Community forces out Missouri newspaper publisher and editors over racist cartoon

After swift community backlash over the publication of a racist cartoon, the patriarch of a Missouri newspaper and two of his daughters resigned last week.

The June 10 cartoon in the Washington Missourian–a response to the nationwide uprising over the death of George Floyd– shows a black man attempting to steal a white woman’s purse. The woman says, “”Help!! Somebody call 911!” and the man responds with, “Good luck with that lady. We defunded the police.” 

By the end of the day, after fielding calls, e-mail and criticism on social media,  second-generation publisher William L. Miller Sr. and daughters Jeanne Miller Wood and Susan Miller Warden, also managing editor, had resigned. Community members continued to protest in the following days outside the newspaper’s office in Washington, a city of about 13,000 about 50 miles west of downtown St. Louis.

“They’re pretty much the big cheese in town and in the county, but they also run newspapers in Union and Saint Clair. They’re the major newspaper in the area,” says Don Corrigan, editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times and journalism professor at Webster University.  

The sisters posted an apology on The Missourian’s website Wednesday morning and later that same day, they posted an update announcing their resignation. (Both posts have since been removed). Susan Miller Warden responded to a Facebook message asking for an interview, saying “I think our statement is probably best at this time. Thank you.” Jeanne Miller Wood did not respond to email requests for comment. (The daughters said they were unaware of the cartoon until it was published).

In a separate apology, Miller said the choice to publish the cartoon was “poor judgment” on his part and was “racially insensitive.” 

Miller meant for the cartoon to support the newspaper’s editorial position that defunding police in the wake of George Floyd’s death is not the solution to resolving the racial inequities and injustices that are present in policing in the U.S., he said in the apology. Defunding the police—a controversial and highly politicized slogan that has gained mainstream traction in recent weeks–does not necessarily mean getting rid of the police, although some activists have pushed for that. In the city where Floyd was killed by a police officer, the Minneapolis City Council voted to replace the police department with a community-led public safety system. Other supporters of police reform use the slogan to call for a diversion of funds to help with a variety of social issues in a community. But conservatives have pushed back, saying it will lead to lawlessness. 

Megan Renée, Franklin County resident, said The Missourian tends to be more conservative in its editorials. 

“The paper is very right leaning, and it’s evident in a lot of stories. The main editor, Bill Sr., was the main culprit of this,” Renée said. 

The newspaper chose the cartoon from a national service, Creator’s, an independent media and syndication company, that is used to support the paper’s editorial positions. The Missourian has stopped using cartoons by the author, Tom Stiglich, it said.

“I worry about a lawless society by defunding or abolishing police departments,” Stiglich told GJR in a Facebook message. “Americans got a real taste of that the past few weeks, and it wasn’t pretty. Again, George Floyd did not deserve to die like that. I’m also saddened to see so many young African American lives cut down by senseless violence within their own community. Hopefully, this leads to reform and a better, safer America for everyone.”

The newspaper announced on June 11 that The Missourian will be run by Tricia Miller, daughter of William L. Miller, Sr. and sister to Susan Miller Warden and Jeanne Miller Wood. Tricia Miller will take over her father’s roles of publisher and editor of the newspaper. She is the first woman to hold these positions in the newspaper’s history. 

Two days later, in the weekend issue of The Missourian, a big, bold and blatant headline stood out at the top of the paper. It says, “We made a mistake.” 

“You have to applaud them for this … I think it takes a lot of guts for a newspaper to do that,” Corrigan said. 

The front page of the paper also includes photos of protestors and letters from the readers. Titles on the letters include, “Neighbors united on undoing racism,” “Shame on The Missourian,”  “Diversity is a blessing,” and “Your cartoon was demeaning.”

Tricia Miller also addressed the cartoon in the paper, stating her father knew he made a mistake and took responsibility by apologizing and resigning. She also said her father’s mistake revealed a “breakdown in editorial procedures” at the paper.  

To address this, Miller is involving the community by creating a Community Engagement Board in order to reestablish trust in the newspaper and to rebuild a connection with readers. Miller said she is doing this to “ensure racism has no place” in The Missourian. 

Over the same weekend The Missourian distributed the newspaper detailing Tricia Miller’s statement and the newspaper’s next steps, community members in Washington, Mo., marched and held a candlelight vigil in silent protest.

