In her Sunday column, Times Free Press managing editor Alison Gerber asked readers to give her feedback about the paper. Gerber said a “just-formed committee” of newsroom staffers will be reviewing every detail of the TFP—”what we do well, what we can tweak, what we ought to completely blow up.” If public reaction to one of Clay Bennett’s latest editorial cartoons is any indication, Gerber has likely already received numerous requests to add his work to the “blow up” list.
The cartoon in question ran in Saturday’s paper. It features an empty chair bearing the name of late Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon. Sitting on the ground next to the chair is a ventriloquist dummy version of fellow General Sessions Court Judge David Bales. The cartoon is a swipe at Judge Bales, calling him out as a puppet for Judge Moon.
Although a few commenters on Facebook and the TFP site have offered praise to Bennett for the piece, the majority of the feedback has been negative. Really negative. Bennett’s response on Facebook to some of the critics—“I'm sorry that the actual meaning of the cartoon seems to be so irrelevant to your opinion of it”—has had little effect. They view the piece as a slap at Judge Moon, and an ill-timed one at that. (The cartoon ran in the paper on the same day as Judge Moon’s funeral.) One commenter wrote that Bennett “has reached a new low.” Another called him “a cruel human being” with a “true lack of character.” Several vowed to cancel their subscriptions.
Could Bennett have gone a different way with the cartoon? Sure. Maybe, as one person suggested, he could have paid tribute to “Judge Moon's dedication and volunteering with the Boys and Girls Clubs” or “his passion for conserving and protecting our outdoors.” Bennett may have even chosen to illustrate how Judge Moon “handed out tough sentences to some young people only to offer help to them afterward to get [their] lives straight.”
Bennett could have chosen to make any of the above points, but he didn’t. He offered a completely different take—his take—and as an editorial cartoonist, that’s his job. Bennett is paid to express his opinions about the news of the day, and in this instance, he used Judge Moon’s untimely passing as the backdrop for a critique of Judge Bales. He made no attack on Judge Moon that I can tell. (If I’m wrong, feel free to enlighten me in the comments below.)
Strong opinions produce both strong agreement and strong disagreement, and for those in the media who deal in opinion, trust and integrity are worth more than consensus or popularity. While Bennett’s pieces are memorable for the copious amounts of ire and praise they engender, they would be equally forgettable if he decided to trade his convictions for applause.
I have seen virtually every cartoon Clay Bennett has contributed to the Times Free Press, and it’s safe to say that we disagree on a great many issues. I’m not alone in this regard. But while Bennett does have his fair share of detractors, he also has many fans. As he should. He’s a talented artist who does a superb job of presenting his views.
Although my interaction with Judge Moon was limited, I do know that he didn’t shy away from hearing or sharing opinions. When I was a newspaper editor, he was the only judge who ever cold-called me to express his ideas about what we were covering or what he thought we should be covering. And I appreciated that. Something tells me that although he’d probably give Clay Bennett an earful, he wouldn’t try to get him fired.
May Judge Moon rest in peace. May this controversy, as well.
How reader feedback works
Does anybody else find it odd that the Times Free Press is now asking for reader feedback just a few weeks after it disabled the commenting feature on a huge portion of the articles appearing on its website?
I dunno. Maybe it’s just me ...
Bill Colrus writes about local news, culture, music and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.