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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. A cartoon in yesterday's New York Post continues to stir controversy and draw allegations of racism. In the cartoon, there are two police officers; one of them holds a smoking gun. In front of them is a dead chimpanzee, two bullet holes in its chest. One officer says to the other, they'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill. If you haven't seen it, we posted a link on our Web site at npr.org. Click on Talk of the Nation. The New York Post is standing behind Sean Delonas, the cartoonist who has drawn controversial cartoons before. They call it a clear parity of a news event.

How did you interpret the cartoon with the chimp and the police officers? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. We want to know more about how editorial cartoonist work. If there are lines they don't want to cross, lines they do cross, or if there are some they absolutely won't cross. So, we've called Mike Luckovich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and he joins us now by phone from his office in Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. MIKE LUCKOVICH (Cartoonist, Atlanta Journal Constitution): All right, Lynn. It's good to be with you.

NEARY: So, I wonder, have you managed to escape this kind of controversy in your career?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: No, you know. This occasionally happens. You know, and as a cartoonist, what we do - we look for symbols to make our point of view and we look for symbols that are, like, occurring in the news right now. And so, you know, I'm looking at the cartoonist - the cartoon now and I'm sort of - when I look at it, I can kind of see what he was coming from, in a way. And you know, let me explain. I did a cartoon last week when that, what do you call those things? A Groundhog, you know, Groundhog Day. And what you do is, you know, when there's some - an event like that, you try and use the groundhog to symbolize something else or to make your point. And so, when I did my cartoon, I've got a groundhog lying on the ground dead and a couple of guys are looking down at him and one guy's saying, he saw his 401k. So, you know, I tried to take the feeling that we all get by - by looking at our 401ks and then I tried to combine it with something that was going on in the news. So, that's what I think this cartoonist did.

But I think the problem was - is I don't think he thought it through enough, and sometimes that happens when you do a cartoon and you're trying to make your point and you don't think it all the way through. And it kind of backfires, and the symbolisms of the cartoon overwhelms the cartoon. I've never met this cartoonist, but I don't think he was trying to be racist. Just knowing the thought process, I think he thought, oh, that ape is in news, and apparently this cartoonist doesn't like the stimulus plan so he thought, you know, I'll have - I'll show this ape as the one that created the stimulus plan, this insane ape. And that's where it went. I don't think he was thinking about Obama...

NEARY: Did you keep...

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Personally, I think of - the way I come up with the ideas.

NEARY: Can you see how it could be interpreted that way, though? Does it seem obvious...?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Of course.

NEARY: Once you look at it after?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Of course.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah, I mean, that's the thing. It is - to me it's obvious that people would make that connection, but it's weird when you're a cartoonist and you're coming up with an idea. Sometimes the most obvious thing you miss it, and that's why it's always good to have good an editor there because there have been numerous times where I'll come up with an idea and I'll think, ooh, this is a great idea. And I'll bring it in to my editor and she'll say, oh, man, no, you can't do that. What, you know, did you think about what people might think about this and she - and she will kind of show me something that I hadn't even realize and I'll think, oh man, thank you for not letting me do this one. So, there is - and so you would think it will be obvious that he would...

NEARY: So, maybe the editorial process here was at fault as it were.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: I think so. I don't know. You know, sometimes it happens, though. I did a cartoon a few years back that equated al-Qaeda torture with American torture. And I thought it was a fine cartoon and I - but when the cartoon ran it was put on a page and someone else had put on the page a couple of American Marines that had been beheaded by al-Qaeda. And the juxtaposition of that cartoon with those - with the pictures of those two dead Marines really angered a lot of people, and it just created a big fire storm. And that wasn't completely my fault, it just happened that way. But sometimes the symbolism can just overwhelm a cartoon and result in unintended consequences.

NEARY: When you're thinking about a cartoon, what is your goal as a political cartoonist? Do you want to make people mad? Is that part of what you want to do? Or just make them think, you know, you want to make it provocative enough that you're making them think?

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Right. Well, I like to be edgy and I like to be humorous, and I don't mind making people mad if I have - you know, when I'm making a point. And it's - my point of view there are always going to be people who disagree with that. And sometimes, you know, in the way I make my points people get upset, and that's all part of it. You know, I'm just happy to have people pay attention and - but I don't want a cartoon to be misunderstood because the symbolism backfired. And that's what I think happened in this case. I really don't think the cartoonist meant to be racist. I just think he or his editors just didn't - just didn't see what was so obvious to everyone, that it would be interpreted as a - a slam on Obama.

