Erased

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.

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