There was another protest on June 15 in front of The Missourian’s office. The organizers of the protest, Matthew Jansen and Alexandria Gray, said while they are protesting the cartoon, they also want to have a conversation.

Tricia Miller did not respond to requests for comment. 

The Washington Missourian began as the Franklin County Gazette on Jan. 5, 1860, the same year Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States.

The Miller family’s relationship with the Missourian began in 1937 when James L. Miller Sr. purchased the paper. On May 20 during that same year, 200 Steel Workers Organizing Committee union protesters faced off with a line of 150 police officers in a grassy field on a hot summer day. Protesters threw bricks and rocks and police opened fire killing 10 in what is now known as the Memorial Day Massacre.

For the last 83 years since Miller bought the newspaper during the year of the Memorial Day Massacre, the Miller family presided over a small town publishing dynasty well-respected in the state.   

James L. Miller Sr. immigrated to America at 3 years old. He ended up traveling to 90 countries, and he made a revelation about his travels in William Howard Taft’s book, Missouri Newspapers: When and Where, 1808-1963. 

Corrigan read the quote:

“People are the same everywhere. All have the same aches and pains and happiness, but I don’t think there’s any difference in people anywhere.”

The Miller family have owned and managed the newspaper longer than any other owners in the paper’s 152-year history. All of James L. Miller, Sr.’s sons worked part time at the paper from grade school to high school and college. At one point, including the third generation, 10 Millers worked full time at the paper at the same time. Even the grandchildren of James L. Miller Sr. worked part time at the paper. 

Corrigan, has known the Millers for around 40 years. In the past, Corrigan worked with the Millers’ publishing company to print Webster University’s student newspaper. 

Corrigan took his newspaper class to the Missourian Publishing Company in the fall to see the printing presses. Corrigan remembers that Bill was interested in international travel, so when students from around the world attended Webster University, Bill was interested in them when they toured the publishing company. 

“We had an Egyptian student the very last time that I took them. I just remembered that Bill was fascinated, but my only point in mentioning that is I’ve never detected any kind of racism toward any of the students that came in,” Corrigan said. 

Today, the newspaper has two sister publications, the Union Missourian and the St. Clair Missourian, a senior citizens magazine called Senior Lifetimes and a commercial printing operation, the Missourian Publishing Company. 

The Missourian Publishing Company produces The Missourian, which is Franklin County’s oldest and largest newspaper.

Today, The Missourian’s combined circulation is more than 26,000, and the paper employs 135 part and full-time workers. The newspaper is delivered bi-weekly, on Wednesdays and the weekend. The Missourian Media Group publishes newspapers for Washington and three nearby towns – Union, St. Clair and Pacific. The total paid circulation for all four towns is more than 13,000. The company also owns the Warren County Record in Warren County, Mo.

Overtime, the newspaper developed into an award-winning newspaper, which consistently wins state and national awards for excellence in reporting, photography and content. The paper has won awards, including first place awards in National Newspaper Association contests, the 1994 Missouri Gold cup award and a General Excellence Award.

The Missourian is the only newspaper to be awarded the Honor Medal from the Missouri School of Journalism twice.

Ironically, readers of The Missourian have been critical of some content published in the newspaper over the last couple of years. 

Crystal VanHorn, Franklin County resident, recalls a cartoon that was published by the newspaper when the Branson Ride the Ducks tourist boat sank on Table Rock Lake in 2018, killing 17. 

The cartoon showed a hearse floating on water like a boat. “Ride the Ducks” is written on the side, and there are two people in the hearse. One is a blank-faced driver, and the other is a scared passenger pressing his/her face and hands against the back seat window. 

The cartoonist was Stiglitch, a regular for The Missourian. 

VanHorn said the newspaper has dealt with the publication of the cartoon appropriately, but Stiglich should face consequences also. 

“The Missourian has handled the situation on their end as far as Bill retiring and getting a new editor. We need to stop Tom Stiglich now,” VanHorn said. 

Regan Mertz is a senior Investigative Convergence Journalism major at the Missouri School of Journalism. This summer, she was chosen for a School of Journalism fellowship to report for the Missouri Information Corps, a project by the Missouri School of Journalism and the Missouri Press Association. Regan is from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

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