Luis Cruz: Welcome to “San Diego News Fix: The Backstory.” Hundreds of newspapers across the country, including The San Diego Union-Tribune have either stopped or will stop running the “Dilbert” comic strip after its creator made racist comments during a YouTube livestream last week. Joining us to discuss the offensive remarks and the decision to stop running the “Dilbert” comic strip are Union-Tribune managing editor Lora Cicalo and Angela de Joseph, founder of Women of Color Roar, a nonpartisan multimedia organization that supports, nurtures and encourages Black women to seek careers in public service and run for political office. Also joining us is former Union-Tribune staffer Michael Cavna. Michael is now a visual artist and comic art writer at The Washington Post. And we begin with publisher and editor Jeff Light.
Jeff Light: OK, Luis, let’s jump right into it. I think Michael, you’re the right one to give the background on the story. You’ve written about these events and the cartoon industry and have worked at the same syndicate as Scott Adams. So, just bring us all up to date on what’s gone on here in the last week.
Michael Cavna: Thank you, Jeff. This current firestorm – which has a long arc, a long backstory, to cite the name of what we’re doing here today – is that last Wednesday, Scott (Adams), using his “Real Coffee” YouTube show, began citing a Rasmussen poll and interpreting it in drawing conclusions to basically say that if you are a Black American, you are a part of a hate group, based on stats. The question revolved around the phrase or slogan “It’s OK to be White,” which has roots to 2017, 4chan, trolling; the Anti-Defamation League has called it a hate slogan.
So, you’re basically loading a poll by using what is known to be a hate slogan. On Saturday, as this blew up and on Friday, the editor of cleveland.com/the Plain Dealer was one of the most vocal in canceling “Dilbert” over this and being very vocal. That really was part of the kerosene here. By Saturday, hundreds of papers were canceling “Dilbert,” including my Washington Post and, for full transparency, I got my start as a cartoonist at the Union-Tribune. And, yes, in the ’90s, I was signed to the same syndicate as Scott and we had the same editor. That all goes to show that as I was reporting this out Saturday, I texted Scott Adams; he did acknowledge that if someone wants to question the data of the poll, that’s fair, but he was very adamant about his points. He has doubled down on those points in subsequent days. Basically, his quote was that he advised White people to “get the hell away from (Black) people.”
Subsequently, his syndicate, publishers and newspapers and other people he has business ties with said, “Look, we can’t be in business with someone who promotes segregation, or resegregation, and someone who is spewing hate speech, promoting racism.” Scott texted me on Saturday and I said, “What’s your client list like? You used to have 2,000 papers,” and he said, “By Monday around zero.” So, this felt like a very tactical move on his part. He knew he was going to lose all this business. He went on “Hotep Jesus” on Saturday and said, “Why am I doing this? Is it for laughs? It’s not for laughs.” He said, “It’s not for reputation. It’s not for money. I never do anything for one reason.” Scott is, many would say, a provocateur, a troller. And he texted me, “Look for the third act.” This feels like maybe this entire last week has felt like intentional provocation.
Jeff Light: It did have a bit of that flavor. Pretty ugly. Let’s come back in a second to some more of the backstory on this that I think Michael can help us with, including Rasmussen, which was a revelation to me about what’s going on there. But let’s first turn to you, Angela. Let me just ask you, so we’ve seen this cartoonist off on his YouTube channel sharing his ugly views. Why should the rest of us care about this guy’s prejudices? Or why does it really matter – from a social point of view and from a media point of view?
Angela de Joseph: There are two things going on here. One is that he said the quiet part out loud, and as an African American, I can tell you that this is evidence of what we’ve been saying all along. We have been saying that racism is alive and well in the United States of America and people say, “No, it’s over. We had a Black president.” But, no, it isn’t. And so what he did, really, is just put it out there, so now you guys have seen it, and you can feel it from him. But one of the things I think was a failing of the media was the normalization of Donald Trump, because Donald Trump was a known racist who had had federal lawsuits for housing discrimination, had made racial comments denigrating a group of people, but yet that was not brought to the front of the people’s attention.
I think that when you see this backlash happening now, I’m glad to see it, because what you’re saying is that we are not in agreement with this, allowing his comic strip to run in your paper. Silence equals consent. By you making a decision to cut his ties – you’re his employer. This is not cancel culture, this is being fired because you are misrepresenting your employer who does not agree with you.
