Unfunny rape joke + offensive cartoon = a recipe for newsroom disaster

If there are two things that are guaranteed to get a college newspaper in hot water, they are (1) making light of sexual assault and (2) publishing an offensive cartoon. If you figure out a way to do both at once … stand back and brace yourself for the explosion.

Editors at The Exponent, the independent student newspaper covering Purdue University, are backpedaling from a Sept. 17 comic strip that attempted — unsuccessfully — to turn non-consensual sex into a “fun magic trick.”

As the SPLC’s Katie Maloney wrote last spring, newspaper cartoons are a disproportionate source of community complaints and controversy. Some of that controversy is unavoidable and even appropriate. Cartoons are uniquely effective because they have the power to provoke a more visceral response than words on a page, and some of the most effective editorial cartoonists have enraged reader sensibilities by falling off that high-wire between “provocative” and “tasteless.”

Nevertheless, this one wasn’t a close judgment call, because it made no larger point of social importance. It was just dirty locker-room humor that never should have left the locker room.

The Exponent‘s editor-in-chief, Zoe Hayes, is doing exactly the right thing under the circumstances — stepping up and taking full responsibility, no excuses and no rationalizations:

“I’ve heard the stories; I’ve heard all the scary numbers. There is a rape every 21 hours on an American college campus. Only 10 percent of college women who are raped report the rape. One in four women will be seriously sexually harassed, abused, or raped in her life. How could I have forgotten that sex isn’t always consensual?”

Those are the words of a young college journalist growing up, having learned a painful lesson that will guide her the rest of her professional life. Her public ordeal should be a flashing-neon-warning-sign lesson to all student editors who are considering satire columns, April-Fools joke editions, or other yuk-yuks that touch on emotionally charged topics. Comedy is like dancing — most people think they can do it, and most people are wrong. And the cheapest laughs often come at the highest expense.