Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist will resubmit banned iPhone app

Mark Fiore, whose Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoons were rejected from the App Store for ridiculing public figures, says he plans to resubmit his NewsToons app after Apple invited him to do so. But Apple needs to go further to guarantee free speech on the iPhone and iPad.

Fiore won the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartooning on Monday, the first online-only cartoonist to win the award. Afterward, in an interview with Nieman Journalism Lab, Fiore mentioned he'd submitted an app to the App Store in December, but it was rejected for ridiculing public figures, which is a violation of App Store policy.


Apple's rejection letter included screen captures illustrating offensive elements of the app, Fiore told me in an interview Sunday. I've embedded one here.

Another one of the cartoons specifically cited by the rejection letter is "Obama Interruptus," in which President Obama is trying to deliver a speech explaining his "Least Worst Plan of Terribleness," while being interrupted by figures representing Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and the White House party gatecrashers. That was one of the cartoons included in Fiore's entry for the Pulitzer Prize.

When Apple rejected the app in December, Fiore didn't bother to resubmit, because he didn't see the point, he told me. "Ridiculing pubic figures is what I do, so if that's a dead end, it's a dead end," he said.

"Honestly I was just surprised," Fiore told me. "I've been a fan of Apple and the work they've done, and I use Apple products." He works on a MacBook, and every computer he's ever owned has been a Mac. He has an iPod as well, but not an iPod touch or an iPhone.

"It just seemed out of character to have the company that released the famous 1984 ad be the same company that's trying to prevent people from making fun of political figures," Fiore said.

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After Nieman Lab picked up the story, Apple invited Fiore to resubmit. He planned to do it Friday, but ran afoul of confusing procedure -- when his developer checked the App Store, the status on the December app was shown as under review, so the developer didn't resubmit. However, later on Friday or Saturday, Fiore heard from his developer that they'd have to resubmit after all.

Fiore said he's encouraged by the personal invitation from Apple, and also by reports that Steve Jobs has taken a direct interest in Fiore's case. The New York Times reported that a customer wrote Jobs to plead on Fiore's behalf, and Jobs replied by email, "This was a mistake that’s being fixed." Jobs often responds to customer emails directly, according to reports on Apple blogs.

What Apple did is deeply wrong, and Jobs taking a personal interest in fixing the matter doesn't fix the problem. As Nieman Lab notes, other political cartoonists have been banned by the App Store.

Apple needs to explicitly amend the App Store policy to respect free speech, permit ridiculing public figures, and make sure the people who work on reviewing apps know about the policy and respect it.

Openness runs counter to Apple's corporate culture. The company is famous for keeping its product development secret, and springing them on the marketplace in big, carefully orchestrated surprises. That's fine when you're a consumer electronics company, but Apple is becoming more of a media company, and a media company has different responsibilities, Fiore notes. Newspapers and magazines are rolling out iPad apps, including the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, New York Times, and USA Today. Journalists should not have to submit their articles to Apple to ensure they're sufficiently deferential to Washington sensibilities.

Apple is a private-sector company, with a right to run its business the way it wants -- but so is a newspaper, and society recognizes that newspapers have a higher obligation than business values, says Fiore.

"I'm not saying what Apple did was morally wrong or government censorship. I'm saying that when Apple is such a force in the marketplace with mobile apps, it makes sense for them to be open," Fiore said.

Fiore is optimistic Apple will change. "I like to think they're growing and figuring it out, and hopefully I'm helping them figure it out," he said.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment for this blog.

Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and Internet marketing consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner.

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