By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

It’s time for the Herald to close the circle

Update: I’m not sure when this was added, but Herald editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen tells Romenesko that she vetted the cartoon: “Herald editorial page editor Rachelle Cohen tells me neither she nor artist Jerry Holbert saw anything wrong with the cartoon. ‘Jerry doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,’ she says. He chose watermelon because he had just seen that flavor of toothpaste in his house, says Cohen.” So now we have the cartoonist and his editor both claiming that they didn’t see any racist intent in the watermelon reference. At best, this speaks to a lack of diversity in the newsroom.

To their credit, the folks at the Boston Herald clearly and quickly understood that they had a problem on their hands Wednesday after publishing an editorial cartoon by Jerry Holbert that was racist in its effect, if not in Holbert’s intent. The cartoon depicted an intruder in a White House bathroom asking President Obama if he had “tried the new watermelon-flavored toothpaste.”

Holbert went on the newspaper’s online radio station to apologize, and said he understood he compounded his error when he failed to notify the Herald that his syndicate had told him to alter the cartoon so as to eliminate the racial inference. And today, the paper publishes a straightforward apology. On the editorial page, Holbert apologizes again.

But now it’s time for the Herald to close the circle. Even if Holbert didn’t understand why African-Americans are offended by stereotypes of black people as placid, happy watermelon-eaters, are we to believe that editorial cartoons somehow leap onto the pages of the Herald with no intervention on the part of editors?

Here is an excerpt from a well-sourced article at Wikipedia:

While the exact origins of this stereotype remain unclear, an association of African Americans and watermelon goes back to the time of slavery in the United States. Defenders of slavery used the fruit to paint African Americans as a simple-minded people who were happy when provided watermelon and a little rest. The stereotype was perpetuated in minstrel shows often depicting African Americans as ignorant and workshy, given to song and dance and inordinately fond of watermelon.

I agree with my WGBH colleague Emily Rooney of “Greater Boston,” who said last night (above) that she believes Holbert when he says he had no racial intent — but that someone at the Herald should have caught it before publication. The Herald should tell us who approved the cartoon and why.

In case you missed it, here is how the story unfolded on Wednesday.

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  1. Victor DeRubeis

    Paging the Herald editorial page editor! Hello? Hello? Paging the Herald publisher! Hello? Hello?

  2. Larz Neilson

    Obama has been President of the United States for nearly six years. We are (supposedly) in the 21st Century. Yet there is still an element out there refusing to accept him. They fail to realize their crude humor reflects more on their bigotry and closed-mindedness than on the President or anyone of color.

  3. Dan, I think you’re letting the Herald off the hook here a bit. Even if — and I don’t necessarily take the cartoonist at his word, but let’s pretend — Jerry’s use of the word was innocent, it still had to go by editors, who are trained to pick up on this sort of thing. I have a hard time believing that they let is slide as a “mistake.” Did you read Rachelle Cohen’s obnoxious, wink-winkingly cynical comments to Jim Romenesko? They did this on purpose. They got some national attention, and even a plug for their radio show. They dog-whistled, and now they get to play the victim of the easily-offended liberal press. This is what they DO, and every step of this process was cynical and calculated.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Justin: To be clear, the Herald has to come clean on this and can’t just brazen it out. I want to know who approved this and why.

  4. Aaron Read

    Dan, it’s a little unclear that the still-image in the youtube video at the top of this post shows an African-American woman who is NOT Rachelle Cohen.

    I had to do a little digging until I found this page ( that, I’m reasonably sure, confirms that Ms. Cohen is indeed white.

    If the point is that a black editor would never make this kind of a mistake that a white editor did make, I think extra clarity is called for. 🙂

  5. Kathryn Jackson

    I don’t know what’s in Jerry Holbert’s heart but he’s a political cartoonist! His very existence depends on being plugged into the cultural zeitgeist. It strains belief that he and all of his editors could be that clueless. Remember that photo from a few years back depicting a watermelon patch on the front lawn of the White House (“No Easter Egg hunt this year”)? That was a big story and I believe a mayor in California was forced to resign over. It wasn’t a political cartoonist’s handiwork but it was called out for its brazen racism. Maybe they do live in a bubble over at the Herald. Maybe it wasn’t intentional but it was certainly “allowed.” In publishing this cartoon, they gave a nice “wink-wink” to their readership who loves to see themselves as persecuted victims of the whiny, PC, liberal police (see any comment section on any story on any day in the Herald). They received national media attention and will certainly be heroes of the Fox News/hate radio set for at least the next 24 hours.

  6. Jim Morris

    Whether he is racist or just the most obtuse political cartoonist in history Jerry Holbert is a disgrace and it strains credibility too far to ask us to give him the benefit of the doubt on this. He’s not some yokel from Hooterville who has lived in a cave all his life. He is a syndicated cartoonist for a major newspaper in a major city. He has made his career in the twin fields of journalism and satire. Culture and history are his business and he can not do his job without being well versed in both of them. The racist cartoon was bad enough. Thinking the rest of us are as stupid as he is just makes it worse.

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