Recently Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury was built around the results of a study that linked masturbation to lower incidences of prostate cancer in males. Even Trudeau realized that some newspapers would shy from the material.
How wrong on the count of both newspaper and cartoonist.
Here's what my local newspaper -- the Seattle Times, a union-busting monopoly-in-the-making -- had to say about its decision to not run the strip:
The "Doonesbury" comic strip has seen plenty of controversy over the years, and The Times has routinely chosen to publish it rather than second-guess its creator, Garry Trudeau. Today Trudeau offered an opportunity to sidestep offending some readers, and we accepted.
In Trudeau's original strip for today, the characters talk about masturbation. The topic was prompted by a study in which Australian scientists found that men who masturbate often in their 20s are less likely to get prostate cancer later in life.
Anticipating that some newspapers would object to the topic, Trudeau agreed to allow Universal Press Syndicate, which markets the strip, to send out a substitute. Given the choice, we decided to publish the substitute.
The original strip was relatively innocuous, but some readers would have been offended by it, especially because it appears in the mix of other Sunday comics. (The daily strip appears on our editorial page, because its content is typically political.)
For those of you who want to see the strip, it will be available today through our Web site. At www.seattletimes.com/comics you'll find a link to "Doonesbury."
The Associated Press quoted Trudeau as saying the comic "isn't really about masturbation or the cancer study as such, but about the shifting nature of taboos and the inability of two adults to have a certain kind of serious conversation."
"Still, I understand that the mention of certain words per se will not be acceptable to some family newspapers."
The Associated Press also reported Trudeau said his decision to allow an alternative strip didn't signal his intention to start supplying replacements "every time there's a chance someone might be offended."
Controversy typically hasn't prompted us to withhold a "Doonesbury" strip. We've taken heat for publishing strips about extramarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, AIDS, Watergate, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, President Bush (both of them) and more.
We've withheld the strip twice. In 1974 we dropped one that accused then-Attorney General John Mitchell of being "Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" in the Watergate scandal. In 1986 we dropped a sequence called "Sleaze on Parade," which carried a long list of Reagan administration appointees the strip said were accused of misconduct in office.
We found some flaws in the list and concluded the material was beyond the realm of fair commentary.
If the syndicate hadn't offered an alternative for today's strip, we would have run the original. As it was, it seemed the strip would needlessly offend some readers, so we took the alternative. Feel free to let us know how you feel about the decision.
Inside the Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company
For his part, Trudeau should have chosen to keep the strip in his desk drawer. Clearly he sought the publicity that having the strip pulled would garner. After all, he's probably lost his real edge to cartoonists like Aaron McGruder and The Boondocks. But if he himself offered an alternative strip, then he knew the strip on its own wouldn't be compelling enough for newspapers to run it despite the subject matter.
The strip, incidentally, wasn't that funny.