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Herald-Sun zonks self with Doonesbury

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The Durham Herald-Sun had a Groundhog Day moment on its editorial pages last week--Tuesday's Doonesbury was there again Wednesday. An astute Herald-Sun reader emailed with a reasonable question: Censorship at work?

Nope. A technological breakdown. Editorial page editor Bob Wilson said he was irritated at "the electronic screw-up," but it was nothing more than that.

"Anyone who pulls [Doonesbury] would be at risk of losing their job," he said. Wilson also was irritated at receiving only one e-mail complaint, from our astute reader. Doonesbury fans should count their blessings. Herald-Sun Executive Editor Bill Hawkins permanently discontinued Boondocks last March because of its anti-war content during the invasion of Iraq.

Both the Tuesday and Wednesday Doonesbury strips were lovely little screeds on GWB and WMDs, but the missing Wednesday strip was a tad nastier than Tuesday's. That day's unseen Doonesbury was particularly pointed, with Jeff Redfern, the little CIA intern, asking Zonker's half-brother, Zipper, "So what do you say after invading another country by mistake?" And Zipper, responds, wide-eyed, "Oops, my bad. Sorry about all the dead people?"

Those of us of a certain age are rightly suspicious. We have many memories of newspapers getting angry or scared of losing readers--or both--and pulling Doonesbury while pontificating about politics, vulgarity and the crossing of some invisible line only they knew the exact location of (it's a line triggered, I believe, after five threats of canceled subscriptions). Apparently, comic strip characters are supposed to lead lives of regressive desperation rather than lively political purpose. And so, we were all forced to glumly read Family Circus, Gil Thorp and Blondie.

From the moment in 1972 that Zonker ended a fairy tale to one of his day-care charges by explaining that the protagonist was rewarded with "fine, uncut Turkish hashish," the strip would occasionally fall out like a loose tooth from comics pages. The next year it happened again, during the Watergate scandals, when Mark Slackmeyer, the gonzo radio guy, declared former Attorney General John Mitchell "Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!!"

It happened during Watergate; during the wonderful weeks we got the tour of "The Mysterious World of Reagan's Brain"; during Andy Lippincott's dying of AIDS; during Dan Quayle's DEA file days; and, most recently, a Sunday strip declaring that, based on a well-circulated medical study, "self-dating" could decrease a man's chances of prostate cancer.

But ultimately, something happened on the way to the little round file. Trudeau was moved to the editorial pages of newspapers concerned about children accidentally ingesting trenchant political commentary with their Frosted Flakes.

Now about a third of the 1,400 newspapers that run Doonesbury run it on the editorial page--effectively ending much of debate over politics and community standards. Not surprisingly, that includes the Durham Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. Of course, even some editorial pages apparently can't always take Doonesbury unexpurgated. Last August, a Greensboro News & Record editorial page editor felt obliged, much to Trudeau's displeasure, to put dashes in place of a word he felt was unnecessarily crude (thereby allowing the mentally agile to imagine even cruder language).

So I will take the liberty of borrowing the fortunate phrasing of Doonesbury's soldier in Iraq, who expresses the following sentiment while he watches one of his comrades blown up. I'll simply apply it to comic strip censorship.

"Would I characterize that as sucking? Heavens, yes!"

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