Source development and trust built with a newsmaker paid off with an AP exclusive revealing that six Dr. Seuss books are being pulled from publication because of racist imagery. The story dominated the news cycle for three days, and it became the single most-used AP story so far in 2021, with conservatives fanning allegations of “cancel culture” over the publisher’s decision.
It's difficult to find an American home without a Dr. Seuss book either on a shelf or tucked in a box in the basement or attic.
But in recent years, the late author — born Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts — has come under scrutiny for imagery increasingly viewed as racist and insensitive. The National Education Association, which founded Read Across America Day in 1998 and deliberately aligned it with Geisel’s birthday, has for several years deemphasized Seuss and encouraged a more diverse reading list for children. At the same time, he’s adored by millions for the positive values in many of his works, including environmentalism and tolerance.
Mark Pratt, a breaking news staffer in Boston, has written several stories exploring various aspects of Geisel’s complicated past, and the company that preserves and protects his legacy knew it could trust him.
So Dr. Seuss Enterprises gave Pratt early word on a story that would become a global bestseller for AP, generating off-the-charts customer use for three days, and eventually becoming the single most-used AP story of 2021 to date: It was ceasing publication and sales of six Seuss books, including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo,” because of their offensive imagery.
In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks, and eating from a bowl. “If I Ran the Zoo” includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads.
Pratt’s story instantly rocketed to the very top of a hectic news cycle dominated by news about a deadly crackdown in Myanmar, congressional negotiations on the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill and widening sexual harassment allegations against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It touched off a firestorm that saw conservative commentators ridiculing for hours what they called the latest example of “cancel culture,” and exceeded well over 2.5 million page views — catapulting it past even the Capitol insurrection coverage in terms of customer use and clicks. Meanwhile, U.S. sales of the discontinued Seuss books soared, dominating the top titles listed by Amazon.com and Publishers’ Weekly.
“We’ve now got foundations book burning the authors to whom they are dedicated. Well done, everyone,” conservative commentator and author Ben Shapiro tweeted.
Others approved of the decision.
“The books we share with our children matter. Books shape their world view and tell them how to relate to the people, places and ideas around them. As grown-ups, we have to examine the worldview we are creating for our children, including carefully re-examining our favorites,” tweeted Rebekah Fitzsimmons, an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
AP national writer Hillel Italie provided background and context on other children’s books that have drawn scrutiny and backlash, including “Babar's Travels” and the “Curious George” series.
The majority of the traffic to Pratt’s scoop came from Google search, in part because it was so well-placed on various search pages, including “Dr. Seuss,” “Dr. Seuss racism” and “Dr. Seuss books.” Being first with the story meant many other outlets either used AP outright or cited us, driving intense social engagement.
For nurturing trust with a newsmaker that yielded an AP exclusive still resonating with customers and news consumers on talk radio and social media, Pratt wins AP’s Best of the Week award.