Stimulus prompts cartoonish monkey business
Posted by James McPherson on February 18, 2009
I haven’t understood why the story of a crazy chimpanzee has been worth days of coverage on virtually every news site. In fact, until today I had not read any of the stories, and have managed to tune out most of the television discussion of Gonzo Bonzo.
Now there’s another reason to hate the fact that the media have gone ape, so to speak, over the story: It helped prompt a cartoon that some perceive as racist, on the same day that attorney general Eric Holder calls the United States “a nation of cowards” on the issue of race. Ah, remember the good old days, when all we had to worry about with the attorney general was his unwillingness to follow the Constitution, and his inability to remember if he had followed it?
Syndicated columnist and regular TV talking head Roland Martin is among those now arguing that a New York Post cartoon offers a racist portrayal of Barack Obama. For its part, the Post, drawing international attention, pleads innocence. It claims that the dead stimulus-writing monkey in the cartoon simply represents the widely reported chimp gone crazy, which police shot and killed, while making fun of the flaws in the stimulus bill.
The Post argument would be more convincing if it weren’t known as a conservative anti-Obama newspaper. It also doesn’t help that today’s first story highlighted on the Post Web page is titled “From baby to beast,” while the second is headlined, “Bam’s $75B house call.” (The site also prominently carries a “pop video quiz” titled “Wet hot swimsuit models”–those conservatives do like their T & A.) And while the first complainant about the cartoon was publicity hound Al Sharpton (and no, Rev. Al, I’m not comparing African Americans to dogs), who would call someone a racist for commenting that a plane crash occurred on a dark night, Martin is not the same kind of loony that Sharpton is.
Even if we give the Post the benefit of the doubt–and I think that when it comes to matters of race we should be as gracious as possible in assuming the motives of others–we also shouldn’t automatically ignore the aggrieved parties, either. Regardless of any racist intent, the cartoon still represents a cluelessness on the part of the newspaper, because in fact African Americans have been negatively compared to apes throughout history. Not long ago a Voguemagazine cover featuring basketball star Lebron James drew similar criticism. Much longer ago, noted sportscaster Howard Cosell referred to black wide receiver Alvin Garrett as a “little monkey,” drawing considerable criticism (despite the fact that at one time Cosell may have been one of the best friends that black athletes–especially boxers, and especially Muhammad Ali–had in any press box).
Still, the racial aspect that probably bothers me most about this incident is one I’ve noted before, that any dead or missing little white girl or pretty white woman will get far more attention from the media than a missing or dead black or Latino child–and now it is clear that a dead chimpanzee can get more ink, as well.
Next-day update: The New York Times reports that even employees of the New York Postapparently are among those troubled by the cartoon, which ran one page after a large photo of Obama signing the stimulus photo. Ted Rall, president of the Association of Editorial Cartoonists also dislikes the cartoon, but not because he thinks it’s racist (he doesn’t). According to a Poynter piecewell worth reading, Rall calls the cartoon “a cheap form of editorial cartooning,” in which a not particularly ambition tries to combine two unrelated news events into a cartoon that is “rarely clever” and typically “doesn’t mean anything.”
Another cartoonist, Chip Bok, also didn’t consider the cartoon to be racist–just “in bad taste” because the chimp had seriously injured a woman. As Rall noted, however, there are almost no cartoonists who aren’t white men, so their depth of understanding as a group may be a bit limited.
Next day update #2: The Post now “apologizes for” and defends the cartoon, after singer John Legend urged people to boycott the newspaper.
The new cartoon, followed by the Labron Vogue cover and one of the comparisons from various sites: