisionLiberalYes
20 Plain Dealer Advance PublicationsLiberalYes

Note: It's been a while since I've seen some of the papers in the chart so it's missing a few stats from the last column.

Of course, liberal bias isn't just a hiring problem for right-leaning cartoonists.  They also face an uphill battle when it comes to earning distinctions.

When Investor's Business Daily cartoonist Michael Ramirez won the Pulitzer prize for cartooning earlier this year, he was actually the first conservative since 1998 to be given the award.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013