Speaking Truth To Power by Bill Day

In 1985 I was offered the cartoonist job at the Detroit Free Press. It was a dream job come true. I had finally made it to a highly respected, big-city newspaper after years of sacrifice and struggle. I was working with very talented reporters and editorial page writers who produced one of the best newspapers ever printed. I was so proud to be there.

The one big problem was that it was in a newspaper war with The Detroit News, also a great newspaper. This kind of competition made everyone on both newspapers strive to do their utmost in putting out the best work they could produce. The financial hemorrhaging for both papers was huge, but necessary. It was the only way one of the two could achieve dominance and be victorious in this battle. In 1988, the Detroit Free Press was gaining the advantage when The Detroit News was forced into selling to Gannett. This quickly led to a request for a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) with the U.S. Justice Department, one that would be settled by then Attorney General Ed Meese of the Reagan administration.

Many of you may remember Ed Meese. He was one of the sleaziest Attorney Generals in modern history and was caught up in a scandal involving an oil pipeline. Meese had been the subject of many of my cartoons. He was also going to decide the fate of two large newspapers. There was a great deal of money at stake and the Detroit Free Press did not want to antagonize Ed Meese with any embarrassing cartoons that might give him a reason to kill the deal. Publishers of newspapers always wear two hats. One is to provide quality journalism and the other is to operate a successful business. In this case, they decided to wear their business hat. Knight-Ridder, then the owner of the Detroit Free Press, was located in Miami. The corporate brass had promised to shut down the Detroit Free Press if the JOA was not approved.

That put me in the middle. Should I keep drawing Meese cartoons, or lay low and not draw any to save my job? I tried unsuccessfully to get them published, but they were rejected. How could I keep my integrity as a cartoonist under these circumstances? The ethics of this situation left me no choice but to risk being fired and supply them to my syndication service and not tell the newspaper. I was in a very dangerous position but I needed to do the right thing. I drew four cartoons on Ed Meese over several months before Eleanor Randolph, The Washington Post’s ombudsperson who wrote about newspaper issues, found out that I was being held back at the Detroit Free Press from doing Ed Meese cartoons. That is when all hell broke loose.

The Washington Post ran the story along with the cartoons that had been censored. The Detroit Free Press then came clean and ran the cartoons with The Post story the next day, along with their timid explanation of why I had been censored. I was told to write a column to explain it all, and the Publisher wrote his column. The Miami Herald had to admit that they were holding back their cartoonist too. A Washington Post columnist then joined the fray and accused Knight-Ridder of wholesale greed. I was in very big trouble and thought for sure I would be fired. All that I had worked so hard to accomplish over all these years would be down the drain.

To the credit of the Publisher and Editor of the Detroit Free Press, I was not fired. It was uncomfortable and my relationship with the Editor was damaged, but I stayed on for another ten years after that. However, I never got another merit raise. I had paid the price, but I kept my integrity, which was more valuable to me than the money.

Which brings me to today and the purpose of this column.

I risked my job many years ago because I believed it was the right thing to do. I am proud for standing up and defending good journalism.

Today a parent spoke of how his son Daniel would have started second grade this past Tuesday. A victim of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Daniel and nineteen other children and six educators will not be there now.

That is the purpose of my cartoons. I write today to stand up for those children and adults who should still be here on this first week of class at Sandy Hook. My heart cries for them. I write today to tell everyone to stand up for what is right and to demand that Congress enact meaningful gun control legislation. I write today to tell everyone that we need to stop this carnage. Please.

A good friend told me recently that he has become jaded and doesn’t believe in ‘karmic justice’ anymore. He says he has seen too many people destroyed by others where there was never any justice. Maybe he is right, but I still want to believe there is such a thing as ‘karmic justice’ and that good will always triumph over evil.

That is why I became an editorial cartoonist.


Author: The Blue Route

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