Friday, December 25, 2015

Over the Line

"I have to admit yesterday when I saw that cartoon — not much ticks me off but making fun of my girls, that'll do it."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas)

I have always been an advocate of the First Amendment.

Now, I was brought up to believe in all of the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, but the First Amendment has always been my thing. That is no surprise, I guess, given my background; ordinarily, I will come down on the side of freedom of speech and freedom of the press over just about anything else.

When I was in college, I took what amounted to an exception–free stance. I saw no circumstances in which freedom of the press or freedom of speech could justifiably be abridged. To do so, I felt, was contrary to the concept of true liberty.

As time has passed, though, my positions have modified, and I have come to believe that there are limits. Freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater — to actively encourage public hysteria. There is the greater good to be considered.

And freedom of the press does not give anyone the right to publish anything. People who are in the public eye are one thing. Most of them chose to be where they are — there are exceptions, of course, but I'm not talking about people who are thrust into the spotlight through no choice of their own. I'm talking about politicians, movie stars, professional athletes. They knew — or should have known — what to expect. But usually their families are off limits.

The Washington Post crossed that line with its cartoon of Ted Cruz and his two young daughters this week.

Now, it is important to remember that there is no law that prevents a publication from running a cartoon on any topic the editor and/or the editorial board desire. There is no legal obligation for any newspaper or magazine or TV program to avoid mentioning a politician's children, but there is a moral one. It is the guideline of good taste and sound judgment, and it is a line that most news outlets, regardless of their editorial leanings, will not cross. This week the Washington Post went over the line.

One can debate, I suppose, Cruz's judgment in using his children in one of his television commercials, but the truth is that he is far from the first politician to do so. In fact, I can't recall a truly serious candidate for the presidency in my lifetime, whether he was his party's nominee or not, who did not use his family in his campaign. And I can't recall a single candidate for a lesser office, from my developmental years in Arkansas through my adult years in Oklahoma and Texas, who didn't bring forth the family during the campaign. Photo ops, TV commercials, rallies, the spouse and kids were everywhere — especially if they were photogenic.

This is the first time in my memory, however, that a candidate's children were attacked editorially for participating in that candidate's campaign advertising.

The editor of the Post tried to wriggle out of it by observing that, because Cruz had used his family in a Christmas–themed political commercial, he could understand why cartoonist Ann Telnaes thought the Post's prohibition on such depictions of a prominent politician's children had been lifted, at least in this case. He admitted failing to review the cartoon before it was published and said he disagreed with Telnaes' assessment.

"When a politician uses his children as political props, as Ted Cruz recently did in his Christmas parody video in which his eldest daughter read (with her father's dramatic flourish) a passage of an edited Christmas classic, then I figure they are fair game."

Ann Telnaes
Washington Post cartoonist

But the damage has been done, and the Post now acknowledges that the episode was a "gift" to the Cruz campaign, which has criticized the media for its double standard in its coverage of Democrats and Republicans. It gives him lots of ammunition to whip up the faithful in the weeks and months ahead. It may give Cruz added momentum heading into the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

I can only imagine the outcry if Barack Obama's daughters were portrayed in an editorial cartoon as monkeys.

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