NEARY: We're talking with political cartoonist, Mike Luckovich, and we're asking you how you interpret the cartoon, the controversial cartoon with the chimp and the police officers that some have said is racist. Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. And the email address is talk@npr.org. We're going to take a call now. We're going to go to David, and David is calling from San Antonio, Texas. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DAVID: My concept of it was that was an 800-pound gorilla.

NEARY: OK.

DAVID: And - I mean, I've had white bouncers in bars and people call them gorillas because they're huge people, some of them. So, how it can be racist? I don't understand. Maybe somebody's got their sensitivity now a little too tight. Congress could be the people, you know, the cops shooting at that or could be the nation shooting it down not thinking that it's worthwhile.

NEARY: OK, well, thanks for that interpretation, David.

DAVID: No problem.

NEARY: OK. Let's go to Christopher in Miami. Hi, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER (Caller): Hi, how are you?

NEARY: Good.

CHRISTOPHER: I agreed with that the prior caller that I didn't make the connection at all. I get the Post delivered to my home and I read it - thought what I always think when I read Sean Delonas, I'm not a big fan of his, that I just don't get the humor but didn't make the connection. And I read an article that was - you know, that it was being looked as a racist cartoon. I went back and saw - did I miss something. And as I look at it the same way I looked at it, it was just, you know, the monkey was symbolic of, like, a clown or, you know, somebody doesn't know what are they doing or someone was - no, not a lot of intelligence. Certainly not that Obama was the monkey and it was equating, you know, an African-American with the monkey. I didn't see that at all.

NEARY: No.

CHRISTOPHER: But I will say this...

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

CHRISTOPHER: That I agree with Mr. Luckovich that that editorial oversight has to step in there and the Post is, you know, a very right-wing paper and not - certainly not a racist paper, but maybe that's to blame as well.

NEARY: Were you aware, by the way, of the new story that this was also sort of playing off of that of the monkey that had been shot?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah.

NEARY: Yeah.

CHRISTOPHER: But I mean, that's what I got. I mean, that's the connection made was that it was a takeoff of that story.

NEARY: Now, so you didn't see any sort of - even when you went back and look at it again, you still you didn't see why people would interpret it as racist?

CHRISTOPHER: No, I looked - I said did I miss something that was written? You know, sometimes a cartoonist will write something on the chest of the person so you make the connection of what they're trying to symbolize. But nope, I looked at it exactly the way I did before. It was - you know, I think if you - you know, if it wasn't story about a monkey being killed there, like let's say it was a clown being killed, and it was the same way I would look at that. It's a - whoever wrote the stimulus bill was as stupid as a blank. And the fact that it was monkey that was in the news and the fact that Obama is African-American and there's some people who have made that racist, you know - a connection is unfortunate that these two things coincided.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for you call, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER: Sure.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take another call from Sean(ph), and Sean is calling from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hi, Sean.

SEAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good. Go ahead.

SEAN: So, I'm a black plastic surgeon in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And I absolutely don't think this is racist at all. The media has made various pictures of Bush in portraying him as a chimpanzee, so I think this is really blowing things out of proportion.

NEARY: Oh, you've seen cartoons where Bush was portrayed? I don't remember seeing that, but...

SEAN: Well, it's sort of as a chimpanzee based on his facial characteristics. And I don't think anyone implied that that was somehow racist or inappropriate. It was just people poking fun. And if you take the political cartoon literally, then the gorilla or chimpanzee is really Congress and not even Obama.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Sean.

SEAN: Thank you.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to Pat, Pat's calling from Prescott, Arizona. Hi, Pat.

PAT (Caller): Hello. Hey, I - my problem with it is I think it introduces elimination-ist sort of rhetoric into our discourse.

NEARY: I'm sorry, I don't understand what you're saying.

PAT: You know, it introduces, you know, that it's OK to, like, mix, like, violence and politics.

NEARY: Oh, I see what you're saying. OK.

PAT: And you know, we've had a lot of - you know, there was these - this liberal church that was shot up by this, like, Ann Coulter fan, you know, after she talked about...

NEARY: Right.

PAT: Grenade-ing, like, Supreme Court justices and blowing up the New York Times building...

