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Sacramento Bee Refuses to Apologize for Cartoon That Takes Gov. Rick Perry to Task for Safety Deregulation

by Jack Ohman for The Sacramento Bee

A political cartoon from the Sacramento Bee that suggests Texas Governor Rick Perry’s agenda of deregulation is partially to blame for the explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, TX is drawing reaction from the Governor himself. In a letter to the Bee, Perry writes:

“It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon. While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.”

The paper and the cartoon’s creator, Jack Ohman, have refused to apologize. Ohman, who had been called tasteless among other things, laid out the damning facts that inspired him to put pencil to paper in the first place:

The Texas chemical plant had not been inspected by the state of Texas since 2006. That’s seven years ago. You may have read in the news that Gov. Perry, during his business recruiting trips to California and Illinois, generally described his state as free from high taxes and burdensome regulation. One of the burdensome regulations he neglected to mention was the fact that his state hadn’t really gotten around to checking out that fertilizer plant. Many Texas cities have little or no zoning, resulting in homes being permitted next to sparely inspected businesses that store explosive chemicals.

So when the plant exploded and killed 14 people, people started asking the inevitable questions about whether this tragedy could have been prevented.

Well, we’re not going to know that now, exactly, but I doubt that more inspections and better zoning would have hurt.

In certain instances, satire can be the only way of getting a point across, especially one that is overlooked or difficult to understand. In response to Gov. Perry’s apology demand, Sacramento Bee editor Stuart Leavenworth said:

It is unfortunate that Gov. Perry, and some on the blogosphere, have attempted to interpret the cartoon as being disrespectful for the victims of this tragedy,” the editor wrote. “As Ohman has made clear on his blog, he has complete empathy for the victims and people living by the plant. What he finds offensive is a governor who would gamble with the lives of families by not pushing for the strongest safety regulations. Perry’s letter is an attempt to distract people from that message.”

Though the conservative blogosphere is looking to smear the Sacramento Bee, the paper is not without vocal defenders in its corner. Print journalism and its ability to make an impact are on the decline, so one might consider it encouraging to see a paper like the Bee making some important noise. Sacramento Constitutional attorney Jeff Kravitz called the cartoon “good journalism” and told CBS Sacramento,

This is a serious and important issue. The editorial cartoonist used a method, a shocking method, to bring people’s attention to it. That’s what his job is.

Creating cartoons that inspire debate is Ohman’s job, just as protecting the people of Texas is Governor Perry’s job. By comparison, it seems that Ohman is doing his better.

The ticking time-bomb of a plant that killed 14 and injured an additional 200 had not been inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985. Learning how this disaster happened is crucial to ensuring that a similar event does not happen again.

In a op-ed for the Washington Post, labor writer Mike Elk argues that, regardless of regulatory oversight or lack of OSHA funding, the company that owns the plant fundamentally failed to protect its workers. This speaks to Ohman’s cartoon which suggests Governor Perry’s message of, ‘bring your business to Texas and we’ll let you do whatever you want’ is related to the tragic outcome.

Gov. Perry’s demonization of this political cartoon is simply early deflection, an attempt to get out in front of the inevitable question of how a culture of deregulation impacts safety. That is the culture under Rick Perry.


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