BeloWatch

What happened to 'Dilbert'
One day it was there, in its usual, reassuring place, between "Wizard of Id" and "Curtis."

The next day, it was gone, wiped from Dallas nerds' essential reality without so much as an explanatory word.

BeloWatch is speaking, of course, about "Dilbert," the popular cartoon chronicling the random contemplations of a corporate techno-nerd and his overaggressive pet, Dogbert. Dilbert is one of America's hottest strips, the product of creator Scott Adams' daily reality; Adams is a 37-year-old applications engineer who works in a cubicle at Pacific Bell in Dublin, California. Dilbert now appears in 400 U.S. newspapers, including--on most days--the Dallas Morning News.

But Thursday, March 4, was not a normal day.
Dilbert disappeared from its usual space on the left side of page 9C; four other strips were spread out to fill its space in the column.

Angry readers who called the News were advised that editors had yanked the cartoon because they found it offensive in light of the bombing in Oklahoma City. Such a reaction was surprising. Rather than offering politically charged satire of current events, like Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," Dilbert usually gently lampoons the foibles of modern corporate culture. But in this case, a distant relationship to events in Oklahoma City was enough to prompt the oh-so-sensitive News to yank it.

BeloWatch wanted to reproduce the entire strip the News wouldn't let Dallas see. (It was published, as usual, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and hundreds of other American newspapers without any massive outpouring of complaint.) But United Feature Syndicate, which distributes Dilbert, declined to grant permission--out of, well, deference to Dallas' Only Daily. "I don't want the Dallas Morning News upset with us," Amy Lago, managing editor of comic art, told BeloWatch. "I don't want them to feel that they're losing what they're buying."

Under the fair-use doctrine of copyright law--trust us, it's not worth explaining--BeloWatch is thus able to publish only one of the strip's three panels, and must describe the rest.

First the background: Dogbert, it seems, has decided to become a talk radio host, "to pursue my goal of world domination" and "promote my unique conservative viewpoint that people are idiots who deserve to be mocked."

The censored strip begins with Dilbert listening in his car to the resulting "Dogbert show," as Dogbert begins to discuss getting government "off our backs." The second panel appears below. (Its reference to alcohol, tobacco, and firearms is being interpreted as Dogbert's veiled attack on the ATF.)

In the third panel, Dogbert expresses his satisfaction with "anything" that "gets rid of people," and ends his comments by urging listeners to buy his book.

And that's it.
The strip was drawn in February, long before the Oklahoma City bombing, according to syndicate editor Lago. Its reference to the ATF is vague, its satiric echo of comments by G. Gordon Liddy obviously coincidental.

But offensive? On Friday, in response to a published letter of complaint from a self-professed "ill-coiffed, pocket protector-wearing, nerd engineer" from Plano, the News published an editor's note explaining its decisive action: "The Dilbert comic strip for May 4, which was drawn much earlier, inadvertently had a comment that could be seen as insensitive in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing."

Oklahoma City was the scene of a monumental American tragedy. But aren't we going a little far here? Is the News now going to yank anything that "could be seen as insensitive"?

Though the syndicate sent papers an alternative strip to use, in expectation that some might have a problem with it (the News apparently did not get the replacement in time), Lago says she is surprised at the News' decision. "Editors sometimes don't have faith in their readers being able to discern material," Lago told BeloWatch. "As a provider of a service, we want to help editors in their job. But by the same token, it's sometimes unfair to read reactions into readers that may not be there.

"To me, it seemed like the Dallas Morning News didn't have faith that their readers would be able to tell this was a sendup of talk-show hosts and had nothing to do with the Oklahoma bombing. But they're in Dallas, and I'm in New York. They had every right to decide that.

"In general," she added, "this country seems to be in an overly sensitive mode."

Cartoonist Scott Adams told BeloWatch he's received 50 e-mail letters from Dallas, most complaining that the News had censored the strip.

But that is the News' right, he noted. "That's a cold business decision. Would I have made the same decision? No, because I have a higher tolerance for controversy. If you're the editor of a newspaper, and your phone is ringing off the hook, you've got more basic things to worry about."

Some who read the strip have complained that he is a conservative-hating liberal, Adams added. In fact, he is intensely non-ideological; he says he is "pro-gun" and favors "the death penalty for double parking."

Dilbert is simply being misinterpreted, Adams concluded. "What I really am making fun of in the strip is that people get really excited and leap to conclusions without having the information--that people can demagogue without having a lot of information.

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