Archive for November, 2007

November 29, 2007

Cartoon for November 29

I’ll admit it. I was very happy with the way this one turned out.

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November 26, 2007


When Media Content is Free, It’s Worth Every Cent

This is the first of a three-part series.

August J. Pollak was thrilled when the Huffington Post asked him to blog for them. Joining the widely-read liberal website was a great break, thought the astute political cartoonist/blogger whose work appears at the perfectly-named “Some Guy with a Website.” Then they told him about his salary: Zero.

“I love the Huffington Post, and I love the exposure I get from them,” Pollak told me. “But it’s never going to pay my rent.”

He’s right. The Huffington Post, capitalized to the tune of $10 million, employs 43 full-time employees, all of whom presumably receive actual cash money, and health benefits, and maybe even a 401(k), for their efforts. But, USA Today reports, “it has no plans to begin paying bloggers. Ever.” Ken Lerer, company co-founder, former Time Warner executive, and probably himself in it for the money, says: “That’s not our financial model. We offer them visibility, promotion and distribution with a great company.” Sorry, August. Vampire capitalism offers its sincere regrets to you, and your 1600 unpaid colleagues.

(Disclosure: I interviewed Pollak for my alternative cartoon anthology “Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists.” We are friends.)
Content is king, dot-com gurus of the 1990s told us. People who made cool pictures, songs and strings of word cashed in. Then Andrew Odlyzko of AT&T Labs wrote an influential essay titled “Content Is Not King.”

“Content certainly has all the glamour,” wrote Odlyzko. “What content does not have is money…The annual movie theater ticket sales in the U.S. are well under $10 billion. The telephone industry collects that much money every two weeks! Those ‘commodity pipelines’ attract much more spending than the glamorous ‘content.'” Moving and packaging information pays. Producing it does not.

Leaders of America’s corporate mass media have embraced a financial model that relies upon a fatal internal conflict. The future of media, they believe, belongs to “consolidators” like the Drudge Report and Huffington, who pull together creative content–in these examples, news stories and opinion columns–they don’t pay for. But who will write the stuff they steal–er, consolidate?

In the short run, they’re getting luminaries such as late JFK biographer Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. They buy the pitch, sold by scruffy cool 29-year-old guys who look like the Mac guy in the “Mac vs. PC” commercials, that the intangible benefits of exposure online will lead to tangible paychecks. (When, they don’t say. From whom, they know not.) In the long run, hacks and amateurs like the right-wing bloggers who destroyed Dan Rather’s career at CBS by “debunking” his scoop about George W. Bush’s Air National Guard records. (Rather, it turned out, was right all along. Sorry, Dan.) And who will produce boring old content in the really long run? No one. No one worth paying attention to, anyway.

Hardly a day passes without finding a pitch from some wannabe freeloader in my e-mail. “Our magazine doesn’t have a budget for content, but we’d love to use your cartoon about…” “We can’t offer a salary per se, but you would get amazing exposure to thousands of discrete users if…” Content is still king. Online leeches just don’t want to pay the kingmakers.

“Internet idealists like me have long had an easy answer for creative types…who feel threatened by the unremunerative nature of our new Eden,” computer scientist Jaron Lanier wrote recently in the New York Times: “Stop whining and join the party!” Like other old media types, I’m working overtime to try to smash these economic lemons into sweet, lucrative lemonade.

In the meantime, I called the bank that holds my mortgage. “I don’t have a budget to pay you per se,” I cooed. “But think of the awesome prestige your corporation receives just by being associated with a cartoonist and columnist whose work is literally read by millions of–” Click. Citibank (Bangalore), Ltd., signing out. Back to work!

So I’m cranky. I’ve already been through this give-it-away-for-the-exposure crap before. It wasn’t any more fun in the 1980s than it is now.

In my 20s, when I was starting on my quest to become a full-time dispenser of drawings mocking the president, I let shoestring operations like “Poetry Halifax North,” a tiny review in Nova Scotia, and “Against The Current,” a socialist magazine out of Detroit, print my cartoons for free. They didn’t offer much exposure, but I needed the tearsheets. Not getting paid sucked, but giving away my “content” was understandable–my “clients” were broke.

Over the years, I got better known. Big newspapers and magazines published–and paid for–my cartoons. Working for free had paid off. I became a full-time cartoonist.

But then the big newspapers and magazines started giving away their content. Violating the first rule of capitalism (charge as much as the market will bear, stupid!) publishers became obsessed with securing “market share” online. It costs tens of millions of dollars a year to produce, but you can now read all of today’s New York Times–plus special Web-only articles that don’t appear in the print edition–for free.

The Times projects that online will account for 8 percent of its revenues this year. But that’s not so impressive when you consider that has 1300 percent more readers than the Old Gray Lady. Why don’t newspaper executives understand that a 50 percent market share, times online advertising rates that basically round off to zero, equals zero? Internet ad rates have been, remain, and will likely remain for the foreseeable future, a joke.

