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American Journalism Review
Not Funny  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   July/August 2001

Not Funny   

Controversy clouds Union-Tribune cartoonist firing.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     


A CARTOON SHOWING A BIT of bare buttocks starts a string of events that leads to the firing of San Diego Union-Tribune cartoonist Steve Kelley and criticism of the paper's failure to report it.
Kelley says the trouble began when he showed a penciled version of a cartoon to Editorial Page Editor Robert A. Kittle, who objected to the "butt cracks" Kelley had drawn on two teenagers with baggy, drooping pants. When Kelley returned the following day, April 6, with an inked, revised version, he says neither Kittle nor Senior Editor Bill Osborne were in their offices, so he left the cartoon with a third editor, a move that "was not unprecedented."
Kittle says the cartoon was never approved for publication and that he pulled it from the prepared page. Kelley says that on April 9, Osborne accused him of trying to sneak the cartoon into the paper and lying about it. He responded with an obscenity and, after a meeting with Editor Karin Winner, was suspended for two weeks "pending an investigation."
Osborne and Winner declined to discuss what happened, citing legal restrictions.
After weeks of what he calls "back and forth" with the paper over whether he would resign and accept severance in return for silence, Kelley was fired on May 25, with no severance, which he says would have been "hush money." Days later he told his story to a local television station that had contacted him, and a few days after that, the paper ran a news story about the incident, including a quote from Winner saying the paper should have reported on Kelley's departure the day he went on TV. The U-T's readers' representative, Gina Lubrano, chided the paper for being so slow to level with readers. The paper received about 150 letters and dozens of calls.
Kelley says he thinks his firing was partly about his political philosophy, which is "fairly right of center," on an editorial page staff so politically divided "it's like the Middle East."
"That's preposterous," Winner says.
"The whole thing has really concerned procedure, not philosophy," says Herb Klein, editor in chief of parent company Copley Newspapers. "It's not easy to let someone go after this many years.... You just have to enforce the same kind of rules for everybody."
Kelley, 42, a high-profile local figure who conducted part of the interview with AJR via cell phone while playing in a golf tournament, says he can afford to wait for a job he really wants. Meanwhile, he's asked the paper to apologize for its accusations. "This has been my life for 20 years," he says. "I'm proud of what I've done here. I would just like the record corrected."

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