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The Controversy of Lessons Not Learned!

The NY Post’s Chimpanzee Cartoon

by LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.

Stop the presses!

The New York Post – renowned for its unrepentant when wrong stridency – issued a public apology…well sort of…for its now infamous Chimpanzee Cartoon.

This cartoon presented two policemen near a dead chimpanzee with the monkey slayer saying: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Some at the Post saw this cartoon as time-honored public commentary on both the police shooting of a woman-mauling chimp in Connecticut and Capitol Hill passage of a stimulus package.

However, this editorial panel sparked ire across the country that crossed color-lines. Outraged reaction included a noisy demonstration outside the Post’s New York City office with calls for a boycott against the tabloid newspaper.

Critics felt the cartoon insulted President Obama specifically and African-Americans in general by evoking historically racist imagery of blacks and monkeys.

“This idea of blacks being subhuman has a long history in the media with horrible caricatures and racist depictions,” said Dr. Todd Burroughs, who researches news media racism.

A day after the New York Post’s Editor Col Allen rebuffed charges of racism in a brief statement asserting the cartoon was a “clear parody” the paper posted an attenuated apology on its Web site stating there was “no intent” at any racial insult.

However, this statement specifically limited its scope only to some of “those who were offended by the images…” – persons who mistook the paper’s mocking of an “ineptly” written stimulus bill as a malicious slight.

This attenuated apology told the Post’s long-term critics to go pound sand, lashing those “opportunists [in the] media and public life” holding grudges against the Post for seeking to exploit the cartoon controversy as an “opportunity for payback.”

Apologizing for an error – inadvertent or deliberate – comports with good practices provisions of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. In the Code’s “Be Accountable” section it states journalists should: Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.

This Code calls on journalists to “avoid stereotyping by race…”

Additionally the Code states journalists should: “Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media” – and this provision provides a rub for both that attenuated apology posted on the Post’s Web site and editor Col Allen’s statement.

Although that cartoon sparked broad-based outcry, flooding the Post with phone calls from the public and fomenting criticism from staffers, the paper blamed the problem more on ‘opportunists’ than its offense cartoon.

Editor Allen’s curt statement specifically singled out the Rev. Al Sharpton, lashing this NYC based civil rights activist and frequent Post critic as “nothing more than a publicity opportunist.”

Using the olive branch of apology as a weapon to assail critics’ knee-caps that encouragement of voicing grievances against the media urged in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Sadly, a side aspect of this cartoon controversy is a lesson not learned.

Forty-one years ago next month, the Kerner Commission Report on race relations in America observed that “Slights and insults are part of [blacks] daily life, and many of them come from what [blacks call] the “white press” – a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”

Overlooked in this cartoon controversy is a reality that those demonstrating outside the Post’s office cannot forget – the cartoon is just the latest race-based slight from that newspaper…and too many other newspapers.

For example, many in NYC still simmer at the Post’s part in fanning public hysteria in the wake of the vicious April 1989 Central Park rape-beating of a white female jogger. Sensational and often inaccurate news media coverage contributed to the convictions of five non-white teens during trials marked by a lack of forensic evidence linking those teens to the jogger crime.

When a serial rapist confessed in 2002 to assaulting that jogger — an admission confirmed by DNA ignored in 1989 – coverage in the New York Post (and other papers) continued casting doubts on the teen’s innocence.

Respected NYC journalist Herb Boyd wrote a January 2003 article blasting the Post’s coverage of the death of popular NYC community activist Sonny Carson, coverage Boyd saw as a slight.

Boyd’s article in that city’s black owned Amsterdam News faulted the Post for speciously smearing Carson as a racist and anti-Semitic “rather than noting (Carson’s) relentless fight against the spread of drugs and police brutality…Time and time again over the last score of years, the Post has issued it own brand of racist bile…”

Interestingly, racist coverage of blacks by NYC newspapers in the early 1800s spurred the March 1827 founding in that city of America’s first black owned newspaper – Freedom’s Journal.

CNN commentator Roland Martin is among those finding the Post’s cartoon careless and racist.

“While everyone seems to be caught up in the delusion of a post-racial America, we cannot forget the reality of the racial America where African-Americans were treated and portrayed as inferior and less than others,” wrote Martin, a former editor of the legendary black owned Chicago Defender.

Many in the news media could benefit from reviewing the observations and recommendations contained in Chapter 15 of the Kerner Report (“The News Media and the Disorders”).

The Report insightfully reminded that a “society that values and relies on a free press as intensely as ours is entitled to demand in return responsibility from the press and conscientious attention by the press to its own deficiencies.”

Linn Washington Jr. is an Associate Professor of Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia and a weekly columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune – America’s oldest black owned newspaper.