March 27, 2023

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Kudos to KC Star on the courage to say ‘we were wrong’

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Give a tip of the hat to Kansas City Star Assistant City Editor Maria Martin.

Last week the Star ran an editorial cartoon in their “913 section” by freelance cartoonist Bob Unell that showed a pair of Holstein cattle (commonly used to produce milk). One cow asked, “Who needs to go all the way to China to catch a dangerous pathogen?” and the other responding “Yeah, when you can drink our raw milk right here in Kansas!”

As a former newspaper editor, I thought it was a bit strong to conflate raw (unpasteurized) milk with the COVID19 coronavirus.

In fairness, yes, the risk of contracting a food-borne illness from raw milk may be higher than with pasteurized milk — although more often associated with raw milk cheese than the milk itself.  Still, the CDC admits that “from 2007 through 2012, 26 states reported 81 outbreaks linked to raw milk. The outbreaks caused 979 illnesses and 73 hospitalizations.”

In a country of more than 300 million, those numbers are astonishingly small. Moreover, Kansas has allowed the sales of raw milk for decades, but a 1967 law made it a crime to advertise the sale of raw milk. Kansas Justice Institute sued on behalf of Mark and Coraleen Bunner and had the law ruled unconstitutional.  Kansas dairy farmers responded by proposing a ban on the sale of raw milk but the Senate has now passed a bill that would simply require an “unpasteurized” label on any raw milk sold. 

I called Martin to ask if she felt that cartoon had perhaps gone a bit far. To her credit, while defending Unell’s right to his opinion (and political cartoons are, indeed, just that) she agreed that she should have taken a closer look at it.

“Yeah, you know, in retrospect … I have to bow down and say, ‘I think that is too strong,'” she said Tuesday. “And I just sort of okayed it too quickly without really thinking about it. I do say that it’s his opinion. I don’t want to strip him of his right to, you know, his creativity.

“I should have screened it better. You know, I like to say that I’d like to admit when I’m wrong, or when I could have made a difference. Again, it’s an opinion piece. I can’t say that it’s wrong, but I think it’s a stretch that maybe we went too far on.”

And that is fair. After a nearly 30-year career in the newspaper business — much of it as an editor — I ran hundreds if not thousands of editorial cartoons. I tried to screen them carefully, but every once in a while one slips through that’s just a bit too much.

Depending on circumstances, sometimes you dig your heels in and defend it, sometimes you — as Martin did here — say “whoops, I screwed up, that’s on me.”

So kudos to Martin and the Star for having the guts to say admit when a cartoon went too far.

I did reach out to Unell via Facebook, but he is apparently on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.

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