Jeff Light: Yes, it was pretty eye opening to me the . . . I guess I would call it the “Trumpiness” of Rasmussen itself, which is a pollster that I believe that we have run stories about, just as a matter of course. In listening to the head pollster talk about this poll, it was sort of an attack on critical race theory. It was an attack and critical race theory. And if you listen to his commentary, he’s got a strong agenda – “Therefore we have proven . . .” We can get into the question about “It’s OK to be White,” if I’ve got the phrase right, and why they included it and how the Rasmussen pollster sort of weaponized that result in his little spiel, which I think predated the “Dilbert” guy’s spiel. A lot of that is very closely aligned, Angela, and was pretty interesting to see.
Lora Cicalo, as the managing editor, tell me a little bit about this decision making. I don’t think this one was very hard for you or for me, but where do we draw that line? To what extent do you police, know about, or care about the beliefs of the cartoonists, or other employees for that matter?
Lora Cicalo: I wouldn’t say I’m policing the beliefs of our employees or vendors. But, Angela makes an excellent point that this is a transactional relationship that we have with the syndicate, and by extension, the cartoonist. One thing I will point out, our decision, as you said, was exceptionally easy, and the response that we’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly supportive. There have been some comments – both on our story on the website and that I have read in other media – questioning whether or not this is infringing on his First Amendment rights, and that is conflating the issues here.
This is not a First Amendment issue. He can continue to spew racism and hatred on his YouTube channel; Elon Musk seems quite willing to give him a platform on Twitter – he was very supportive yesterday in his comments. But we do not need – in any way – to support him, to further his career, just as Penguin Books (his publisher) doesn’t need to further his career by publishing an upcoming book. I think something that is in such opposition to our core values, we don’t need to support in any way, shape or form. To me, it was not a difficult decision, and it is not in any way a reflection of our support for the First Amendment. This is support for the Union-Tribune and our community and our values.
Jeff Light: Yes, and I think, in particular, here is a person who’s using his platform, the public attention that he gains by being a widely distributed cartoonist, including in the Union-Tribune, to promote these hateful, divisive and, in my opinion, misguided ideas. And I would also say, ideas that were purposely sort of ginned up to promote the divisiveness and disinformation, right?
Michael, I just wanted to get back to you because you have a lot of information about Scott’s career – sort of the arc that you’ve seen. A little bit you intimated that maybe we could have seen this coming.
Michael Cavna: Well, I based it on my reporting, and covering the comics industry, you know, I hear a lot. One of the most interesting interviews I had over the weekend was with “Jumpstart” creator Rob Armstrong, who was signed to the same syndicate at the time (United Media) as Scott was. They launched at the same time, they were friends. Armstrong is one of the most prominent Black syndicated cartoonists we have working today and is now moving into television production with CBS, so we’ll hear more from him.
When I reached him, he considered himself a friend of Scott’s; they hung out with Charles Schulz in the ’90s. Scott Adams even blurbed Rob’s 2016 book and called it insightful and just a particularly wonderful look – and insightful look – at the insider life of a cartoonist. So, this is, for someone like Rob Armstrong – by the way, his name even inspired the last name of Franklin in “Peanuts,” that is how he is embedded in comics culture – he told me that he thought it was a prank when one of his actor friends last week told them what Scott had said about race relations and hate groups and segregation. He told me he was shook, he was hurt, he shed a few tears, and then he said, “To find out your friend or once-upon-a-time a friend was a soulless, heartless racist,” he said, “it broke my heart.” But he said, “I won’t be inviting him to the rap party for my TV show.”
I interviewed Scott’s editor in the ’90s, his main editor of “Dilbert,” and she told me, “Look, at the time he seemed like he was a satirically sharp cartoonist.” What she told me over the weekend is, “but we have no place for comments from him that involve things that are immoral, unethical and illegal.” What I’ve noticed is I interviewed Scott in 2015, 2016, and what he told me was, essentially, that it was one of the most thrilling years of his life because he was really leaning into being YouTube pundit, leaning into the politics, at one point, endorsing Trump, telling me that he thought Trump was almost like a master cultural hypnotist and truth teller. Essentially, what Scott was saying is that he was more invested in being a provocative pundit at that point then he was in being a cartoonist.
