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Kentucky Basketball: The Herald-Leader Cartoon

Very funny, Joel. (via <a href="">Tambako the Jaguar</a>)
Very funny, Joel. (via Tambako the Jaguar)

There has been much sturm und drang on the Internets today about a cartoon the Lexington Herald-Leader ran today. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can find it at this article by Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports, and it is this article that I now wish to use to discuss the cartoon.

Here is Jeff's reaction to the cartoon by Joel Pett of the Herald-Leader:

The cartoon not surprisingly has drawn the ire of many Kentucky fans, some of whom are even calling for a boycott of both the paper and the companies who advertise in it. Wrote one Kentucky Sports Radio commenter: "I don't have a HL subscription, but I'm going to call and cancel anyways."

Unsurprising indeed. When your home-town paper takes a nasty shot at the popular basketball coach who just won the NCAA Tournament in an impressive and classy fashion, it's easy to understand that fans of the program would find it offensive. It's bad enough when an out-of-state paper does that, but when your home-town rag does it, it really stings.

Note that there is nothing counter-factual represented in the cartoon, really. It is expressing an opinion that would be popular in Memphis, Bloomington or Louisville, but it isn't going to have many fans in Lexington and the rest of the state of Kentucky, where most of the remaining readers of the Herald-Leader live.

In fact, as a business decision, this is a guaranteed loser, as it will cost the H-L at least some subscriptions, probably a few advertisers (and they are getting harder and harder for dead-tree media to replace), and a good bit of whatever goodwill UK fans had for them. I admit that there isn't much goodwill left among UK partisans for the H-L in general, but whatever there is just got eroded further.

Then, Jeff makes this point:

At the same time, the Herald-Leader deserves credit for not censoring a cartoonist in his 28th year at the paper just because the opinion he expressed in his work will be unpopular. A columnist or cartoonist should be able to express political opinions without fear they'll be censored by a right- or left-wing leaning editor or publisher. The principle here is the same even though the subject matter is far more frivolous.

I completely appreciate what he's trying to say here. Newspapers have been traditional bastions of free speech, and generally speaking, have been willing to run unpopular opinions as part of their attempt to put balance into their pages.

If this had been written by, say, John Clay, who is expected to cover the Wildcats more or less fairly, this never would have made the paper because it would be a clear indication of bias which would compromise his ability to be taken seriously. But this was the opinion of a cartoonist who doesn't cover anybody. He's paid to draw things he thinks are funny or deliver a particular, usually scathing, point.

As you can see, I'm dealing with yet another "to be fair" moment here. To be fair, the cartoonist isn't paid to cover the Wildcats, but to make points about people in power, and Calipari certainly qualifies. If this cartoon were something similarly caustic about the governor, it wouldn't draw anywhere near the reaction, which perhaps says something unflattering about our priorities -- but then again, perhaps not.

What's going on here is a disconnect between how newspapers are viewed, and how they view themselves. Everyone has gotten used to an ideological bent from newspaper editorial writers and cartoonists, especially when it comes to politics or culture.

However, when it comes to sports, we expect our papers to pull for the team, and we get very upset when they don't. Fans see that as part of what it takes to cover a team in a way that will interest those who care most about it, and when the team is extremely popular, you often see a very pro-team bent from newspapers, or at least more of that than gratuitous, non-analytical criticism.

Papers see themselves as guardians of fairness, even though they often fail in almost every respect to actually achieve what they purport to sell. But team partisans don't want fairness -- they want reporting that focuses on the good stuff. They'll take reporting that focuses on the bad, too, when it's legitimate. But they absolutely will not accept gratuitous shots at popular sports figures, and unfortunately, that's what cartoonists do -- take gratuitous shots in order to make a point.

If I were Pett, I'd be ashamed. I'd never do something like this that compromises my employer in the eyes of their patrons, especially if it was unnecessary and, frankly, over the top. Pett could have accomplished exactly the same thing by omitting half his drawing, but he found it necessary to include every pejorative thing he could jam in there.

Yes, the H-L did the right thing by letting him publish it. I must question whether or not they did the right thing by hiring him to begin with, however, Pulitzer prize or no. It seems he cares less about the best interests of his employer than he should, and to almost no benefit to public discourse. Or perhaps, he's trying to appeal to the larger number of people in the national media who will tend to agree with his viewpoint, and give him bonus points for poking the grizzly bear.

I'm sure the Herald-Leader business types will thank him -- for nothing. Well, that's just something they have to live with. Free speech isn't free -- for anybody.