Deciding about offensiveness: sometimes editors get it wrong

You may have heard that the new executive editor of The Reader survived just one issue. Mark Konkol was fired because the cover cartoon on the February 15 issue showed gubernatorial candidate J. B. Pritzker sitting on a black lawn jockey statue as an FBI agent listens in on his phone conversation.

The accompanying headline, “J. B. Pritzker’s African-American thing,” referred to indecorous words Pritzker used in a 2008 phone conversation with then-Governor Rod Blagojevich that was wiretapped and only recently disclosed.

Hearing about Konkol’s firing took me back more than four decades to Rochester Institute of Technology, where I had been appointed editor of a new alumni tabloid. I was only about 24 and didn’t have the experience for such a role, but it wasn’t a job I’d sought. Having gone to work for RIT’s communications services department some months before, I was just there.

We put artist Kathy Calderwood’s image of a crucified duck on the cover of an issue featuring Calderwood, an RIT graduate. The cover choice was most likely the designer’s, but I didn’t second-guess it. It was art; it didn’t occur to me to censor it. I don’t remember the chain of approval anymore, but certainly my supervisor must have seen the cover.

That supervisor heard from RIT’s president as soon as the issue arrived on the latter’s desk. Remarkably, however, none of us were fired.

This was the first time I became aware of the calculations an editor makes about whether something might offend the audience. My previous jobs — two years full-time and four years part-time — had been at newspapers, where content was edited for language but not, or so I thought, approved for inoffensiveness. Furthermore, wasn’t contemporary art often intended to be provocative?

In the 42 years of my career after then, the majority of it working in university publications offices, I observed many judgment calls about propriety. I seldom had to make them; that was the purview of someone over me or the department paying for the publication. The judgments weren’t only about visuals, of course. More often they were about the editorial content — whether to delete questionable words, even whether to write about something in the first place. I often silently disagreed with cautious decisions. It seemed to me better to address bad news in official publications, to not pretend the institution had no warts, but I wasn’t the one who would hear complaints from alumni and donors.

As editor of The Reader, Mark Konkol didn’t have to worry about alumni and donors. Given The Reader’s liberal bent, I think the cover caricature was intended to be a jab at Pritzker and not at African Americans. But many African Americans and others saw it as critical of blacks for supporting Pritzker and being used to further his political ambitions.

In a statement about Konkol’s firing, Edwin Eisendrath, CEO of Sun-Times Media, which owns The Reader, said, “While controversy is sometimes seen as part and parcel of the alternative weekly world, we believe it’s necessary in this instance to apologize to anyone who was offended by this week’s cover.”

So much has changed in the four decades since a similar error of judgment didn’t cost me my job. Although I benefited from starting to work in a less vigilant time, the current environment that forced Konkol’s firing is preferable. Free speech, freedom of the press, the provocative nature of art — these can’t be used as blanket defenses.

When you’re making a judgment call about potentially offensive content and you’re not a member of the audience that might be offended, the judgment to rely on isn’t your own. Konkol should have sought out African Americans for their opinions before publishing.

****

ANTI-TRUMP QUOTATIONS: THE SECOND IN AN ONGOING SERIES

“He said he heard that I was a big fan of his, and then he said, ‘I’m a big fan of yours too.’ I’m pretty sure he made that up. Talking to the president, I’ve never been so unimpressed by a person in my life. He didn’t make me feel better in the slightest.”
— Samantha Fuentes, an 18-year-old student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who is recovering from gunshot wounds, about a phone call from President Trump

Leave a comment