Shelley Cohen, the Boston Herald and racist cartoon

Today Boston Herald Editorial Page Editor Shelley Cohen has a heartfelt and candid apology for the racist cartoon it published showing President Obama in his bathroom squeezing toothpaste onto his toothbrush while a White House intruder looks on from the bathtub.   The uninvited visitor asks, “Have you tried the watermelon-flavored toothpaste?”  The intent of the cartoon two and a half weeks ago was to mock how close to the President the Secret Service has allowed intruders to penetrate the White House. But it screamed a reference to old stereotypes of blacks as watermelon eaters and a whole lot of other negative adjectives.

The cartoon went viral and the Herald took a hit, deservedly, in public outrage. Cohen immediately told media critic Jim Romenesko she was “guilty as charged” for not picking up on the import of the cartoon.  The paper apologized (though somewhat limply in saying the cartoon “has offended some people and to them we apologize.”) Since then, the Herald has asked the NAACP to join with it in making recommendations so this kind of thing will never happen again.  And today Cohen (reminding everyone about the firewall between news and editorial)  assumes total responsibility and explains internal procedural missteps that allowed the cartoon to slip through.

We’ve all hit the send button on something and half a second later we wished we could call it back. But this situation reflects a deeper problem, ably identified by media critic Dan Kennedy as the need for greater newsroom diversity. The Herald has made strides in that regard, but perhaps it’s not enough.  Here’s a thought: how about start by bringing African-American journalist Robin Washington back to Boston.  Since leaving the Herald years ago, he has had a distinguished career as editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Minnesota and might make a real contribution to today’s Boston Herald.

We all find it easiest to react to cartoons or spoken slurs about our own groups.  Shelley Cohen doubtless would have quickly spiked a cartoon of a “shyster” (read “Shylock”) lawyer with a beak-like nose and money bags.   The watermelon toothpaste should have prompted that quick a reaction.  We all need to be more attuned to slurs on groups not our own. Her candid response today is on target, if late in the game.  There’s a big difference between being racist (which she is not) and doing a racist thing. Just as when we tell a small child, “you did a bad thing,” not “you are a bad person.”

Shelley Cohen is not racist, nor is Herald editor Joe Sciacca. Neither do I believe the cartoonist, whom I do not know personally, is racist.  But the cartoon itself was.

The need for increased sensitivity is probably playing out today most dramatically in how Muslims in America are portrayed.  We’re also witnessing a rise in anti-Semitism here and abroad. Catholics before Pope Francis were experiencing similar stereotyping in the wake of the priest abuse scandals.

This is not a call to go overboard in political correctness or to stifle free speech.  (I’m a big fan of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight stinging satire, for example.) What’s clear is that the election of Barack Obama does not mean we are in a post-racial society. The need for a national dialogue he called for in his first campaign has, with a few local exceptions, yet to take place. It’s equally clear that we still have a full plate of racial, ethnic and religious biases that need addressing.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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