Cartoons can provoke demonstrations, even spark riots. Which is why – especially lately – many newspapers have been cautious about running provocative cartoons, especially ones likely to offend specific religious groups.
Now there is a new book out in the US – a collection of cartoons that over the years have been banned. This is the first time they have been seen in print. The book is the work of a David Wallis, who heads an America news syndicate. It's called "Killed Cartoons. Casualties from the War on Free Expression." It contains nearly 100 editorial cartoons and other works of art that American newspaper editors have declined to publish.
They include Hitler serving as a Nixon adviser during the bombing in Vietnam, President Bush and his famous "Bring ‘em on" taunt in front of flag-draped coffins of soldiers who died in Iraq, and even Pope John Paul II ascending into heaven inside his famous Popemobile. All considered at the time too controversial to print.
Cartoons are killed for various reasons, most of them wrong, contends Wallis. Many are killed because editors fear offending sensibilities about sex, religion or race – or because they address such topics as abortion or terrorism- or simply because the editor fears the joke in the cartoon might offend someone friendly with the publication's proprietor.
"Cartoonists," he says " are arguably the most incendiary of journalists. Part of their job is to offend and that makes editors increasingly uncomfortable." He adds that at a time when news staffs are being cutback, there is a collective fear of causing offence. He calls it a new Dark Age in journalism.
One American cartoonist, Bob Englehart of The Hartford Courant, who has his share of cartoons dropped, believes newspapers these days are over-sensitive when gauging reader response. Too often, trying not to offend, means really funny cartoons get dropped.
But sometimes that can have an unexpected effect. Cartoonist, John Callahan, a syndicated artist who happens to be a quadriplegic and has a reputation for being "politically incorrect," poked fun recently at Martin Luther King Jnr, the civil rights leader who was assassinated in the Sixties.
The editor of The Miami Herald didn't like the cartoon, but it inadvertently ran in the paper. When he discovered this the editor scrapped the entire press run , re-plated the paper and decreed that the cartoonist was not to be used again. Now Callahan says for the first time in 20 years he sometimes hesitates over a cartoon.
Another cartoonist whose work is in the book, Peter Wagner, claims that most newspapers today are cautious and don't show much conviction in what they are willing to publish. They pull their punches rather than risk the bottom line, he suggests.
The author of the book, in a last word, says editors are taught to worship at the altar of objectivity.
"But cartoonists who are objective suck", he maintains. "Fairness makes for lousy cartoons."