Austin Paper Apologizes For Art

By: Joe Strupp

It may be OK to laugh again, but newspapers are finding they still must step gingerly around the terrorist attacks on America. The Austin (Texas) American-Statesman learned the hard way that readers still have raw nerves about Sept. 11. When the paper published its annual review of the local music scene in its Jan. 3 weekly entertainment tab, editors chose cover art that some found inappropriate.

The image of a burning amplifier deliberately evoked the billowing smoke of the World Trade Center towers. Arts Editor Jeff Salamon said the picture was meant to depict a depressing year for area music, which included clubs closing and musicians dying — hardly in the same category as the WTC collapse. “We wanted to get across the sense of loss that was felt around here,” Salamon told E&P. “It came about with the best intentions.”

But shortly after the cover ran, scores of complaints came from readers via e-mail messages and phone calls, partly inflamed by local radio talk shows, some calling for editors to get axed. Editor Rich Oppel had to make amends in his Sunday column Jan. 6. He apologized for the cover, but also blasted the talk shows’ “bumper sticker patriotism,” affirmed that editors need to “take risks” — and declined to fire anyone. “We stubbed a toe,” Oppel told E&P. “We overstepped in our judgment about taste.”

Salamon and Oppel said that the incident demonstrates how hard it is for newspapers to determine public acceptance of any edgy image related to the national tragedy. “It underscores the fragility of feelings that still linger,” Oppel noted. Salamon agreed, but said papers should be allowed to make mistakes: “You have to give some leeway.”

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