Online media is growing too slowly to make up for the decline of print. “Despite the popular belief that young people are flocking to the Internet, [a Harvard University study] found that teenagers and young adults were twice as likely to get daily news from television than from the Web,” reports The New York Times. Yet newspapers are eviscerating print operations to invest in an online presence without a discernible fiscal future.

Print is dead, Internet evangelists have convinced media executives. But, financially, there is no Web.

True, newspapers are boring, stodgy, and losing circulation. But abandoning them in favor of their possible-maybe-cross-your-fingers online successors is like getting rid of Saddam without planning for his successor.

Print media is dragging content providers into the abyss. First comes downsizing. Writers, cartoonists, and photographers are losing their jobs to peers willing to do the work for less or, in the case of readers invited to submit their comments and images for the thrill of appearing in the local rag, nothing. Then they squeeze those who remain for pay cuts. A cartoon that runs today in Time, Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times or The Washington Post–the most prestigious and widely disseminated forums in the United States–brings its creator less than The Village Voice would have paid for it in the 1980s. Some print venues offer no payment at all.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Internet users won’t pay, technology blogger Dan Bricklin asserted in a 2000 column: “People will pay money for things that give them emotional satisfaction, especially those things that involve interacting with others, or have a high emotion content, like music.” (I found the essay online, for free. Sorry, Dan.)

I think people are willing to pay for more than iTunes and text messages. So does Jaron Lanier, who now renounces his days as an information-wants-to-be-free cheerleader. “Information is free on the Internet,” he writes, “because we [computer scientists] designed it that way. We could design information systems so that people can pay for information–so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid.”

Unless something changes soon, deprofessionalization will further erode journalistic quality. The resulting dumbing down of our politics and culture will accelerate. We can’t get the toothpaste back into the tube. The Internet is here to stay. Unfortunately, the best way to make it more profitable–to stimulate all e-commerce, not just journalism–will require us to give up something dear to our rugged individualist American hearts: the illusion of Internet privacy.

NEXT WEEK: The solution.


November 26, 2007

Cartoon for November 26

A letter writer to the New York Times recently described Attorney General/Torturer Aficionado Michael Mukasey as a man of unquestioned integrity. Editorials bemoaned Mukasey’s refusal to condemn waterboarding as torture as a bizarre departure from the behavior of an otherwise swell guy.

Funny, I thought we were judged by our actions, not some media-branded PR phrase.

(By the way, McCain does use the word “gook.”)

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November 24, 2007

Cartoon for November 24

Briss Broyard’s new book received breathless, yet inexplicable, hype. Aside from the seriously odd choices that newspapers and magazines choose to push hard–while ignoring infinitely more important books–the weird obsession over race and implicit endorsement of the hoary “single drop of blood” rule seems worthy of comment.

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November 24, 2007

Cartoon for November 22

A growing number of Iraq War veterans are turning up homeless. Originally I was just going to republish the cartoon I did predicting that this would happen, which I drew at the height of the Yoo-Ess-Ay-Rocks hype in 2003, but I couldn’t find it in time for my deadline. Besides, this point is one I wanted to make in more than as an “I told you so.” “Support the troops,” always a meaningless phrase, has been rendered obsolete by Iraq vet homelessness.

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November 23, 2007

Nativists on Parade

An AP analysis of polls taken of Americans on the eve of the 2008 campaign contains this classic tidbit:

Joseph Lyon, a 22-year-old Republican from Houston, is most troubled by a fear the U.S. will leave Iraq too soon and by immigrants who stream into the U.S. but do not learn English.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Lyon, who begins serving with the Marines early next year. “They come here to live and expect us to assimilate to them. It’s our country.”

When are anti-immigration Americans like Lyon, presumably an American citizen who was born in the United States, going to learn English?

November 19, 2007

Cartoon for November 19

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November 18, 2007

Cartoon for November 17

A response to an actual phenomenon.

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November 16, 2007


Due to the short week created by Thanksgiving, I’m sending out next week’s column early.

Trim Bush from American History

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column that resonated with a lot of people.

Since 2001, I noted, “We’ve lost our right to see an attorney, to confront our accusers, even to get a fair trial. Government agents have kidnapped thousands of people, most of whom have never been heard from again. Bush even signed an edict claiming the right to assassinate anyone, including you and me, based solely on his whims. Torture, the ultimate sign that civilized society has been replaced by a police state,” has been legalized.

None of the major presidential candidates are currently promising to do what it would take to restore democracy: close Gitmo and the CIA torture chambers, get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, revoke the protofascist USA-Patriot and Military Commissions Acts, obey the Geneva Conventions and turn over Bush, his torturers, his Congressional allies and his top civilian and military officials to an international war crimes tribunal for their role in the murders of more than one million Afghans and Iraqis.

