Turn to the comics in this week's Providence Journal and there, near the top of the right-hand column, you'll find cartoonist and provocateur Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" in its usual spot.
But this week's six-strip series — a meditation on our anti-social tendencies in the Digital Age — is not what Trudeau wants you to see. No, it is a substitute for papers unwilling to run his controversial series on a Texas abortion law.
The law requires women to have an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy. And Trudeau, as usual, pulls no punches. A patient arriving at an abortion clinic is told to wait in the "shaming room." Later, a male state legislator calls her a "slut."
And when she objects to an invasive vaginal examination, a nurse says "the male Republicans who run Texas require that all abortion seekers be examined with a 10-inch shaming wand." The nurse then declares: "By the authority invested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape."
Trudeau, in short, didn't make things easy this week on the roughly 1400 papers that run his cartoon. But making things easy is not his job; and it's not the job of papers that publish "Doonesbury."
At mid-week The Daily Cartoonist's informal list of papers passing on the abortion series numbered 57 — including the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, the Oregonian, and the Orlando Sentinel.
Other papers have taken a middle course. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, has moved the strip to its op-ed page. "We felt the story line was a little over the top for a comics page," said Alice Short, a Times assistant managing editor, in a story in the paper about the decision.
And Buffalo News editor Margaret Sullivan penned an editor's note calling the strip "clearly inappropriate for our comics pages" and announcing that all six strips in the series will appear "in a single block on an inside page of this Sunday's Viewpoints section, amid other political cartoons, with an explanatory note.
"This allows our readers to see the strips in print in a more appropriate context," she continued. "It also gives parents plenty of warning in case they want to keep children away from them, and allows adults who want to avoid the strips to do so more easily."
This sort of approach is, perhaps, overly cautious. Trudeau, for his part, certainly thinks so. "I write the strip to be read, not removed," he told the Guardian. "And as a practical matter, many more people will see it in the comics page than on the editorial page."
But the Times and the Buffalo News, at least, have offered up explanations for their decisions — and contributed to an important discussion of journalistic ethics.
The Journal, by contrast, has maintained its silence. No note to readers. No note to staff, according to newsroom sources. And executive editor Tom Heslin, in keeping with the paper's long-standing policy, did not return a call from the Phoenix.
Dropping the abortion strip strikes this media critic as a mild offense against the First Amendment — and a mild embarrassment for a paper that still retains considerable control over Rhode Island's civic conversation.
But it is, no doubt, defensible. None other than Bob Kerr, the paper's long-running liberal columnist, tells me he understands the move. "I would have run it, because I tend to run anything," he says, "but I have no problem with the decision."
There are reader sensitivities to be considered, he argues. And not everyone, he adds, is in on the "Doonesbury" joke.
But for a news organization that demands transparency from Rhode Island's major institutions, the failure to speak up on the "Doonesbury" flap is another small example of a failure to practice what the paper preaches.