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One Final Word On The Monkey Cartoon

Jon Chait pretty much sums up my feelings on The New York Post's monkey cartoon, but this whole controversy, which is showing surprising staying power on cable television and the internet, does reveal something particularly irksome about our media culture. Yesterday, The Huffington Post's Sam Stein reported as follows:

At its most benign, the cartoon suggests that the stimulus bill was so bad, monkeys may as well have written it. Others believe it compares the president to a rabid chimp. Either way, the incorporation of violence and (on a darker level) race into politics is bound to be controversial. Perhaps that's what [the cartoonist] wanted.

Stein's first and second sentences suggest that the cartoon is either a harmless, unfunny joke, or despicable racism. Stein's third sentence, however, seems to say that "either way," the cartoon has injected race into the conversation, which is "bound to be controversial." What exactly does this mean? If the cartoon is not racist (as seems pretty obvious to me), then it did not inject race into anything--Stein (and Al Sharpton, and others reporting this story) did. And why, exactly, is it destined to be controversial? Well, presumably because it has been reported as perhaps being racist. Sharpton called the cartoon "troubling at best" but that makes even less sense than Stein's comment. If the cartoon is not racist, then the only troubling thing is that Sharpton is making a big deal out of it. 

This meta-controversy put me in mind of the Paul Wolfowitz scandal from a couple of years ago. In that episode, Wolfowitz was suspected of violating World Bank ethics rules, which led to commentary like this (from Sebastian Mallaby):

The scandal over his girlfriend's pay is the final nail in Wolfowitz's anti-corruption efforts. It has created a situation in which the bank can't publicize its new anti-corruption manual, "The Many Faces of Corruption," because doing so would invite ridicule.

Mallaby is doing something slightly different from Stein, of course. Still, the implication is that because Wolfowitz was "perceived" to have done something wrong, negative consequences will follow (in this case, countries would use Wolfowitz as an excuse to act less positively in the international arena). But Mallaby is not calling out these countries; instead, he is furthering the "Wolfowitz has no credibility, therefore..." narrative. Of course credibility is a construct of...places like The Washington Post's op-ed page, just like the reaction to a stupid cartoon is determined in large part by outlets like HuffPo and media figures like Sharpton. 

If you have no good reason to think a cartoon is racist, then do not stoke the flames of controversy. And if you do not have proof that a public official did something wrong, do not passively stand-by while others use the brouhaha to weasel out of unrelated obligations. Part of the burden of covering or commenting on a story is accepting that your coverage helps define that story.

--Isaac Chotiner