The owners of the Bennington Banner were trying to tamp down a firestorm of criticism over a political cartoon in Tuesday's paper that addressed the Las Vegas mass shooting. Top executives of its owner, New England Newspapers, have written public apologies, and the firm's president made a quick trip from company headquarters in Pittsfield, Mass., to Bennington Wednesday to meet with offended readers.
The cartoon, by syndicated cartoonist Randall Enos, included the legend "Whatever Happens In Vegas..." above a drawing of a haphazard pile of bodies, drawn in outline without features, scattered on the ground. More than 1,000 people posted comments on the Banner's Facebook page objecting, in very strong terms, to the publication of the cartoon.
The story has brought widespread attention to the paper — so much so that when you Google "Bennington Banner," the first autofill option is "cartoon." Not only have national media picked it up, but so have papers in Great Britain and Australia.
Enos is an illustrator and cartoonist with more than 60 years of experience. When reached at his Connecticut home Wednesday afternoon, he was apparently unaware of the controversy he had sparked.
"The slogan of Las Vegas came to mind right away," he said, explaining how he created the cartoon. "My first impression was, this is something happening in Vegas that isn't staying in Vegas. The question of gun control will resonate far beyond."
Regarding the illustration, he said, "I was trying to be abstract in characterizing the slaughter, a massive tangle of bodies."
He acknowledged that the cartoon "is a little vague. I'm certainly not insensitive to the brutality of the shooting, but I understand that reaction."
Enos said there's been only one other occasion when he received a lot of negative feedback to a cartoon. When Nelson Mandela died, he said, "I drew a caricature of [him]. Some thought I made him look too ape-like. It was the furthest thing from my mind to do that!"
Enos' work is distributed by Cagle Cartoons, a national syndicator. Local newspapers choose which cartoons they publish, and pay Cagle for each use. Enos' "Whatever Happens In Vegas..." was also published by the Telegraph-Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, which issued an apology as well after many readers objected. It's not known how many other papers may have used it; Cagle has since removed the cartoon from its offerings.
Banner readers filled the paper's Facebook page with vitriolic reactions: "disgusting," "tasteless," "unforgivable," "despicable" and a slew of similar descriptors. Many pointed out that one of the people killed in the attack, Sandy Casey, was a native of the Bennington area, and that the cartoon could be especially hurtful to her friends and family. There were numerous calls for those responsible for its publication to be fired. And many commenters saw the cartoon as a reflection of a liberal, pro-gun control agenda at work.
Kevin Moran, executive editor of New England Newspapers, posted an apology and explanation on the Banner's Facebook page which did little to mollify critics. Another apology, written by Fredric D. Rutberg, president of New England Newspapers, was published in Wednesday's Banner.
Rutberg wrote that "many people, including me, found [the cartoon] to be insulting and in bad taste. We regret and apologize for publishing the cartoon." He said the matter was being addressed internally, and took responsibility for "the grievous error." Rutberg also drove to Bennington to meet with concerned readers — but only two people showed up. "And one of them was a blogger who was hoping, I guess, that there would be an uproar," Rutberg said. As for the lone reader, "We had a nice chat, and that was it."
Still, he’s taking the situation seriously. "I'm not trying to defend the cartoon," he said. "It was terrible, in bad taste; we made a mistake." He has reached out to anyone who called or emailed the paper. Anyone, that is, who provided a real name and contact information. Many of the comments were anonymous, Rutberg said, and many of them were abusive, obscene, threatening or all of the above.
And that worried him. He sees a landscape in which many people react with rage, anonymously, at the slightest provocation. He compared it to a region that’s earthquake-prone.
"Something happens, and they erupt," he said. "The vitriol is just so, so intense."