Why Political Cartoons Matter

Ted Rall

Maui Time | September 16, 2008
"I could not help but notice the editorial cartoon," complains a Canadian newspaper reader, "which in my opinion was not funny or satirical at all -- in the past, the purpose of an editorial cartoon." An editor at the Houston Chronicle disagrees. "The point of satire is not to be funny," he argues. "The point is to be critical."

Who's right? Both. Neither. Who knows? And that's the problem.

For some reason my colleagues have made me President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), the organization for professional political cartoonists. (I suspect cartoonists' predilection for hard drinking had something to do with it.) Kidding aside, I'm honored. And scared.

As I've written before, daily newspapers -- the biggest source of income for cartoonists -- are in crisis. Bottom lines dependent on ad revenue, decimated by the migration of advertising money to the impecunious web, are now getting killed by the recession. Layoffs and buyouts of reporters and other news staffers are at pandemic levels. As circulations have declined, cartoonists have paid a heavy price. At the beginning of the 20th century, most U.S. newspapers had a full-time staff editorial cartoonist, possibly 2,000 or more. In 1980, after many cities had lost all but one or two of their papers, there were about 280. Now there are fewer than 100 -- six lost their jobs in the last several months.

Alternative weekly papers print political cartoons but pay nominal reprint fees, not real salaries. The internet doesn't pay at all.

The professional political cartoonist -- the man or woman who spends their life living and breathing politics, history and sociology and devotes their career to distilling new ways of thinking about the world with a drawing, could become extinct.

Ironically, this is the golden age of political cartooning. Never has the form been blessed by so many talented artists drawing in such a dazzling variety of visual styles. And never have so many Americans wanted to read them. So why are they in trouble?

The nativist Thomas Nast pioneered modern editorial cartooning 150 years ago, in Harper's Weekly. Today Nast's heirs publish their work in the surviving daily and weekly newspapers, hundreds of free weeklies, a few major magazines and on countless websites. That doesn't include comic strips with political content like "Doonesbury" and "Prickly City" or genres such as politically-minded graphic novels, animated web cartoons, or The New Yorker covers.

No American can escape elementary school without being taught about political cartoons. We clip them out, paste them up and read them in history textbooks. But few of us understand what they're for, what constitutes a good one, or why they matter.

Most people agree about what makes a great movie. You need a good script, great actors, smart direction, sharp editing, etc. Quality standards are widely accepted, so it's unusual for a truly awful film to win an Oscar or a great one to bomb.

But there's no such consensus about cartoons. That, even more than the dismal economic outlook for newspapers, is why it's getting harder for editorial cartoonists to make a living. It doesn't matter that editorial cartoons are read by more Americans than ever, or that they've never been better, if people don't understand their purpose.

Most readers, for example, assume that an editorial cartoon reflects the editorial viewpoint of the newspaper where it appears. Until roughly 50 years ago, this was often true. No more. Like a columnist, a staff cartoonist's views are his or her own. Mike Ramirez, a conservative, worked until 2006 for the Los Angeles Times, which is liberal. The Washington Post's editorial board is dominated by neoconservatives; Post cartoonist Tom Toles is liberal.

Is a good political cartoon funny or trenchant? Allegorical (labels and symbols like the Democratic donkey and Uncle Sam) or influenced by comic strips (linear and narrative)? Wordy or wordless? Fair or partisan? No one agrees. Editors and cartoonists argue about these questions all the time, never getting closer to consensus.

Among cartoonists, there's one area of agreement: negativity. We love it.

"I don't draw cartoons that support anything," says editorial cartoonist Daryl Cagle, who also runs an online compendium by his colleagues. "I just criticize. Supportive cartoons are lousy cartoons." But editors love them.

Quality standards for editorial cartooning remain maddeningly elusive. The most widely reproduced cartoons are those reprinted in Time and Newsweek; among cartoonists and their fans, they are considered the worst the profession has to offer. Respected "cartoonists' cartoonists" labor in unremunerated obscurity; some of the most successful figures in the profession, millionaires with multiple Pulitzers on their resumes, are reviled as hacks.

During the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy, The New York Times unwittingly revealed a couple of common editorial errors about political cartoons: that they shouldn't offend and that they're the same as prose, but with pictures. Executive editor Bill Keller decided not to print the Mohammed cartoons next to news stories about them. "On the one hand, we have abundant evidence that a significant number of people -- some of them our readers -- consider these cartoons deeply offensive and inflammatory," Keller explained. "On the other hand," he continued, "we feel we can quite adequately convey the nature of the cartoons by describing them."

Most cartoonists don't try to offend anyone. But controversy isn't something they avoid. Cartoons aren't and shouldn't be fair or considerate. Picking on an editorial cartoonist for offending someone is like criticizing a boxer for breaking the other guy's nose. It happens. And anyone who thinks there's no difference between seeing a cartoon and reading about it is out to lunch.

As long as there are politicians to insult, political cartoons will be around in some form. Obscene pictures depicting the municipal officials of Pompeii decorate the ruined resort town's walls. It's a fair bet that Paleolithic humans used cave paintings to mock pompous tribal leaders. If present trends continue, however, the art will be deprofessionalized.

Imagine a world without professional journalists -- only bloggers. The news would lose its credibility and thus its relevance. The results would be the same if newspapers ran editorial cartoons by amateurs. In California last year, the Vallejo Times-Herald invited its readers: "Are you better at drawing than writing? Now's your chance to show your stuff to the world, with a Cartoon to the Editor." But its pitch revealed the editors' cluelessness; if anything, the writing/idea of a cartoon is more important than the artwork. Moreover, people who draw cartoons on the side can't provide the contextual consistency needed to establish credibility with readers.

If newspapers are to have a future, they need to attract younger readers. The latest attempt to find out how comes in the form of a study by Northwestern University's Media Management Center. One major recommendation is to add "alternative storytelling like graphics." "Humor is a powerful tool, one that The Daily Show, Slate, Politico, etc. use well and it compliments their brand," adds Andrew Satter, an online video producer for Congressional Quarterly. "We have to own engaging explanatory multimedia journalism."

Speaking of graphics and humor, editorial cartoons are the most read -- often the only read -- feature on a newspaper's opinion page. Slate and the Politico both place a big emphasis on cartoons. It's paying off. Papers out to increase circulation should be hiring professional cartoonists.

Ted Rall is President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.

Maui Time

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