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March 15, 2004
The work of political cartoonist Ted Rall will no longer be seen on The New York Times Digital site. Even his archived work is no longer there.
"After two years of monitoring cartoons by Ted Rall, we have decided that, while he often does good work, we found some of his humor was not in keeping with the tone we try to set for our website," said Len Apcar, the editor of NYTimes.com. "While NYTimes.com and its parent company support the right of free expression, we also recognize an obligation to assure our users that what we publish, no matter what its origin, does not offend the reasonable sensibilities of our audience."
Rall says he is a victim of what he calls "the New McCarthyism."
"My work drew a disproportionate number of e-mails from annoyed Republicans," he wrote on his blog, and he said that the Times was tired of dealing with the criticism.
"An independent press must be responsive to its readers, but that doesn't mean running scared of a creator some thirteen years after you started running his work because some people oppose his politics," Rall wrote. "If opinion mongers have to worry about getting fired every time they venture off the political mean, the next thing you know, the entire op-ed page will be covered with nothing but bland, middle-of-the-road moderates."
Christine Mohan, a spokesperson for Times Digital, would not comment about Rall's charge of political censorship.
"His humor was not in keeping with our website," she told The Progressive, adding that Times Digital began "monitoring Ted Rall's work" ever since his March 2003 cartoon "about the 9/11 widows."
That cartoon, "Terror Widows," depicted some of the relatives of September 11 being crass. In one panel, Rall has Larry King ask: "So, when your husband called you from the 104th floor, he knew he was going to die?" And in the next panel, the widow says: "Oh, yes-He was on fire! By the way, Larry, that's a bitchin' tie!" Another panel has a widow saying on TV, "the $3.2 million I collected from the Red Cross keeps me warm at night."
Rall, who sometimes draws cartoons for The Progressive, told me: "It's a send-up of the commodification of grief. It's an absolutely tasteless cartoon, and it needed to be to talk about an absolutely tasteless thing."
Daniel Okrent, the Times's public editor, said Times Digital also found three other cartoons objectionable. Two of those were explicitly political.
One was entitled "Visit Ninelevenland!" Ridiculing the marketing of September 11, Rall has a character holding a sign: "Victim Dust Makes the Perfect Souvenir." Another says: "You must be as tall as me to ride the tower jump." A sign reads: "Site of Mohammed Atta Eye Socket." And a person wears a hat that says, "United We Bland," and a T-shirt saying: "Osama took Manhattan but all I got was two stupid wars."
The other political cartoon is entitled "Bush Kreminology," and spoofs those who claim to know what's going on in the highest reaches of the Administration. Using a photo of Rumsfeld, Powell, Bush, and Cheney all sitting in a row, Rall writes: "To the untrained eye, it's impossible to tell anything from the image of top officials planning the invasion of wherever. A trained Bush Kreminologist, however, can read the fate of the Homeland as accurately as a tea leaf." And then Rall's characters make derogatory comments about the four, including: "Bush's ruddy nose: back on the sauce."
Ombudsman Okrent, by the way, gave a mixed verdict on the decision by Times Digital. "On principle, I hold with Apcar," Okrent said in his March 4 web dispatch. "Although I happen to think that Rall, while ferociously partisan, can be absolutely brilliant, a lot of his work doesn't fit in The Times's self-defined environment. . . . They are clearly at odds with the tone of the paper that wouldn't bring a blush to the face of most ten-year-olds I know."
But then he added, "I'm tempted to differ with Apcar's solution. Why not just continue what he and his colleagues have been doing, rejecting the cartoons that don't meet Times standards? It's worked up until now. Then again, I'm not the one who would have to make the choice every day, and sometimes things like this can just make your head hurt."
That's equivocal enough.
Rall calls the editors of Times Digital "cowards." They were reacting, he says, to "rank partisanship" from rightwing bloggers, not the tone of his cartoons. "There are Republicans who are doing political cartoons that are absolutely vulgar, and that's how it should be," Rall says. But they aren't the ones the editors are yanking.
The effort by the right to silence him, says Rall, can be traced back to the Bush Administration, which he accuses of "gangsterism."
"This Administration has emboldened the would-be censors," Rall says. "It is tacitly pointing out the direction. It's saying, 'Hey, that's a nice house, it'd be a pity if it burned down.' "
The Bush folks, he says, have a strategy: "Shut up your opponents. That's what they're doing across the board."
But Rall says he's not going to "just shut up and take it. That's not who I am."