Jeff Light: Angela, you were pointing out that you felt that if you followed Scott Adams’ career, there were some danger signs along the way.
Angela de Joseph: That was something that I saw this morning on Twitter; people can investigate it for themselves. But what I wanted to get back to is when you mentioned that Elon Musk was supporting him, there’s nothing surprising about that. Elon Musk is somebody from South Africa whose family profited off of apartheid. Also, Elon Musk, Tesla was famously sued in 2017. The Black person who sued them was awarded by a federal jury $137 million, because of having the N-word said to him at work out loud 30 times, having a culture of racism at Tesla. Fifteen other people came out last year who are also suing Tesla for racial discrimination. There is a culture under Elon Musk. So he and Scott are aligned in their ideology, and Trump is aligned in that ideology.
The rise of the Tea Party and the types of images that were put out about Michelle Obama, the type of language that was used against him when President Obama was the president, and what we saw happening with Kamala Harris when she was running, these are the underlying things that go on when you’ve got systemic racism in your society that’s not rooted out. When they bubble up to the surface like this, particularly with somebody who has a platform like this, suddenly we’re all paying attention. But we need to get back to the root cause of racism, and that is, there’s a gap in understanding and education. And when you see it in the media and it’s normalized, the next generation thinks it’s OK to use that kind of language, that it’s OK to be racist because it’s normalized.
Jeff Light: Yes, I think that’s an important point for people like me, because when I see something like this Scott Adams “prank” – I guess that’s not the right word – but there’s part of it that appears to me purposely calculated to win attention and sort of set himself on fire in front of the audience to draw the rest of us into a conversation about his ideas by denouncing him and then also by winning his own adherents as part of this whole bonfire, right? So, a little part of my reaction is I always, in this kind of situation, have a little hesitancy to jump in to be baited into that conversation. And, yet, I think it is important to do for the reasons that Angela is sharing.
Michael Cavna: One thing I wanted to note was that, part and parcel with this is how people view comic strips. It’s seen as a very friendly and approachable commercial art. There are historical occasions. Garry Trudeau was launched, specifically, as a political strip – transparent. I’ve interviewed him often about this. But historically, we have creators like Al Capp, who did “Li’l Abner,” and Harold Gray with “Little Orphan Annie,” who, what Mike Peterson, the industry blogger, told me, their anti-social views and their bitter politics seeped into their comics. The problem is, in that era, comics were in mainstream culture, they were part of daily conversation; less so now.
So, what happens is, I moderated multiple times, Congressman John Lewis – may he rest in power – he believed in the power of comics as a way of teaching with his civil rights memoir “March” and subsequently, “Run.” And I remember moderating him in a big hall, and he stopped me and said, “Thank you, Michael, not only for the power of your pen, but for the power of your mind.” And what he was saying was not a compliment but was a mission. What he was saying is the power of the cartoon image – he was reached as a boy, he said, growing up in the era of Emmett Till – he said that had profound effect on him, but so did a comic book referencing Martin Luther King and the Montgomery story. He couldn’t get a library card until much later, when he had his own graphic novel in the last 12 years, and went back and got a library card at the same library that had been segregated. The point of this is the power of the image.
Even though “Dilbert” may not be a “kids strip,” we still have to be very careful monitoring in comics – in 2023 – what is being said. I don’t mean monitoring like free speech, because it’s an issue, really, of a free market and consequences of the free market. But what I will say is, you bear responsibility – all editors bear responsibility – what are we not being mindful of in what is often considered childlike images? If it were a movie, there would have been much more discussion. I believe that if Scott Adams were a major filmmaker, if he were a major TV show runner, if he were a prominent prose author, I think a lot of this would have been examined much sooner.
Jeff Light: Yes, I agree with that. And you know, I also take to heart the role you’re pointing out, which is that as editors, like the curator of a museum or the head of a book publishing house, we’re acting as cultural gatekeepers on whose voices are heard. So, for me, when I look at the comics – which I’m not a comics reader – and they’re coming in from these syndicates and they’ve been in there, most of them, for decades, they’re very low on my list of things to scrutinize. But as you’re pointing out, that in itself is an endorsement of everything that’s there. And I think this was a little bit to Angela’s point as well – whose voices are being centered and when we see racist views, misogyny, ugly ideas from the creator, we just can’t center those voices in our work. Certainly an ugly chapter this week.