There’s an old saying in the newspaper business.
Never mess with the comics.
As the managing editor who oversees the day-to-day production of the printed newspaper, I’ve learned that nothing will disrupt our readers’ mornings more than removing a beloved strip and replacing it with something new.
But this past Monday morning was particularly unusual.
It began with a seemingly benign email carrying an innocent enough subject line – FYI.
Little did I know that the email would prompt us to cancel a long-standing comic, quickly find a replacement and reprint an already finished Sunday comics section. Nor did I realize we would find ourselves at the center of a debate over free speech, the First Amendment and decency.
Last Sunday, the comic strip, “Non Sequitur,” contained a hidden, yet profane message aimed at President Donald Trump. The cartoonist behind “Non Sequitur,” Wiley Miller, maintained that the vulgar line was an accident.
“I now remember that I was particularly aggravated that day about something the president had done or said, and so I lashed out in a rather sophomoric manner as instant therapy,” Miller said in a statement. “It was NOT intended for public consumption, and I meant to white it out before submitting it but forgot.”
Upon learning of the hidden message, we quickly removed “Non Sequitur” from our digital replica, the AJC ePaper. We also took the unusual step of reprinting this Sunday’s comics section and replacing this week’s installment of “Non Sequitur” with a different comic.
While we realized we could not undo what had already appeared in last Sunday’s newspaper, we wanted to send a firm message of just how seriously we viewed the situation.
We also notified the syndication service that provides “Non Sequitur” that we were canceling the comic – immediately. Apparently, other newspapers around the country did the same. As of Thursday, 40 newspapers had dropped “Non Sequitur,” including the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, to name a few.
“THANK YOU … You did the right thing,” one of our readers wrote. Another said: “As a long-time print subscriber, [you took] the right action in dealing with the offensive cartoon.”
Now here’s where things get complicated.
Some thought we had gone too far – or perhaps acted too swiftly.
“While the content in Wiley Miller’s cartoon was offensive to the office of the president, your overreaction of permanently removing ‘Non Sequitur’ was far more egregious,” one reader wrote. Another said: “I am absolutely amazed that the AJC is dropping Wiley Miller’s ‘Non Sequitur’ over a seemingly honest mistake. Has the AJC ever made a mistake?”
In responding to readers, there were several points we wanted to address.
First, we and other newspapers viewed this as more than a “mistake.” Miller, after all, admitted that he purposefully drew the hidden message into the comic. As I told one reader, that’s very different than a reporter making an honest error in a story.
Secondly, when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution learns of its mistakes, it runs a correction and apologizes to its readers. When Miller learned that the offensive phrase appeared in print, he posted this tweet: “Some of my sharp-eyed readers have spotted a little Easter egg … Can you find it?”
As I explained to readers, ours is a business built on a foundation of trust. We ask, you, our readers to trust our reporting. In turn, we must trust our own reporters and anyone else who provides content to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They include our freelance journalists, as well as cartoonists, such as Miller.
Some were convinced the main reason we dropped the comic was because the offensive phrase was aimed at the president. “We’ve now reached a point where to criticize the president is labeled either lies or unpatriotic,” one reader wrote.
To be clear, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution canceled “Non Sequitur” because such profanity isn’t acceptable anywhere in our digital products or in our newspaper – regardless of who it’s directed toward.
There were others who felt as if we were quashing Miller’s right to free speech.
“The AJC … should be actively advocating everyone’s First Amendment rights,” one reader wrote. Another said: “I do not condone a contributor slipping content past the editors, but there is a bigger issue at stake here.”
Indeed, there is.
Fortunately, Miller wasn’t arrested under the cover of darkness never to be heard from again – or worse – just because he aimed a vulgar phrase at the president. That’s the beautiful thing about living in the United States of America.
However, given the nature of his comment, and the surreptitious way in which it was embedded in the cartoon, we no longer trusted that Miller’s work would meet our newspaper’s standards.
Remember that breach of trust I spoke of earlier?
I should mention that Miller’s cartoon appeared in about 700 newspapers across the country. “Non Sequitur” debuted in 1992, and like most newspapers, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not review Miller’s strip or others before they are published. That falls to outside vendors who produce the comics and are also responsible for editing them.
“We are sorry we missed the language in our editing process,” the syndicate said in a public apology released Monday afternoon. “If we had discovered it, we would not have distributed the cartoon without it being removed.”
Nonetheless, we owed our readers an apology – and an explanation.
“Your response to the situation was reasonable and understandable,” one reader wrote. “While I regret the loss of this often very funny strip, I see the justification from the viewpoint of the newspaper.”
Another said: “I am not altogether happy with the outcome, but I respect your reasoning.”
Of course, not everyone saw it that way.
Some wondered why we would drop “Non Sequitur,” yet encourage others, such as Mike Luckovich, to criticize the president in editorial cartoons.
As I told those readers, we expect opinion-oriented journalists, such as Luckovich, to express their political views. In fact, that’s what we pay them to do.
But those columns run on our opinion pages – where they belong. And we expect Luckovich and others to make their points (as much as some might disagree with them) without resorting to vulgarity, as Miller did.
Amid the tough questions that we addressed this week, we also had to tend to some pragmatic issues, such as finding a temporary replacement for “Non Sequitur.”
As you’ll see in today’s comics section, we replaced Miller’s Sunday cartoon with “Argyle Sweater.” During the weekdays, “Nancy” appears in its place.
In a few weeks, we’re expecting to make an exciting announcement regarding a permanent replacement.
I’ll share more on that in another column.
After that, I really hope we don’t have to “mess” with the comics for a long, long time.
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