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.
In this fast-paced, visual world, editorial cartoonists might be expected to occupy a heightened, privileged position in newspapers, akin to their front-page placement in the early 1900s. But corporate pressures are erasing cartoons from the pages of the newspaper. The shortsighted reasoning goes this way:
Editorial cartoons once helped differentiate a publication when cities had numerous newspapers. Newspapers, and their cartoonists, were proudly liberal, conservative, socialist, or anarchist. Now, most cities and towns are one-newspaper towns. With no need to differentiate, but with a desire to ingratiate, many newspapers try to please most of the people, most of the time. Without competition, newspapers do not see why they should spend money to be distinctive in the marketplace. The cartoonist becomes dispensable.
Of course, cartoonists are also a cost. It is only one person's salary but, the bean-counting logic goes, why should a newspaper pay salary and benefits to a cartoonist when work of the nation's best cartoonists is available daily through syndication services? Newspapers can pay a small, sliding fee, sometimes less than $100 a week, and have access to Pulitzer Prize winners from around the country.
Rather than the local content that a staff cartoonist provides, the syndicated work is distant-national or international in scope. For many editors and publishers, this is another plus. National work avoids local controversy. A sharply opinionated local cartoonist (or editorial writer) will, by definition, alienate many local readers and advertisers. A single cartoon can cause subscribers to drop the paper and advertisers to pull ads.
James Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, once wrote that a single cartoon by Jeff MacNelly could cause him more trouble and time than all the words written by Tribune reporters that same year. To his credit, Squires recognized that cartoons 'represent the most incisive and effective form of commentary known to man and one as vital to the exercise of free speech and open debate as any words that ever appeared on such pages.' (Squires probably would not be employed by the Tribune Company of today.)
Cartoonists, however, might have the last laugh. Driven from newspaper pages, some cartoonists are finding new life on the Web. Daryl Cagle's work appears regularly at MSNBC.com. Mark Fiore, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News, creates animated cartoons weekly at MarkFiore.com. Indeed, animation via the Web shows special promise. JibJab.com became an Internet sensation with its animated satire of the 2004 election campaign. Perhaps as newspapers move to the Internet, they will once again realize that editorial cartoonists can differentiate them in a crowded marketplace. Perhaps economics will lead publishers to do the right thing.
The nation will be better for it. Even a frequent target of cartoons, former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice William Rehnquist, affirmed their value. In his decision defending a Hustler parody in 1988, Rehnquist wrote, 'Despite their sometimes caustic nature . . . graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate. . . . From the viewpoint of history it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without them.'
Jack Lule is a journalism professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Reprinted from Media Ethics (Spring 2006). Subscriptions: $10/yr. (2 issues) from 186 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02111; www.mediaethicsmagazine.com.