National media were focused in on The University of Texas at Austin in the last week after the Daily Texan, the university’s student newspaper, published a controversial cartoon critiquing media coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting.
The cartoon, which was authored by freshman UT student Stephanie Eisner and posted on the Daily Texan’s website last Tuesday morning, March 27, drew widespread criticism. It described Martin, who was killed in Florida in February, as “colored,” misspelled his name, and voiced a confusing yet strident message regarding the news media’s racial narrative in the coverage of the case.
Gawker took the lead in awarding the Texan “Most Racist Trayvon Martin Cartoon” Tuesday afternoon, directing a tidal wave of traffic to the cartoon on the newspaper’s site. The Texan took the cartoon down for two hours to prevent its site from crashing. The post was replaced later in the day, but it was ultimately taken down for good.
But as tensions mounted Wednesday nationally and on campus, the Texan released an apology, ended its relationship with the cartoonist and met protestors outside their office to apologize in person. About 40 students and faculty gathered outside the newspaper’s office, prompting Managing Editor Audrey White and then members of the editorial board, including Editor-in-Chief Viviana Aldous, to apologize in person.
The cartoon sparked a national discussion about the role of race and political satire in the media. The Houston Chronicle‘s Peggy Fikac laid out the basics of the argument over free speech versus decency in covering race. Kevin Benz, chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association and a UT grad, urged journalists and critics to defend the Daily Texan’s right to publish even if they find the material offensive. But Tim King of Oregon’s Salem-News.com vehemently disputed Benz’s point, calling the cartoon “using the media as a hate crime device.”
The Texan is a student-run publication, and university administrators and advisers have no power of review over it. The editor-in-chief and editorial board reviews all opinion pieces (which the cartoon in question and others by the artist were), while news stories are under the purview of the managing editor. The paper is largely funded by advertising dollars, according to Texas Student Media, its parent organization.