Why the New York Post's Crazed Chimp Cartoon Matters

05/25/2011 01:05 pm ET

It's a refrain I heard a lot while fielding responses and offering commentary on the New York Post's awful cartoon depicting the authors of the Obama administration's economic stimulus package as a crazed chimp killed by police:

This doesn't really matter.

Indeed, when the New York Post finally got around to apologizing for the explosion of vitriol it sparked, one line from the statement stood out for me: "Sometimes a cartoon, is just a cartoon."

That was news to me. Because I thought the reason all of us in media spend so much time sweating over the words and images we put into print and in the airwaves is because this stuff does matter. Tremendously.

Media images can sway a country to war or persuade a nation to buy luxury automobiles. Billion-dollar industries are built on the notion that public image counts for a lot. And if a cartoon is just a cartoon, why wasn't Sean Delonas' work wedged in with that day's Marmaduke and Peanuts panels on the comics page?

Call me old fashioned, but I've always seen major metropolitan newspapers and broadcast news outlets as a reflection of their communities. They are our barometer of the boundaries of our common culture -- who is in and out, who did well and who did wrong.

That's why journalists of color have fought so hard for so long to make media outlets more diverse and more racially aware. Because for too long, media has excluded or misunderstood or misrepresented large swaths of society out of ignorance or disregard, and one of the impacts from Obama's election is confirmation that we all deserve better.

Since I first wrote about the cartoon, I've spoken about it on National Public Radio, fielded comments on my own blog, participated in an online chat organized by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, sent Twitter messages and conversed with a wide circle of friends on Facebook. Opinions seem about evenly divided between those who criticize the cartoon and those who don't see a problem.

But what is remarkable is the passion of those on both sides. And their inability to understand why the other side doesn't agree with them.

This is the kind of uncomfortable discussion about race that our attorney general said we are too cowardly to attempt very often. It is bumpy and sometimes hurtful -- especially when practiced by those more focused on expressing themselves than listening to the other side -- leaving a bitter aftertaste that is difficult to forget.

But these are the conversations we need to have as a culture; a reminder that, increasingly, there are different sensibilities out there demanding respect and attention, especially from a major news outlet in America's most diverse city.

In the end, that may be what undoes the thinking which produced both the cartoon and the Post's muted reaction. Owner Rupert Murdoch knows he needs to stay on the new administration's good side to keep regulators from interfering too often with whatever new media revolution the mogul has up his sleeve.

And if the spectre of a negative Obama reaction inspires Uncle Rupe to make some changes at the Post to help editors make better decisions, well that's a wonderful side benefit from our newfound governmental diversity, too.

Let's be honest: At a time when the newspaper industry is drowning in red ink, can the New York Post really afford to shrug off an image that has inspired so much anger and condemnation as "just a cartoon?"