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Abdicating editorial judgment undermines 1st Amendment

Johnson City Press • Jun 16, 2019 at 8:00 AM

The New York Times made a grave mistake last week when it announced it would no longer publish editorial cartoons in its international edition. The domestic version made the same error several years ago.

Regardless of whether the editors will admit it, they allowed a loud segment of their readership to dictate content in hopes of preserving subscriptions. That’s not journalism; that’s fear.

The breaking point was a cartoon that featured what many saw as anti-Semitic imagery. Publishing it was bad judgment. Apologizing was the right thing to do. Ripping out cartoons altogether was indefensible.

We understand all too well the reasons behind the Times’ decision. Our news and circulation desks receive similar content demands from adamant readers. It may be about an article, but more often than not, it’s about perceived slant on the opinion pages — cartoons included.

Journalists must simultaneously develop tough skins and remain open to valid, reasonable criticism. After all, the exchange of ideas is the main reason we are here in the first place. Our letters section is there in part to allow readers to contribute their own ideas, including critiques of the newspaper. That does not mean we should acquiesce to every complaint, but we should listen with open minds.

Grumblings are frustrating, though, when readers cherry-pick what they read. This newspaper publishes a wide variety of columnists from both sides of the aisle. We run Suzanne Fields on the right and Connie Schultz on the left. Betsy McCaughey on the right and Dick Polman on the left. Rich Manieri on the right and John Mycek on the left. We also publish Froma Harrop, whose column is appropriately titled “The Swing Voter.” The cartoons we select in any given week are just as likely to lampoon Democrats as they are Republicans.

We clearly label the official opinions issued by the Johnson City Press Editorial Board under the header “As we see it.” We publish the other elements on this page to provide a variety of voices, which do not necessarily represent this newspaper’s position. Why? We stay true to the principle that a wealth of perspective is necessary for sound decisions in a free society.

There was a time when readers understood and appreciated that kind of balance. The vast majority of you still do, so what the Times succumbed to was today’s increasingly hypersensitive culture. It’s an unwillingness to entertain that other ways of life and opinion have merit — or worse that they should be expressed at all. This is true across the political spectrum. No one political party or subculture has a monopoly on hypersensitivity.

There are limits to what any news organization should give ink or air time. Vulgarity, bullying, hate speech and prejudicial attacks on the liberties of others are clear lines in our minds. The Times clearly violated that principle with the anti-Semitic cartoon, but by cutting cartoons, the editors reacted by abandoning their duty to exercise sound editorial judgment.

Visual commentary has been around as long as humans have used paint and pen. Printed cartoons have been a part of political commentary since engraved printing was invented centuries ago. A cartoon offers a quick take with humor on a situation that mere words won’t accomplish.

The Times’ decision could have chilling implications on a free press if selective readers and politicians use it as ammunition. News organizations that cater to the choir and abdicate their responsibilities are of no use to anyone.

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