Don’t always cave to critics
It would be too easy to joke about racial tensions in Texas.
Stephanie Eisner, a sophomore at the University of Texas, used to be an editorial cartoonist for the Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper. Late last month, Eisner was fired for an illustration inspired by the Trayvon Martin controversy. Eisner’s cartoon sparked immediate backlash, leading readers to label her and the Daily Texan “racist.”
The Trayvon Martin case is now well-documented — a man shot a black teen wearing a hoodie, re-igniting an old debate about racial tensions.
Eisner’s cartoon depicts a mother (labeled “the media”) reading to her daughter, with a speech bubble that says, “And then … the big, bad, white man killed the handsome, sweet, innocent colored boy!!!” The mother holds a book titled, “Treyvon Martin and the Case of Yellow Journalism.”
The reaction to the cartoon caused Daily Texan editors to backpedal. They pulled the cartoon, posted a note acknowledging the “sensitive nature of the cartoon’s subject matter,” then published a full apology the next day that included a note about Eisner’s termination.
Since then, a former opinions columnist has begun an online petition with a goal of 400 signatures to push for Eisner’s rehiring, explaining in a local blog post that the “freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, and Eisner did not seek to offend.” At this point, the petition has collected nearly 300 names.
Eisner’s cartoon offers little commentary on the Trayvon Martin case itself, and instead is clearly a critique of the media’s coverage of it. But critics, referring to its misspelling of Trayvon’s name and the use of “colored” to describe him, called it tasteless and racist.
In shying away from the accusations of racism, the Daily Texan missed an opportunity to offer an explanation for some unanswered questions. How can editorialists illustrate their views more responsibly without falling back on loaded language and stereotypes? Why were editors OK with running the cartoon in the first place? What did they hope it would contribute to the broader discussion on race relations and the media?
In their apology, editors wrote, “The cartoonist, Stephanie Eisner, no longer works for the Daily Texan. However, the decision to run the cartoon showed a failure in judgment on the part of the editorial board. … We sincerely apologize for publishing the offensive cartoon and for the harm that decision caused.”
Eisner’s cartoon, her editors’ decision to run the cartoon, their subsequent statement about the cartoon’s “sensitive nature” and then Eisner’s firing are indeed a timeline of failures in judgment. But the controversy isn’t about the cartoon or even the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Instead, it raises questions about journalistic integrity, the willingness to take risks and the conviction necessary to endure the consequences.
There is no taking back your errors in judgment, especially when they’re published in print and online. There’s no deleting them, even if you pull them from your website, and no mealy-mouthed statement of apology will undo their damage. Firing Eisner didn’t make the problem go away.
Daily Texan editors caved. The point of the editorial cartoons — and the editorial pages of newspapers in general — is to challenge readers’ views and provoke them to engage in meaningful discussion. Sometimes people get offended, and you have to have even more meaningful discussion to work through the offense.
Basically, everything you ever do in life comes down to this: Weigh the options carefully. Consider the impact. Then own your decisions and own your mistakes.