NEARY: So, the combination - you're concerned about the fact that it gives people the idea that it's OK to be violent or that...

PAT: Yeah, kill your political opponents, you know, and that's just - you know, we just don't need that in this country and we're seeing it - it creeps...

(Soundbite of interference)

NEARY: Oh, all right. Sorry, Pat, we just had interference there. I just want to remind listeners that we are listening - you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I just want to say to Mike Luckovich, who's still with us, lot of different interpretations of this.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah, but there's some good interpretations. I think that the - you know, most of the folks that have - that you've talked to so far don't see a racist connection. I really don't think - I think it was just an inappropriate - a kind of inappropriate symbol to use in that, you know, the monkey it hurt - it hurt this woman and the monkey got - was shot and killed. So, at least for me, I wouldn't use that kind of symbol to make my point because it's kind of a strong symbol for the cartoon itself, for the subject matter. But again, I just reiterate, I don't think - I don't think he meant it to be racist, but I can understand how people would take that as a racist, and that's, again, why you need an editor to kind of save you from yourself sometimes.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call now from Bill in Chicago. Go ahead, Bill.

BILL (Caller): I must be - I'm amazed to be the only person who thus far has seen a racial component. I mean, to my recollection it's always been portrayed as the Obama stimulus package not Congress' stimulus package or anything else. So, I guess maybe I'm an exception that I made that connection. The cynic in me, in the age of YouTube thinks that may be this may have been deliberate on the part of the Post and the cartoonist because your show's discussing it, I'm sure a number of call-in shows nationwide are discussing it - Post gets free media, the cartoonist gets free media by inventing to his spot a discourse that, you know, is taking over the American media. And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for calling. And I do want to read a couple of emails that - that do see a more negative image in this cartoon. Here is - here's one from John, and he says the cartoon was disgusting. The story about the chimp had nothing to do with the stimulus bill. Racism? Quite possibly. Funny? Not at all. The uproar is just.

And from Tara in Charlotte, North Carolina: For the woman who was mulled by the chimp beyond recognition, I doubt she'd find it funny. For the woman who lost her long-time pet Travis, I doubt she'd find it funny. For all the citizens, primarily, young black men who have been gunned down by white police officers, I don't think they'd find it funny. For the first African-American president, I don't think he'd find it funny. There are people who want Obama dead because of the color of his skin. Where is the humor in any of this?

Now, that's - I think that's a pretty powerful reaction to this political cartoon, Mike Luckovich.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Yeah, yeah. But you know, again, cartoonist take disparate things like the stimulus package and then you try and find something else out there that you can kind of make your point on the stimulus. And so he chose that ape, that's like one of the big things that's happened this week. And he chose that to make his point and I don't think that was a good choice that he made. I think it - and I don't think that the Post or the cartoonist had any (unintelligible) happen. Most of the time when people get really upset at my cartoon it's not because of the message; it's because of the symbolism that I used. And I think he used inappropriate symbolism. He didn't think it all the way out - all the way through...

NEARY: And nobody was watching his back, it sounds like. Let's take another call. We're going to go to Peter in St. Louis, Missouri. Hey, Peter. Go ahead.

PETER (Caller): Oh, yeah. Hello. I'm going to try to get this out really quickly. Yeah, I agree what this guy is saying it. It shows I think even a lack of comedic insight to not be just immediately familiar with this sort of long standing racial stereotype about black people and monkeys and stuff. And I would refer you to a funnier usage of that stereotype by Eddie Murphy on "Saturday Night Live" when he does the whole bit on the news about how it's white people that look like monkeys. Now that was funny. It's also insensitive just to the story about the chimpanzee which was kind of just a sad story, really. You know, I can him trying to make the point from his, you know, stimulus package - bad or whatever, but it's really hard to sidestep how this does have sort of a racial overtone. And if he didn't mean that, he might want to consider a different career...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PETER: I don't know. Anyway...

NEARY: All right.

PETER: Thanks.

NEARY: Thanks for your call, Peter. And thanks to you, Mike Luckovich, for being with us today.

Mr. LUCKOVICH: Well, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

NEARY: Mike Luckovich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He joined us by phone from his office in Atlanta. If you want to see the controversial by Sean Delonas of the New York Post, you can go to our Web site at npr.org where there is a link. And tomorrow, it's Science Friday. Ira Flatow will be here with a real story behind the invention of the telephone. Have a great weekend. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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