Gene Weingarten must have been pleased, kind of. After all, it’s not every week that his Washington Post Magazine column, “Below the Beltway,” gets a heavy dose of promotion on page A2. The promotion came in the form of an Editor’s Note that said the following:
“The headline, illustration, and text of ‘Below the Beltway,’ a column in The Washington Post Magazine today, may cause offense to readers. The magazine was was printed before a widely publicized incident last week in which a chimpanzee attacked a badly mauled a woman in Stamford, Conn. In addition, the image and text inadvertently may conjure racial stereotypes that The Post does not countenance. We regret the lapse.”
What reader, upon getting a load of such official regret-mongering, didn’t immediately navigate to the offending column, titled “Monkey Business,” in search of some incredibly tasteless depiction of human-simian relations?
The offending column, in this case, was a huge disappointment. After getting primed for insensitivity and worse, I found a drawing of a woman on the shoulders of an ape and an adjacent Weingarten, looking a bit distraught. The illustration came alongside a column explaining that a study had found, among other things, that women were turned on by apes. I strained to follow the logic of the Post‘s editor’s note. When there’s nothing at all offensive about something, why apologize?
The decision to run Editor’s Notes at major dailies doesn’t rest with the paper’s lower rungs. This is an executive editor’s prerogative, and Marcus Brauchli, who holds that title at the Post, says there are two reasons for the note.
No. 1: “[T]he magazine had gone to press before the incident in Connecticut. We wanted readers to understand that, so they wouldn’t think us callous in our choice of words and images.”
OK, unnecessary but understandable. But what about the racial part?
Here’s Brauchli on that: “[S]ome people in our newsroom thought the illustration and some language in the article was potentially problematic. We debated internally whether the illustration or the piece could be interpreted by anyone, even in a stretch, as racially insensitive. We concluded, regretfully, that such an interpretation might be made, and we wanted to let readers know that The Post neither intended nor tolerates the use of racial stereotypes.”
Never will you find a more naked statement of institutional CYAism. Let’s just unpack this thing for a moment. The Post‘s editors “debated internally” not whether the illustration was racially offensive on the merits, but whether the thing could “be interpreted” as such by some reader. Even in a stretch!
Whoever supervises such a debate has ceased being an editor and started being an apologist. That someone could potentially view something as offensive is no reason to either publish or not publish—-it’s entirely irrelevant to journalism. If the Internet and e-mail and electronic bulletin boards have taught us anything, it’s that the capacity of the public to take offense is limitless. Take a look at the paper’s Free for All page each Saturday. There are people offended by Republicans, by Democrats, by figure skating, by gerunds, by a decision not to cover minor league baseball.
The problem with the thinking that drove this ridiculous Editor’s Note isn’t only that it places editorial decisions in the hands of kooks and morons. It’s also one of those “chilling effect” moments. If the paper is going to run a preemptive Editor’s Note for a column and illustration with absolutely no insensitivity or even edge, the message to the newsroom is, Hey, play it safe, people.
When asked if he’d protested the note, Tom Shroder, the mag’s editor, responded that it’s Brauchli’s job “to determine that we needed to do that.”
Alas, the note appears not to have achieved its goal. According to Brauchli, the paper has had “a few e-mails and a few direct comments” complaining about the illustration, though he notes, “nothing huge.”