If you want to know why American newspapers are dying a long, slow death—sort of like the dinosaurs, but more pathetic—look no further than a story that crossed the media's radar screen for about one second last week. It was a tiny flap, and it wasn't even about the news per se. It was about a cartoon. But it laid bare a mentality that's taken hold at the broadsheets in the last few decades and could prove fatal.
On a recent Monday, the editorial page of The Boston Globe ran a cartoon by the widely syndicated political cartoonist Pat Oliphant. It shows a gigantic Catholic nun in an old-fashioned habit, holding a ruler and wearing an evil smile. A tiny boy is walking away from her, dripping blood, missing a tooth, and sporting two black eyes. Over the boy's head, there's a thought balloon with a light bulb inside. The cartoon's caption: "In his early school days, little Mel Gibson gets beaten to a bloody pulp by Sister Dolorosa Excruciata of the Little Sisters of the Holy Agony, and an idea is born."
What is Oliphant getting at here? Obviously he's poking fun at Gibson's famously bloody movie, The Passion of the Christ. Less obviously, the cartoon suggests that perhaps Gibson has some psychological issues he's working out with all that gore. Deeper still, Oliphant seems to be linking the sadism of those who torture Jesus in the movie to sadistic strains within the Catholic Church itself, as represented by this ridiculous nun. In other words, when it comes to cruelty, Catholics have their own issues.
Coming after the church's horrific pedophile scandal, and in the very newspaper that broke that scandal open, the cartoon might have struck thoughtful Globe readers as extremely apt, even brilliant. Humor that manages to be both very broad (is there any joke older than a big, scary nun?) and very subtle is a rare thing. A cartoon that does so while making a provocative point about Topic A—well, that's a pretty neat trick.
On a more basic level, it's just a wicked cartoon, and wickedness used to be a core value of American journalism in general, and of great newspapers in particular. Long ago and oh so far away.
"Upset Boston Globe Readers in Tears Over Oliphant Cartoon" was the headline of an item last Friday on Romenesko, a popular Web site for and about journalists. The item linked to a column by Christine Chinlund, the Globe's ombudsman, that appeared four days after the Oliphant cartoon. The column began: "The cartoon atop last Monday's editorial page was intended as a satirical comment on the violence in Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ.' But many Globe readers saw it as something else: assault-by-stereotype on nuns. Scores of readers quickly phoned or e-mailed their dismay and their disgust. They were as hurt as they were angry, and a couple were in tears. They spoke personally about nuns who dedicated their lives to teaching in poor neighborhoods for little pay. Such women didn't deserve to be cast as evil, they said, and The Globe must apologize. Some canceled the paper."
Chinlund reasoned through the question a bit and quoted some of the anguished readers she'd heard from. She also quoted Renee Loth, the paper's editorial page editor, who said: "We never intended to insult Catholics, or nuns, or even Mel Gibson by running what we saw as a comic take on a cultural subject prominently in the news.... We underestimated people's sensitivities to what appeared to us a broadly satiric commentary. I regret that." Chinlund agreed, concluding that the cartoon was too hurtful and should not have run: "The point of this particular cartoon didn't equal the cost."
And that about sums up the new journalistic thinking. We are living in The Age of the Ombudsman, a deeply earnest and practical time when it all comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis. "The point" of any piece of work is weighed against "the cost," i.e., the number of people it offends. The implications of this approach are enormous, but nobody seems to care.
Do you ever wonder why political cartoons have lost the magnetism and drawing power they once had, why they're no longer part of the political conversation? There aren't many Pat Oliphants left in America, you see, and the ones we have are so troublesome, so ... costly.
And really, why offend people when you can make them happy? Why shock when you can calm and soothe? Why divide when you can unite? If the newspaper industry had a theme song, it would be that old Coke jingle: I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. More and more, it's doing just that.
Operate in this fashion for a while, and pretty soon you'll have a thoroughly modern media establishment, one that plays nice all the time, isn't wicked, and never even makes anyone cry. Or laugh.