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A reader writes to complain that a Benson political cartoon on the Deseret News editorial page Sept. 18 was particularly vicious in excoriating the Democrats. It showed the Democratic donkey asking the boss for time off to be with his "family of loonies" - single motherhood, deadbeat dads, school violence, welfare dependency, crime and moral laxity.

"It would have seemed appropriate," says the reader, "to run the cartoon the same day as a viciously anti-GOP cartoon. Otherwise the subscriber can start to get the idea that [the editorial pageT is a closed club. . . ."I share the reader's surprise at the tone of the cartoon, which I found far out even in a malevolent political season. However, I had an impression that if anyone had taken a beating in political cartoons locally it was not the Democrats and Bill Clinton but rather George Bush and the Republican platform.

O So I did an informal content analysis. I went back a month and scored the political cartoons in both the Deseret News and the Tribune for direction - derisive or supportive of a candidate or neutral. (I didn't try to score them for themes or intensity or the other indexes that also might be valuable to someone who wants to get into this issue in greater depth.)

- A STRONG MAJORITY, 22 of the 35 cartoons the Deseret News used on the editorial and opposite editorial pages, were about the presidential election. I found seven mocked George Bush and six lampooned the Republicans (most of these ran right after the national GOP convention). Only three could clearly be considered reproving of Clinton and/or his party. These included two Benson cartoons, the one that peeved my correspondent and the one that showed Clinton as a draft-card burning flower child. Five skewered Democrats and Republicans equally - several cartoons took both Clinton and Bush to task for riding on Harry Truman's coattails. One cartoon laughed at Perot.

I found not a single one that I would consider clearly pumping for Bush or Clinton or their parties.

(You may have noticed that I've been hunting for words to characterize the cartoons. I'm not using the handy terms pro- or anti-candidate. That's because the cartoonists' aim in most cases clearly was to expose or bring foibles into focus rather than either to promote or tear down.)

In the Tribune I found 14 of the 20 cartoons on the national race ridiculed Bush, Reagan or the GOP platform or party. Five I scored neutral. One mocked Perot. None clearly derided Clinton. The Tribune panels had a wider range of issues, BBCI, Maastricht, Serbia, Somalia, for example, plus some cartoons on the Utah political races done by the in-house satirist, Pat Bagley.

Similarly, at the Ogden-Standard Examiner, Cal Grondahl, who was wooed away from the Deseret News a few years ago, often sets his sights on local political figures, especially candidates for governor in both parties. Grondahl can be biting, but some of his cartoons are what I'd call merely humorous. One such I would have scored neutral showed Clinton and Bush wading simultaneously into Salt Lake crowds. Bush is being told, "Mr. President, you're shaking hands with Bill Clinton."

A content analysis like mine is highly inferential. I won't even try to guess at what impact these cartoons had on readers. I can guess at the motives of the artists and editors, however.

- IT WOULD BE EASY to conclude and tempting to say that the editors are biased in picking these cartoons from the many syndicates they have to choose from. But that's not the way it works. Cartoonists focus on and editors pick out the most interesting, cogent or just funniest material available on a given day. Sometimes cartoons are used to complement adjoining opinion columns.

For instance, half a dozen of those Deseret News cartoons on GOP themes ran just after the Republican National Convention, when many pundits thought the GOP had impaled itself on nonissues like "family values" or shot itself in the foot by squabbling over real issues like abortion.

Certainly the papers don't have to balance cartoons one for one. But because they tell their readers they are neutral even in editorial page features (and even in the editorials themselves by refusing to endorse candidates), the Salt Lake papers might strive harder for overall balance.

As for that donkey cartoon that upset my correspondent, I would have rejected it. It was too heavy-handed, even in the free-wheeling cartoon genre, which is not noted for subtlety.

- UNINTENDED BIAS in election coverage can crop up in all sorts of ways if editors aren't really careful.

I'd like to believe the Tribune intended no political statement with its Page 1 story Tuesday, "Utah Veterans Groups Lash Out, Rap GOP on Clinton Draft Issue."

I'm a veteran and I too consider the draft rap against Clinton (and for that matter, Quayle) phony and overblown, given the antiwar context and the selective service inequities of the 1960s. Yet the approach of the story struck me as all wrong.

The Tribune took a "second-day" approach to a "first-day" story. It featured the reaction of some veterans groups to a Republican's speech on Bill Clinton's draft record.

That was putting the cart before the horse. Since the speech was given within that same day's news cycle, logically the story should have focused on the speech, rather than the reaction, or at most given the speech and the reaction coordinate importance in the story and headline.

The story began, "Veterans groups in Utah aren't buying Republican attacks on Bill Clinton's Vietnam draft record." Better balance would have dictated: "Republicans at a rally at the Capitol Vietnam War Memorial Monday raked Bill Clinton on his avoidance of the Vietnam draft. But some veterans said the attack was overblown." The headline might then have said something like, "GOP Rally Hits Clinton on Draft, But Utah Veterans Defend Him."

The story also was defective in the way it handled the quotes from a veterans' spokesman. It concluded: "Tim Burke is chief of staff for the Utah Office of Disabled American Veterans. He pointed out that the Reagan and Bush administrations have cut billions of dollars from veteran medical care, rehabilitation and aid to war widows and orphans." This would have been more neutrally expressed as "he said." The writer assumes the speaker's accuracy by using "he pointed out." And bringing in those war widows and orphans was a clear play on the emotions.

If the Tribune decided a viewpoint should be expressed legitimately in the story, it should have labeled it as opinion or at least as "news analysis."

Milton Hollstein is a professor of communication at the University of Utah.