Obama, One Ape and Two Newspapers

On February 18th Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post published a cartoon showing two policemen identifying the dead chimpanzee they just shot as the author of the stimulus package. The day before President Obama signed his stimulus legislation. In recent memory police in the city shot Amadou Diallo, Shawn Bell and lesser known unarmed African American men. Why cast Obama as an ape and add him to the casualty list? What is the joke or political point? The Post claimed no harm to the President intended, no racial slur meant, just cartoon fun.

The public response was immediate. Students at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus fired off a protest to the Post and sent an interracial delegation to the Faculty Senate, which agreed to support them. Thousands of people of all ages, races and viewpoints, either in anger or sadness, protested daily outside Murdoch’s News Corp headquarters. The NAACP’s Julian Bond called the cartoon racist and an invitation to assassination, and in less than two weeks NAACP members had bombarded Murdoch with 25,000 e-mails, and had lodged protests in 55 cites.

A picture in a leading U.S. newspaper is hardly a message innocently bobbing in a bottle at sea. It talks to a gun-totting population that includes some violent and racist wackos. Is it an open question whether the media in a multicultural country ought to foment racial discord and encourage the Oswalds among us?

But in a city that also boasts the “newspaper of record,” the Times, what did “All The News That’s Fit To Print” have to say about the cartoon and mounting protests? Nothing, nothing at all. About a week later it weighed in when Murdoch said he “heard from a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon caused.” The “Old Grey Lady” devoted nine paragraphs to his apology “to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted,” by a picture “that was not meant to be racist.” It still failed to mention the marches and protests – or its neglect of a major event.

Everyone in New York, including those who read the Post, knows it thrives on the low and ugly. It rarely employs Black journalists or editors, has fired wildly at Barack Obama before, and views police violence toward people of color with stony silence or a wink. One example: on May 25, 2008 during the Democratic primaries Murdoch’s Fox TV News co-anchor Liz Trotta in New York signed off her Sunday evening news broadcast by urging that “somebody knock off Osama, um, Obama — well both, if we could.” Back then the Times [May 27, page 20A] published this Fox gem and other provocations.

As outrage continues will the New York Times wake up?

It can if it reads its own African American Op-Ed columnist, Brent Staples. This Saturday he traced the long history of racists linking apes to people of African descent, beginning with Thomas Jefferson [while omitting his relationship to underage slave Sally Hemmings] who claimed male orangutans were sexually attracted to Black women, to Hitler who classified people of African descent as “half-ape.” [Times, February 28, 2009, A22]

Staples then talked of protestors who saw racism in the cartoon and “an invitation to assassinate the president of the United States,” and emphasized the Post was “targeted by demonstrators and threatened with a boycott.” Would the Post cartoon have been published if a Brent Staples was in its newsroom?

No one expects much from the Post. Its cartoon announced that claims of a post-racial America are premature. The Times response — ignoring lethal and moral issues, and the protest movement — underlined this. Those of us seeking an end to our racial nightmare cannot count on either paper to serve either as an honest reporter or reliable ally.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His new, revised edition of The Black West [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005] also includes information on the Philippine occupation, and can now be found in bookstores. He can be reached through his website: www.williamlkatz.com




William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is www.williamlkatz.com. Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.