Cartoonist, Prophet

Former Charlotte Observer journalist Doug Marlette called it like he saw it, and he saw it like it was. America is a worse place without him


In 1996, in an interview for Charlotte magazine, former Charlotte Observer editorial cartoonist Doug Marlette made one of the funniest—and most astute—observations regarding two American cities I had ever heard. After fifteen years in Charlotte, in 1987 Marlette moved to Atlanta to help revitalize the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By the time I spoke with him, he was working at New York Newsday.

In that article comparing Atlanta to Charlotte, Marlette managed to skewer and embrace both cities with unvarnished truth. “They both have that adolescent quality of running around and trying to prove something,” the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner said. “Running around and bragging, ‘Look at me! Look at me! I’m a world-class city!’ Which is obviously not true if you have to brag about it.

“The difference is Atlanta is more like your typical teenager. Atlanta is the kind of teen who begs to borrow the car and then immediately goes out and wrecks it. Charlotte is more like your goody two shoes, Sunday-school teenager who goes to Young Life and parades around acting virtuous all the time…Charlotte is always trying to do the right thing. So virtuous.”

In light of Marlette’s passing on July 10, in an automobile accident in Mississippi, I interviewed several of the other people involved in that story and in Marlette’s career. At the time of the 1996 interview, I thought he was the most insightful person I had ever talked to regarding Charlotte or Atlanta—he boiled both down to their essence in a way no one else I met before or since has been able to do.

(Consensus in that article was that never mind traffic, congestion, and pollution, Charlotte could not wait to become another Atlanta. Right again, Doug.)

In retrospect, Marlette proved even more visionary on larger social issues. He was certainly the only one I knew of who had courage and heart enough to back it up with action, a point Myers Park Baptist senior pastor Steve Shoemaker made at Marlette’s funeral on July 14. “There was a genius of seeing through the appearance of things and getting to the depth of things,” Shoemaker said. “Doug saw the richness of spiritual life and insight, but he also saw the demagoguery and superficiality of religion in America.”

Marlette relentlessly parodied the evangelical movement, and that same movement not only reshaped Charlotte and the South, it reshaped America. He also saw how creeping corporate journalism was infiltrating and weakening newspapers, including The Observer. It was that sort of journalism that helped set up America for the Iraq war.

In 1996, Marlette made the comment that in New York City, it was okay to open a business just to make money. But in Charlotte, he said, if you wanted to open a dry cleaner, “it was, ‘Jesus told me to open it.’ ” That came on the heels of U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., saying that God told her to run for mayor.

“In Charlotte, everything is done under the guise of Christianity,” Marlette said. “But it is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is the cult of mammon. Charlotte is about money and moi. Me-first Christianity. It is the cult of narcissism. Everybody laughed at Jim and Tammy Bakker, but they were the prophets of what Charlotte is becoming today.”

Dr. Jack Perry, a former U.S. diplomat and a retired international affairs professor at Davidson College, was one of five people I interviewed for that 1997 story. An Atlanta native, Perry said Marlette’s words proved not only prophetic for Charlotte, but for America, where evangelical Christians have captured some of the nation’s loftiest perches, from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.

“It has become terribly fashionable to drop Jesus’s name in everything nowadays,” Perry says, “which brings truth to what Doug was saying. The kind of religion that is so popular today in Charlotte and the South in general is not the social-justice gospel that people like me and I suspect Doug Marlette were brought up on…it is public-display religiosity instead of New Testament social justice.”

Marlette’s greatest acclaim came in helping The Observer bring down the farce that was Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club. Ironically, Marlette died ten days before Tammy Faye and within two months of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, another of his favorite targets. Former Observer managing editor Mark Ethridge, part of the team that earned the paper a Pulitzer for its PTL coverage, credits Marlette with creating enough controversy with his cartoons that the investigative team could work under the radar. “Marlette was the first journalist I know of to recognize that cancer there in Charlotte and put the country and the world on notice with his art work,” says Bill Kovach, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor who hired Marlette and who is founding director of the Committee for Concerned Journalists.

Locally, Marlette was never afraid to run against the grain. He once observed that Charlotte was the only town in the country where you could put everyone that mattered in a room and they would all get along. That is not only true; it is both our city’s strength and its weakness. “So much of the culture of the South is the go-along and get-along mentality,” says Peter Applebome, whose 1996 tome Dixie Rising featured an insightful story on Charlotte. “He was not that; he was such an in-your-face kind of guy. I give him so much credit for standing up to the Christian right, but also for just calling the fatuous crap that the left and liberals trotted out on that Duke lacrosse story.”

In an era of increasing corporate consolidation of media outlets, particularly newspapers, Marlette foresaw fewer and fewer opportunities for that kind of commentary. “Sooner or later,” Marlette told me in a 1997 interview for a different story, “a city becomes like the newspaper, and the newspaper becomes like the city…When I first got there, [The Observer] was livelier. They have systematically squeezed out all the humanness. If control is everything, you get dull. It’s that cheerleading journalism. Prozac journalism.”

Marlette’s prediction should have prepared me for working at The Observer, where I was a columnist from 1999 to 2004. Soon after President Bush was elected in 2000, an Observer editor told the metro staff “not to go out of your way” to criticize Bush. I was surprised, but not shocked. (A registered Republican, I thought any politician was fair game.) On March 20, 2003, on the day America invaded Iraq, my column criticizing Bush’s global leadership was killed—it might appear “unpatriotic,” I was told. The Observer ran a revised version the next day, but only after the lead paragraph criticizing Bush’s unilateral approach to global affairs was removed in favor of one I wrote calling Saddam Hussein was a “bad” man. It became a Prozac piece.

That cheerleading journalism Marlette foresaw in 1997 became more commonplace after 9/11, which could partially explain why reporters and columnists did not do due diligence on the Iraq war—arguably the greatest failure in American journalism history. There are American soldiers lying in hospital beds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or, worse, dead, and one could argue that the inept journalism and corporate editing leading up to the war contributed to that fact.

“The fundamental, underlying problem is owners of newspapers are scared,” Kovach says. “More and more editors worry about economics. It has created a conditioning where you have less assertive journalists. Even the exceptions are mutated and moderated voices. You can find issue after issue where there are strong voices [online], but they just do not get great coverage. It does not fit the newspaper model anymore.”

Certainly Marlette knew of what he spoke. By 1990, he and Kovach had already left Atlanta, where their orders to build the world’s next great newspaper were downgraded to an assignment to create a local USA Today. It’s no surprise Marlette ended his career at the Tulsa World, one of the last family-owned newspapers. His voice was too honest for “corporate journalism,” which I believe has largely become an oxymoron.
After Marlette’s New York Newsday stint, Kovach tried to help place him at a number of large newspapers. Often the response he got was that Marlette was talented, but his work was more trouble than it was worth. “The thought just amazes me,” Kovach says.

As the great Southern novelist Pat Conroy said during Doug’s eulogy, Marlette was a free-speech fanatic, “never afraid to insult anyone. No one was safe from Doug Marlette, no one.” America is not as safe without voices like Marlette's — a voice that feared only one thing, to sing any note but the truth.

Categories: Opinion, Perspective, The Buzz