The politicians are too timid to do what’s right. But we can bully them into it. Let’s begin America’s long slog toward moral and political redemption by demanding that our next president’s first act be to declare the Bush Administration null and void. Every law and act carried out between 12 noon on January 20, 2001 and January 20, 2009 should just…go…poof.

My readers are cranky, distrustful and smart. (You can read their comments at Rallblog readers are all over the place politically: old-school Democrats, Goldwater Republicans, libertarians, socialists, anarchists, even neoconservatives. But they’re speaking out as one about my call to expunge the legacy of the Bush Administration: Yes. Yes. Hell, yes!

Let’s make it happen!

Now is the time. Write (an actual letter, not email) to your favorite presidential candidate and declare that you are a single-issue voter. Swear that, if he or she agrees to sign the following Pledge, your vote is assured. If not, promise to stay home or vote for someone else.

Pledge for American Renewal

“I, ______________, hereby solemnly pledge that my first act upon assuming the office of President shall be to sign an American Renewal Act of 2009, which shall declare all laws, regulations, executive orders, treaties and actions undertaken by the federal government during the illegitimate and unlawful administration of George W. Bush to be null, void and without effect.”

Sound crazy? So did Thomas Paine in 1775. As a practical and legal matter, however, consigning Bush to the dung heap of history makes more sense than revolting against the British.

First, the law.

George W. Bush’s January 20, 2001 inauguration was unconstitutional. This isn’t because Bush lost the popular vote. Nor is it because he lost Florida and thus the electoral vote. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Florida recount lawsuit, Bush v. Gore, violated the U.S. Constitution. It’s a states’ rights issue. Elections fall under state law; the highest court that may resolve a legal challenge about an election is a state supreme court. The U.S. Supreme Court–a federal body–didn’t have jurisdiction in the case.

An American Renewal Act is merely a confirmation of two centuries of standard practice.

There are precedents. After France was liberated in 1944, incoming president Charles de Gaulle declared the collaborationist government of Marshall Henri-Philippe Pétain null and void. (It was a stretch. Unlike Bush, who carried out a judicial coup, Pétain came to power legally.) In any case, Pétain vanished from textbooks. Numerous laws passed between 1940 and 1944, dealing with matters like taxes and construction projects, had to be debated and passed all over again.

The Southern secession of 1860 was perfectly legal, yet laws and currency issued by the Confederate government in the South were invalidated by the victorious Union in 1865.

The main argument for erasing Bush and his nefarious deeds is a legal one: official acknowledgement that the 2000 election was stolen gets the U.S. back on the path to democracy. (Should Al Gore should be allowed to serve the term he won in 2000? I don’t know.)

There’s also an ethical principle at stake. As de Gaulle said about Pétain’s partnership with the Nazis, the Bush Administration so disgraced itself and our nation that we have to renounce it in order to restore our moral authority, to be able to face citizens of other, less despicable, countries in the eye.
Another argument is based on power. Imagine that Gore had seized power in 2000 instead. Now imagine that he had turned as rabid as Bush, that he had ruled as far to the left as Bush has to the right. Businesses would have been nationalized. Healthcare would have been socialized; doctors would be federal employees. Taxes on the rich would have soared while the poor got off scot-free. Republican protesters at the Democratic National Convention would have gotten beaten up and thrown into filthy internment facilities for days on end. Crazy Gore would have apologized for foreign policies that provoked the 9/11 attacks. To prove he meant it, he would have sent troops to overthrow the world’s most heinous dictators, all U.S. allies, in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Now imagine that, over the years, Gore’s policies had ruined the economy and mired the military in endless, losing wars. That people had turned again him to the same degree that they’ve rejected Bush. As Frank Rich writes in The New York Times, only 24 percent of Americans approve of the Bush Administration–almost as bad as the image of the U.S. in Pakistan.

You can bet that the Republicans, after they took back power, would carry out the mother of all rollbacks. Gore, the rogue president, would probably wind up in prison. There’s no reason to treat Bush and his policies any more gently.

“We are a people in clinical depression,” writes Rich. “Americans know that the ideals that once set our nation apart from the world have been vandalized, and no matter which party they belong to, they do not see a restoration anytime soon.” Anyone who reads Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” knows the U.S. was damned far from perfect before Bush came along. But Rich’s broader point is correct. Falling short of lofty ideals is better than forgetting about them.

Demand that the major presidential candidates sign the Pledge for American Renewal. We know the woman and half-dozen men who are leading in the polls want to rule us. But will they lead?


November 15, 2007

Cartoon for November 15

Inspired by “The Night of the Hunter,” a classic noir starring Robert Mitchum, and Mitt Romney’s aw-shucks gee-whiz campaign speeches.

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