M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

Cat scratch fever

with 3 comments

Jim Davis wants you to know that he really, really — really — regrets yesterday’s “Garfield” strip, which some people thought might be offensive to veterans.

That’s “Garfield” — representative of all that’s safe and bland in the comics world — and “offensive to veterans” in the same sentence.

If that seems unlikely, there’s a reason. It turns out the strip offended nearly no one, veterans included. All it did was create a manufactured mini-controversy based on journalists’ assumptions that it would — substantiating my hypothesis that we’re frequently skipping basic reporting steps in our eagerness to stay up to Web speed.

(Background: The “Garfield” site is running as slow as molasses, but if you can get in, the strip’s available here in context. It’s also reproduced in the msnbc.com post I put together.

(In it, the presumably squished spider from the first two panels asks his fellow spiders “why we celebrate National Stupid Day.” The problem: Yesterday — “National Stupid Day” to the talking spiders in “Garfield” — was Veterans Day. Davis quickly issued an apologetic statement, which is also reproduced in full in my msnbc.com post.)

My Twitter and Facebook feeds duly filled up with comments calling the strip “controversial” and warning that Davis was going to be in a lot of trouble because people would be offended.

“As you know, in today’s world, some things offend some people and not others,” Kim Campbell, Davis’s PR representative, told me.

This time, it turned out it was “not others.”

If you did actual searches for reaction to the comic on Google, Twitter and Facebook, what you found was that nearly everyone learned about the “controversy” from someone else who’d written something along the lines of “I get that it’s a simple mistake, but boy, people” — by implication, other people, who are, you know, stupid — “are going to be pissed off.”

In other words, there was a prediction of offense, but almost no actual offense. Comments on my msnbc.com post ran about 9:1 like this:

• “I don’t think spiders are happy about being abused by cats….the news item should be captioned ‘cartoonist accused of bullying insects'”

• “I’m a veteran and read the comic this morning. It never crossed my mind that I should be offended. I was surprised to read the article and find out someone is upset; maybe they need to eat a pan of lasagna, crawl into their cat box and take a long nap.”

• “Saw the cartoon this morning, laughed, and never, never associated it with Veterans’ Day. As a vet, I don’t look for shots at our service. I think most people appreciate what veterans have done, and are doing. I served in Nam for two years, and my son is a lifer Marine. Love Garfield.”

• “I may not be the brightest flare floating over the perimeter wire but I aint the dullest either. I just dont see any connection between this cartoon and Veterans Day. I am a veteran of 2 branches and I think I woulda been offended if this cartoon was a slight about us in any way. But its not. Just a cartoon about Garfied and a spider.”

• And my favorite: “I just hope Heathcliff tries him for war crimes.”

There are two lessons from this:

One: When we try to jump out in front of a story that looks like it’s going to be hot online, we cut corners. Step 1 should have been to ask around to see whether anyone was actually insulted. If yes, proceed to Step 2: talk to some of them and run their concerns by the folks at Garfield.com. Step 3: Write about it.

We all started at Step 3. We probably shouldn’t do that.

Two: When we’re donning our public online faces, we all think we’re smarter and more tolerant than the other guy. Simple statistics suggests that most of us are wrong.

But then, not a lot journalists are trained in statistics, either.

Written by Alex

November 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

3 Responses

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  1. You are so wrong. You do not know how much this hurt veterans, especially since it was published on Veterans Day. I know it is fashionable to ridicule those conscripted into World War II, the Korean war and Vietnam, but I for one was offended.

    roger smith

    November 12, 2010 at 12:08 pm

  2. “I know it is fashionable to ridicule those conscripted into World War II, the Korean war and Vietnam…”

    No, it’s not.

    It might be “fashionable” to mock people who make things up, as you just did, but that’s unrelated to their being veterans.


    November 12, 2010 at 12:44 pm

  3. I have been trying to find more intoamrfion on my grandfather and came across your website regarding compiling a list for your RNZN Communicators Honours List. Maybe my grandfather’s BEM may be of interest. Unfortunately the letter from Captain M L Hardie, Naval Officer in Charge only stated for your service in HMNZS Dockyard, Auckland. , however I believe Jack,(as he was known) had something to do with the refuelling/bunkering during the 2nd World War and until his retirement.He was possibly on the Nucula’ in the late 1920 s??Details are:Charles Stanley YATES retired from HMNZ Dockyard Auckland in 1953Awarded British Empire Medal (Civil Division), New Year’s Honours List 1954 Presented by Her Majesty The Queen at an Investiture in Wellington 12 January, 1954.


    May 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm

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