San Diego Union-Tribune publisher apologizes for offensive cartoon

Steve Breen’s editorial cartoon from Friday’s newspaper should not have been published and we have removed it from our website. At The San Diego Union-Tribune, we take matters of race and social justice seriously, which means handling these topics with care. That did not happen in this case. The cartoon drew an ironic parallel between two august figures — James Baldwin and Toni Morrison — and Jussie Smollett, the television actor accused of lying to police after posing as the victim of a hate crime.

I have spoken to Steve, and I understand the point he was trying to make. Nonetheless, I consider the cartoon offensive, and not in line with our values as a company. For that, I apologize.

Below, Steve and Editorial and Opinion Director Matthew T. Hall discuss the piece.

Matt: Why did you draw this cartoon?

Steve: Because Jussie Smollett is a public figure who police say lied. And not just a little lie. A giant, elaborate lie. Cartoonists love to go after liars. I had a feeling every other cartoonist was going to draw him winning an Academy Award due to the Oscars on Sunday. I wanted to address it in an original way.

Matt: Why did you pair these iconic African Americans with him?

Steve: All three figures in the cartoon have told stories of the African-American experience. Creating art to make the world understand the black experience is a wonderfully positive thing. Telling a racially divisive lie is a horribly negative thing. So I was contrasting Smollett with Baldwin and Morrison, not comparing. The incongruous third item in a grouping is a common device in humor and I’ve used it many times in the past. It was not my intention to have anyone think less of these two powerful American voices.

Matt: In hindsight, how could we have made our point differently?

Steve: Maybe I should have found a way to criticize Smollett with a different approach. A black friend on Facebook suggested I should have depicted Baldwin and Morrison looking aghast at Smollett. That would have been a better solution.

Matt: What can be done differently as we move forward?

Steve: Going forward, before a cartoon involving race runs, I will show it to friends and colleagues of color and ask two questions: “Does this make sense?” and “Regardless of what I’m trying to say, how will this cartoon be perceived?”

Matt: I’ll add a few thoughts in closing, starting with an apology of my own.

As the person who OK’d the cartoon, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend anyone other than Smollett, and I see now how — and that — we did. You and I handle all sorts of complex, fraught issues, often on deadline, always with care. We go to great lengths to be perceptive and fair in an age when mistakes and missteps are rightly scrutinized.

We’ve also dealt with racial issues before. Last month, I went to you with the idea of devoting nearly our entire editorial page to that evocative image of Martin Luther King Jr. and President Donald Trump. Last year, you and I visited a classroom at La Jolla High School after a racist cartoon ran in that school’s paper to discuss what the students could have done differently.

We should’ve heeded the advice we gave them then in this situation — and taken more time to think about how others would have perceived the cartoon and shown it to people in the African-American community. We won’t fall short that way again. One part of the journalism that we practice on my team that I’m most proud of is our efforts to see issues from different perspectives, to foster community conversation, to learn from it. We have here.

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