Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer This Conservative World

By Jim Hanas

APRIL 27, 1998:  A recent installment of This Modern World – a syndicated political cartoon that regularly runs in approximately 100 publications nationwide, including The Memphis Flyer – kicked up controversy recently by satirizing the media’s apparent obsession with sex scandals. The strip, which ran in this paper on April 9th, used orgiastic scenes – borrowed from antique etchings – as metaphors for the recent feeding frenzies surrounding allegations about President Clinton’s sexual dalliances. The accompanying text observes that these scandals have been pursued to the neglect of substantive issues like campaign finance reform.

“I knew I was sort of walking a line,” says Dan Perkins, who composes the cartoon under the pseudonym Tom Tomorrow. “If anyone actually read the cartoon, they would realize that I was appalled about the sexual overload of media coverage. If they read it, they would probably agree with it.”

Perkins, who will be awarded the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award next month, says he included an alternate with the controversial cartoon so that “editors could decide for themselves if it was appropriate for their community.”

In some cases, it apparently wasn’t.

“The thing I regret is that the cartoon is open to misinterpretation by not very bright people,” says Perkins. “And it has given some of these people a crowbar to use against some of these papers.”

Take the case of the Oklahoma Gazette in Oklahoma City. “Certainly nothing this paper has published has generated this kind of controversy or outrage,” says Gazette editor Mike Easterling. The paper had only been running This Modern World for a few weeks and is still examining whether they will continue carrying it. Easterling says he received dozens of phone calls and 20 or so letters, some of which were positive. The Gazette was removed from two distribution points and a few advertisers pulled their ads – this in a city that made headlines last year when a group known as Oklahomans for Children and Families successfully lobbied officials to declare the 1979 Oscar-winning film The Tin Drum obscene.

“What has surprised me is the depth of the anger people are displaying,” says Easterling.

Likewise, the Flyer received its share of admonishments.

“This is the most emphatic response I’ve seen in my five-plus years here,” says Flyer editor Dennis Freeland. “We’ve published lots of stuff that should have been more inflammatory than this cartoon.”

“The thing I regret is that the cartoon is open to misinterpretation by not very bright people. And it has given some of these people a crowbar to use against some of these papers.” – Dan Perkins (aka “Tom Tomorrow”)
Photo by Roy Cajero
Freeland and other editorial staff members have received numerous phone calls, but so far only a few letters to the editor. At least one person, Pat Cowden, targeted around 15 Flyer advertisers with a fax proclaiming, “I choose not to do business with those who would support such trash!” Cowden, who lives in Knoxville and does not consider herself an activist, says she travels to Memphis frequently and that she “was very surprised” when she picked up the Flyer and saw the cartoon.

“I cannot imagine supporting a paper that would print something like that,” she says. “I think things like that are personal.”

At press time, two Flyer distribution points had been pulled and one advertiser, National Bank of Commerce, had discontinued its advertising with the paper. NBC also discontinued its ads with the Nashville Scene, which ran the cartoon on April 16th. Kathy Edmundson, who handles NBC’s advertising for the Rutland Simmons Group, says the campaign had simply run its course. “They have not said to me they killed it [the campaign] because of the cartoon.” In both cases, however, the ads were pulled mid-contract. At press time, NBC had not returned a request for comment.

Would Freeland run the cartoon again?

“I asked in a staff meeting after we got complaints and not a single editorial staff member said they would have pulled the cartoon,” he says.

Flyer publisher Kenneth Neill had this to say about the controversy:

“When you commit to run a nationally syndicated columnist or cartoonist on a regular basis, that’s sort of a commitment to let him do with that space what he will. If the person does things that you find repugnant, the option you have is to stop running his work. But to single out a single cartoon and veto it is a difficult call.”

Perkins has prepared a cartoon responding, in particular, to the reaction in Oklahoma City.


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