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Chicago Tribune’s Apology Ends Cartoon Controversy

June 10, 2003
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Ten days after a provocative editorial cartoon ran in the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper apologized, saying it had “failed to recognize that the cartoon conveyed symbols and stereotypes that slur the Jewish people and that are offensive.

“The editors of this newspaper regret publishing the cartoon,” Sunday’s editorial said.

Local Jewish leaders said the editorial was a positive step and had gone a long way in responding to their concerns.

The apology capped a week and a half of attention to a May 30 cartoon that incensed the local Jewish community, then made its way around the country on the Internet and drew considerable national media attention.

The cartoon by Dick Locher, a cartoonist syndicated through Tribune Media Services, depicts a hook-nosed grotesque figure — presumably Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a Star of David on his jacket. The looming figure stands before a chasm labeled “Mideast Gulch.”

A kneeling figure, presumably President Bush, is carefully laying dollar bills across the bridge. The Sharon figure stares at the money and says, “On second thought, the pathway to peace is looking a bit brighter.”

On the other end of the path, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat waits with arms crossed.

The cartoon’s erroneous message, according to critics, is that Israel’s motivation for peace is triggered not by a desire to end the bloodshed of recent years but by American dollars.

Sunday’s editorial in the Tribune ran alongside a letter by Lester Rosenberg, chairman of the board of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, decrying the cartoon and requesting an apology from the paper.

The cartoon struck a chord that lingered in the Jewish community because the Tribune didn’t initially recognize the dangerous nature of the cartoon, according to Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund.

“The cartoon exemplifies a trend” that editors at the Tribune apparently were not aware of, he said. “That is, the emergence of what is being labeled a new anti-Semitism, where the iconography of anti-Semitic stereotyping and the bigotry that goes with it have passed from the Nazis to sectors in the Arab world and now are leeching their way into the West as well — an anti-Semitism which attaches those images and attitudes to the treatment of Israel.”

Rabbi Michael Siegel, the spiritual leader of Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue, who had convened a demonstration in front of the Tribune Tower on June 4, called the editorial a positive step.

In contrast to an initial Tribune editorial that responded to the outcry, Sunday’s editorial “acknowledged the anti-Semitic nature of the cartoon and went far beyond simply stating that some people were offended, but was willing to say that the cartoon itself was offensive,” Siegel said.

The Jewish community mobilized in response to the cartoon, which Jewish leaders say helped lead to Sunday’s editorial.

Senior Jewish United Fund volunteers and professional leaders met with Tribune editors, and the Jewish Community Relations Council wrote a communal response to the paper’s editor.

He added that as a Holocaust survivor, it “caused me painful deja vu. Can this really have been published in the America of the 21st century?”

In the Tribune’s initial response to the outcry, Don Wycliff, public editor of the paper, who has been heavily criticized by the Chicago Jewish community for his earlier treatment of Israel-related matters, wrote a column about the cartoon in the paper’s June 1 edition.

He acknowledged that the cartoon “crossed all the lines,” but said the editorial staffers who made the decision to run it “did not knowingly try to smuggle an anti-Semitic cartoon into the newspaper.”

Responding to Wycliff’s column, Rosenberg’s letter, which was published alongside the apology on Sunday, said Wycliff and the Tribune “went only part way in recognizing and acknowledging the true nature of the offense which they have committed.”

“Hopefully the Tribune itself will come to a better understanding of the potential impact of the bigotry-laden stereotypes which permeated the odious cartoon it chose to run. And with that understanding must come an apology not just to the Jewish community but to the community at large,” he wrote.

For his part, Locher defended the cartoon in an interview with Editor & Publisher Online.

“I was trying to go to bat for the American taxpayer,” Locher said. “Israel is a good friend, but let’s get an accounting of where the money is going.”

In addition, Locher said he always draws a similar big nose on Arafat, and did not intend for the depiction of Sharon to be anti-Semitic.

“Editorial cartoonists work with exaggeration,” he said.

The Anti-Defamation League said it had been disappointed and saddened by Locher’s response.

“Rather than accepting this as a ‘teaching moment’ to educate the public about the evils of anti-Semitism and the persistence of anti-Jewish images through the centuries, Locher unfortunately has decided to stand behind a disturbing work that has offended many in the Jewish community,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement last week.

The syndicated cartoon was later published in newspapers other than the Tribune, and drew flak in at least one of them.

The Denver Post, which ran the cartoon June 4, received an angry letter to the editor from the Denver branch of the ADL.

In a response published last Friday, the Post’s editorial page editor, Sue O’Brien, agreed that the cartoon made a “seriously incorrect factual suggestion” and said, “I deeply regret have published it.”

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