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Doonesbury Strips Dropped, Edited as Controversy Grows

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Times has received more than 840 reader complaints over its decision this week to drop what it considers “overdrawn and unfair” Doonesbury comic strips. The controversy has also spread nationwide, as at least four other newspapers decided against publishing and many others edited the syndicated cartoon.

The furor surrounds six strips by cartoonist Garry Trudeau in which character Mark Slackmeyer names former Reagan Administration officials who the cartoon said resigned or were fired after charges of legal or ethical misconduct.

“So here it is,” the Slackmeyer character says in the first strip, “the definitive list of backscratchers, till-dippers and conscience-cutters, the unabridged 1986 ‘Sleaze on Parade.’ ”

Decision Explained

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On Monday, The Times ran in place of the comic a note written by Editor and Executive Vice President William F. Thomas explaining the paper’s decision against publishing: “We feel this week’s Doonesbury grossly exaggerates the real and alleged transgressions of many Reagan Administration appointees,” Thomas wrote.

“The thing was unfair,” Thomas said in an interview Wednesday, “because it makes felonies out of misdemeanors and lumps together the miscreants with those who are not wrongdoers--the ding-dongs with the real bad guys.”

Thomas said he believes, however, that the comic strip was defensible on legal grounds.

He also pointed out that unlike other comic strips, “Trudeau often deals with real people and makes specific charges. That is the difference with Trudeau. You have to treat it as if it were a story.”

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One other paper, the Farmington, N.M., Daily Times, also pulled the column because “it was in poor taste and had possible libel in it,” its managing editor, Jerold Johnson, said.

Other newspapers have chosen to edit the cartoon’s text, deleting those names that they could not independently verify or were convinced were inaccurately depicted.

“I don’t want to be in a position of doing a research project on my comic strips so I edited them,” said James D. Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune.

“Gary Trudeau is among the best political satirists this country has ever produced, but I am also convinced that he loves to attract publicity by attracting lawsuits and editors’ ire,” Squires said. “Well, I’m not going to get hooked into that game, and if they don’t like it that way, they can clean up the damn strip.”

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Inaccuracy Noted

On Wednesday, two more newspapers, the Seattle Times and the Omaha, Neb., World-Herald, dropped the rest of this week’s cartoons after Universal Press Syndicate sent word to subscribers that the Wednesday strip inaccurately depicted the resignation of James R. Harris, former director of the federal Office of Surface Mining.

That correction notice, said Omaha editorial page editor Frank Partsch, “severely undermined” his paper’s confidence in the rest of the strips’ accuracy.

Actually, Universal Press Syndicate sent out that correction notice after it was notified by the Washington Post that Harris was inaccurately depicted.

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Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee explained that his paper, which ran the strips unchanged save for the Harris correction, “never had any doubts” about using the cartoons “because it is political satire” and the information upon which Trudeau based the column “has been out and around” for some time.

Nonetheless, Bradlee said, he did attempt to independently verify the names in the strip. Would he have run the Doonesbury cartoons if he, like most newspapers around the country, lacked the resources to make such verification?

“I won’t answer that question,” Bradlee said. “I have enough trouble dealing with reality.”

Those papers that dropped the comic strip this week, however, created much more commotion than those that ran it.

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164 Readers Cancel

One hundred sixty-four Times readers canceled their subscriptions completely, and another 65 subscribers asked that delivery of the paper be stopped for this week only. In addition, the paper has received more than 600 reader complaints.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, which edited the cartoons, has received no complaints. Neither, said Bradlee, has the Post.

Universal Press General Manager Lee Salem said his syndicate prefers that newspapers not edit Doonesbury, “for obvious reasons, some of them legal, but I think it is incumbent on anyone who does change it to make it clear they have done so.” In fact, those who buy the strip sign a contract stating that they will not change it.

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Trudeau, who was unavailable for comment, based the strip largely on a report prepared by the staff members of the House civil service subcommittee of Reagan Administration officials who left office over legal or ethical questions.

Dan Buck, administrative aide to subcommittee chairman Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), said the report was not the work of outside investigation but was drawn from a compilation of newspaper and magazine clippings.

Published in National Journal

Buck, however, said the list, which included more than 100 names, had been widely circulated in Washington and even published at one point in National Journal.

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Buck said he was disappointed that the Los Angeles Times had decided not to publish the strip. “It is a little surprising that the newspaper which publishes (editorial cartoonist) Paul Conrad would falter at the sight of a fairly average Doonesbury strip. Conrad ought to have his pen registered as a legal weapon.”

Thomas pointed out that Conrad’s work also is subject to review for fairness and content.


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