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THE OMBUDSMAN | CHRISTINE CHINLUND

Much ado about a duck

IF A RECENT "Mallard Fillmore" comic strip hadn't raised the issue of The Duck's longevity, maybe, just maybe, I could have avoided another column about the comics. But in a Feb. 11 "Mallentine" day message, Bruce Tinsley, creator of the conservative duck commentator, thanked his fans and told readers that without their calls and letters of support, "Mallard wouldn't last an hour."

Perhaps he should have put it another way.

"Does this mean if I e-mail saying how unfunny this foul fowl is, you'll get rid of this propaganda strip? Let me be more direct: Remove this stupid comic from the paper!!" e-mailed reader Thomas Garside. "Let me add my opinion to the mix in the clearest way possible," wrote J.J.E. McManus. "get rid of Mallard Fillmore . . . !"

Point taken.

Mallard is, of course, not just a comic strip. He's a conservative standard-bearer. The strip is as much about politics as comics.

For 10 years Mallard has run in the Globe, and for 10 years he's perturbed readers -- most recently by using tragic events (prison torture and a beheading in Iraq) as comic constructs, and by building a strip around a quickly disproven rumor about John Kerry and an intern. Personal digs at Ted Kennedy have also sparked protest. But some say the The Duck has a more fatal flaw: "It's just not funny," said reader Michael LaVigne. "He can have his opinion, fine, but it needs to be funny, too."

Reader Kathy Tappan asks why the Globe wastes precious space on a strip that is "usually hateful, nasty, ill-informed, or mean-spirited . . . " If the strip was also funny, she said, "you might have an excellent comic on your hands." But, she said, it's not.

So why run it?

It "supplies a point of view that, out of fairness, the Globe thinks should be represented on the comics pages," says Michael Larkin, a deputy managing editor.

He's right that the Globe, with its liberal-leaning opinion pages, should have a comic strip that offers conservatives what Doonesbury does others. That's only fair. But Mallard, which runs in nearly 400 papers and is the dominant conservative strip, is no longer the only choice.

A new strip called "Prickly City" -- based on the political tug-of-war between a right-leaning girl named Carmen and her left-leaning coyote pup sidekick, Winslow -- runs in about 70 papers, a strong start for its first eight months. It definitely reflects a conservative view and at other papers has sparked Mallard-like complaints. But it has a lighter touch, a storyline, and a recognition that the growing political divide in this country is not necessarily something to encourage. The characters' interaction provides humorous energy with the conservative message -- as Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" once did so successfully.

"Changing [comics] is certainly an option, though each of the strips, we have found over the years, has die-hard constituents," says Larkin.

True, dropping Mallard could bring complaints; comics changes usually do. But a decade of The Duck is enough when there's a good alternative.

Blog wars Unless you are tapped into the blogosphere, you probably don't know about the flap caused by Cathy Young's Feb. 7 op-ed column. Here's the short version.

Young, a regular Globe contributor, took issue with views posted recently by Eric Alterman (with whom she has tangled before) on his MSNBC web log. Alterman argued that Arabs should not be expected to particpate in Auschwitz liberation anniversary ceremonies -- and predicted his words would be "twisted" by others.

Young, in the Globe, said Alterman's blog views "coming from a non-Jew, would be clearly seen as anti-Semitic." She also said maybe this was a case where the label "self-hating" Jew was justified.

Alterman, outraged, asked the Globe to retract the column, apologize, present the full text of his original comments, and publish letters of support from the Jewish community. The Globe declined the first three, but did publish a letter of support, as well as a 170-word defense from Alterman himself -- much shorter than submitted, but clear.

Displeased, he declared "war" on the Globe, and posted his case (with related correspondence) on his MSNBC website, Altercation. That in turn prompted outraged e-mail to this office on his behalf.

Those are the facts; here's the opinion. Young's column, as written, was not up to op-ed page standards. Suggesting that Alterman is a "self-hating" Jew was ad hominem and inappropriate. What's acceptable online, where the aggrieved can respond quickly and in kind, is not necessarily OK on the op-ed page. The column was also blog-like in its narrow, personal focus -- not worthy of an opinion page where readers expect (and usually get) thoughtful analysis and insight.

The Globe acknowledged the situation by publishing the two letters of support as well as a third letter. It would have been good to also provide access to Alterman's original text so readers could see the basis, or lack thereof, for Young's charge. But it was cut because it contained extraneous material. Here's the link: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6968346/#050215.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com.

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