Timidity fueled by greed is killing off political cartoonists at daily newspapers

| September / October 2006

Jeff MacNelly worked for two decades as editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune until his death in 2000, earning three Pulitzer Prizes in his career. His position at the Tribune remains unfilled.

Michael Ramirez, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, was fired last November in a cost-cutting move. The paper has no plans to replace him.

Kevin Kallaugher, who signs his cartoons 'KAL,' drew for the Baltimore Sun for more than 17 years. In January, he accepted a buyout when it became apparent that his position was in jeopardy. Another Sun cartoonist, Mike Lane, had already accepted a buyout in 2004.

In the early 1900s, when cities had multiple newspapers, an estimated 2,000 cartoonists were at work. Twenty years ago, close to 200 cartoonists still were employed at American newspapers. Today, the number is less than 80, according to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Political cartoonists are an endangered species.

Those who care about democratic discourse should be alarmed and dismayed. Political cartoons have long offered some of the most pointed, thought-provoking commentary in a newspaper's pages. From America's first published editorial cartoon-Ben Franklin's 'Join or Die,' whose severed snake represented fractious American colonies-the form has captured political experience in ways that mere words could not.

Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast helped bring down New York City's corrupt politician William 'Boss' Tweed in the late 1800s. 'Stop them damn pictures,' Tweed pleaded. Herbert Block, 'Herblock' of the Washington Post, kept a singular spotlight on Senator Joe McCarthy and President Richard Nixon as they rose to and were driven from power. On the world stage, the 2006 furor over Danish editorial cartoons that depicted the Prophet Mohammed show the potential power of the medium.