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Censorship Isn't Funny


Ever since its launch in 1970, Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip has pushed the envelope with frank, daring - and funny - examinations of contemporary issues.

A couple of weeks ago "Doonesbury" pushed the envelope a little too far for a lot of newspapers, including The Oregonian and Bend's only daily, The Bulletin.

The offending strips focused on a batshit-crazy Texas law that requires women seeking an abortion to see ultrasound images of the fetus. In some cases obtaining such images requires inserting a probe-like instrument (called a "shaming wand" in the "Doonesbury" strip) into the woman's vagina.

The "Doonesbury" strips contained some blunt language - words like "transvaginal" and "genitals" - but no words or images that were obscene. Nevertheless, the editors at The Bulletin and The Oregonian - and at about 60 other American newspapers - decided they were too hot to handle. They chose instead to publish old alternative strips provided by Trudeau's syndicate.

In a column last Sunday, Bulletin Editor John Costa tried to explain the decision. It wasn't that The Bulletin had any problem with the political position Trudeau was taking, Costa assured his readers. The Texas law, he wrote, is one that "The Bulletin, a pro-choice newspaper, would vehemently oppose editorially if it were proposed in Oregon." (That's comforting, and we intend to hold Mr. Costa to his word if the Oregon Legislature ever becomes loony enough to consider such a bill.)

No, Costa went on to say: The reason Doonesbury couldn't taint the sanctified pages of The Bulletin was that "elements of it ... were not suitable for the predictable readership of the comics page. I didn't think it appropriate that the image of a doctor displaying the instrument he was about to insert in a woman was appropriate for the many youngsters who read the comics pages."

The Oregonian offered a similar line: The strip "went over the line of good taste and humor [by] using graphic language and images inappropriate for a comics page."

The we're-doing-it-to-protect-the-kiddies excuse is lame for a couple of reasons. One is that the days when "the funny pages" were populated by characters like Little Orphan Annie and Donald Duck are long gone; most of the strips that appear today clearly are written for adult, or at least teenage, readers. Also it's hard to picture young children being mature and sophisticated enough to be devotees of "Doonesbury" - and if they are, they're probably not strangers to words like "vagina" and "genitals."

We strongly suspect the real reason The Bulletin and The Oregonian decided to yank "Doonesbury" was fear of catching flak from their more prudish readers. And no doubt they would have.

But so what? A newspaper that doesn't ever take heat from its readers isn't doing its job. If being universally popular is an editor's aim in life he should quit and become a game show host.

The editors of The Bulletin and The Oregonian are male, so we're unable to confer upon them "the wand of shame." Instead, for their cowardly decision on "Doonesbury," they receive a nicely matched pair of BOOTS.

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