Ethics Quiz: The Comic Strip’s Hidden Message


In February, 2019, venerable ( and usually funny) Sunday comics feature “Non Sequitur” included a hidden message tucked into the corner of a strip . Cartoonist Wiley Miller had scrawled, barely legibly, “Go Fuck yourself, Trump.”

This led some newspapers that had run the strip to cancel the comic permanently. Most, however, did nothing: the strip is still running in, for example, the Washington Post.

Dallas Morning News editor Mike Wilson said that Miller was going “around his editors and even his own syndicate to publish something he must have known we wouldn’t accept. We’ll have no trouble finding a better way to spend the $8,000 we would’ve paid for that strip.” For its part, Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel Syndication, which distributes “Non Sequitur,” apologized, saying,

“We are sorry we missed the language in our editing processIf we had discovered it, we would not have distributed the cartoon without it being removed. We apologize to ‘Non Sequitur’s’ clients and readers for our oversight.”

Miller’s explanation was essentially “Oopsie!” He said he had entered the vulgarity in the corner when he was angry with then-President Trump, and forgot to remove it. He wasn’t trying to sneak the insult by anyone.

Okaaay. Do you believe that?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

What is the fair and responsible punishment for Sunday comics cartoonist who does what Miller did?

I wish I could still have polls here for this one. (Now I have to pay for them, and EA is a net loss for ProEthics already).

I think there are three ethical answers: 1. Kill the strip. He can’t be trusted if he would insert “fuck” into a family comics page, even once. 2. Give him another chance, after a warning and a suspension. 3. Fire him for lying about including the message accidentally.

It appears to me that the actual response in 2019 was, “Oh, it’s just that asshole President Trump, and he deserves it. It was pretty funny, actually. Let’s keep it as quiet as we can, and it will blow over.” Which it did: “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams’ recent outburst about African-Americans was covered as a substantial news story, but not this, which is why I just learned about it today.

It was a “Nah, there’s no mainstream media bias!” episode, with the usual double standards at play. Just ask yourself this: Would “Non Sequitur” still be running if the scrawl had said, “Go fuck yourself, Obama,” not just in, say, 2015, but even yesterday?


Pointer: Michael West

Source: The Oregonian

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Comic Strip’s Hidden Message

  1. I think this is a classic example of “Trump breaking norms.” As a result, the cartoonist wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for Trump. End of story. Nothing to see here. Move on.

    • The appropriate response? I have no idea. But what about any comic section editors that didn’t catch it? They should be fired.

      • The industry relies on trust, and the editors trusted the comic to not write swear words and insults in a family-friendly publication. Their trust was misplaced, and their apology seems sincere.

        Nothing will ever get published if editors have to discern whether every scribble imitating a child’s frantic handwriting secretly codes something inappropriate. The comic is primarily at fault for embarrassing his publisher.

        (He also embarrassed and damaged the entire industry, because I DO NOT read the comics for political crap; the more I write, the more I’m convinced he has to be fired to strongly dissuade others from imitating him).

  2. I don’t think Option 3 is a good idea. Miller’s explanation might not be persuasive, but it is plausible; even smart people do stupid things, and errors of omission occur not infrequently. I wouldn’t fire him for lying unless I was absolutely certain that’s what happened. I’m not. The reasonable likelihood that he was lying could be a secondary motive to adopt Option 1, however.

    Either 1 or 2 are reasonable. Even if this was an accident–omitting to white out the offending scribble–it’s a really, really, dumb thing to have done at all. Editors and publishers owe a responsibility to their readership and to the reputation of their publication. This crosses the line, and Option 1 is a legitimate business decision, especially but not exclusively if there were reader complaints.

    Option 2 could work for someone in a particularly charitable mood. Sometimes giving someone a second chance is a good idea. I probably wouldn’t have, but I wouldn’t condemn someone who did, provided the warning was strong and unequivocal.

    You’re probably right that if the target had been different, the response may well have been, too. I should mention, though, that there doesn’t seem to be much of a conspiracy to keep this story under wraps. A quick Google search shows a lot of contemporary coverage, including from Yahoo, the Washington Post, CBS, and the Huffington Post. I missed it, too, when the story was fresh, but that doesn’t mean it was hidden away.

  3. Did this come to light in 2019? If not, why not? if it did and they gave the cartoonist a pass, then there is little to be done now. Perhaps a sound thrashing? Gnashing of teeth? Rending of garments?


  4. Why do these types of professions overwhelmingly attract left-leaning types?

    Is it the profession itself being one that tends to aim jabs at established norms – and such jabs tend to come from the left as established norms tend to be defended by the right? (Though this is rapidly changing).

    Or is it that the platforms for these professions are overwhelmingly owned by those who lean-left and there tends to be a level of gate keeping in effect here?

    Or am I wrong and there’s a relative balance between “right wing” and “left wing” cartoonists and it’s just that the right wingers other than Scott Adams, tend to keep their traps shut?

  5. “Which it did: “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams’ recent outburst about African-Americans was covered as a substantial news story, but not this, which is why I just learned about it today.”

    It strikes me as natural that a well-known political cartoonist (and, more importantly, conservative thought leader) coming out as a segregationist would attract more news coverage than a lesser known cartoonist sneaking in a naughty word.

    In fact, I would go as far as to say it is good if our society is more outraged by segregationism than by the f word.

      • Among conservatives on Twitter he is. I was also told by numerous people that the papers that cut ties with him after his segregationist rant were “censoring conservative speech” by doing so, which seems like a worse indictment of conservative speech than anything I could say.

        • Who wants to play “Let’s Disassemble the Worst Logic Since Chris Left” Game? (and this is an apt characterization given how similar your writing style is to his)

          1) If Dilbert could be said to promote conservatism, then cancelling Dilbert *could be* characterized as “censoring conservative speech”.

          2) Scott Adam’s horrible rant seems to have been made in the context of some serious “If-Then” conditionals. IF a particular group of people absolutely hate you THEN it is reasonable not to associate with them. That certainly seems to be the context of his commentary. Was his characterization of current conditions inaccurate? Possibly. Was his If-Then assertion inaccurate? I don’t know, I doubt “Seriously?” would actively hang out with people who hated him.

          3) Since the content of Dilbert and the content of Scott Adam’s rant are wholly unrelated to each other except in the person of Scott Adam, it is pretty silly to claim that conservative speech is indicted by his rant.

        • Not to quibble, but you know he wasn’t actually advocating segregation. It was a rant, and it was stunningly misguided, but he was doing, badly, what satirists do: using hypberbole to make a point.

  6. Late to this conversation, but this “error” was lately found. Therefore I would say the just punishemnt for the cartoonist would be for him to return all his subsequent royalties earned since 2019.

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