How Top Newspapers Are Killing Editorial Cartooning

An editorial cartoon is like nothing else in a newspaper. Editorial cartoonists don’t need any special degrees. Unlike reporters and editorial writers, they don’t even have to pretend to be “fair.” Moderation in what Jules Feiffer called “the art of ill will” is the ultimate vice: boring.

A great political cartoon can do things no news article or editorial can. It can expose hypocrisies and ideological contradictions with the stroke of a pen and the flash of an eye. It can connect seemingly unrelated events to point out a theretofore unnoticed trend. At its best, an editorial cartoon can prompt readers to rethink society’s basic assumptions.

But American political cartoonists are an endangered species. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists estimates that there are fewer than 90 full-time staff cartoonists left in the U.S., down from approximately 280 in 1980. A dozen have lost their jobs in the last year alone. Syndicated cartoonists have seen their income drop by 50 percent or more. Discouraged and broke, young cartoonists are abandoning the field.

Editorial cartoonists face the same enemy as the newspapers where they appear: the more widely their work is disseminated on the Internet, the less they get paid. Particular to graphic journalism, however, is the seeming determination of editors and publishers to render editorial cartooning irrelevant–by promoting hack work over quality.

We Americans live in a golden age of editorial cartooning. Never have has the profession been as ideologically, stylistically or demographically diverse. Never has the art been as daring or ambitious. Never have cartoons been as popular or, thanks to the Internet, as widely read. Yet American editorial cartooning is in danger of disappearing entirely–murdered by editors and publishers at the major magazines and newspapers.

The state of political cartooning in 2009 mirrors that of radio in the late ’70s. Music was awesome, but the good stuff wasn’t on the radio. Punk, new wave and postpunk took chances and redefined popular music, but the only way to get it was to buy LPs at a record store.

Similarly, editors of the big daily papers and the newsweekly magazines know what makes a good cartoon: they post them on their walls and in their cubicles. What they run in their publications, on the other hand, is what we cartoonists constantly refer to as the worst of the worst: dull clichés, hackneyed metaphors, idiotic gags about the news reminiscent of Jay Leno’s middle of the road comedy style. They’re safe. They don’t anger readers. But they don’t matter.

Peruse the highest profile venues–USA Today, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times‘ “Week In Review” section–and you’d never guess that there were entire genres of cartooning going unrepresented. Draw in more than one or two panels, and you’d might as well chuck your scribbles down George Orwell’s memory hole. And God forbid if you express an actual opinion!

Out of notice of the Pulitzer Prize committee, cartoonists at alternative weekly newspapers–a genre which into its own during the 1980s–became the front line of criticism of the Bush Administration after 9/11, when the mainstream media was still swallowing every White House press release hook, line and WMD. Staff cartoonists at family-owned independent dailies change hearts and minds by viciously skewering local and state politicians and their policies, yet languish in obscurity.

Even cartoonists whose work make the big round-ups complain that their hardest-hitting cartoons are repeatedly passed over in favor of material so bland a reader would be hard-pressed to know whether its creator was liberal or conservative.

“Too much editorial cartooning today is opinion-free gag writing–uninformed, unenlightened, largely unconscious,” says Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Newspapers, says Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, encourage “bland, gag-oriented cartoons rather than hard-hitting ones.” Pett and Wilkinson, both Pulitzer winners who served as AAEC president, have been rebuffed when they’ve drawn editorial attention to cartoonists’ complaints. The Times even redesigned its cartoon section to appear next to quotes by such late-night comedians as…Jay Leno.

Times editor Katy Roberts’ snide 2007 response to these complaints was typical. “Most readers don’t know this,” she wrote, “but a whole subculture out there is permanently aflame over the syndicated cartoons chosen by us and other national publications like Newsweek…The complaint is that we like cartoons to be funny and witty.”

Not at all. The trouble with the Times‘ selections is that they are bad. They are not funny. They are not smart. They express no opinions, no thoughts, few insights. If these are the nation’s best cartoons, readers conclude, cartoons aren’t worth reading.

Oh, and: “Subculture”?

For a long time, cartoonists were happy just to have a shot at appearing in prominent outlets like the Times and Newsweek. In recent years, however, many have concluded that elevating lameness is self-perpetuating and destructive. It justifies decisions to lay off cartoonists, including those who do great work. Imagine if the Oscars were repeatedly awarded not just to films that weren’t the best of the year, nor to films that weren’t that great, but to total turkeys. Filmmakers would be up in arms, and rightly so.

Newspapers are under financial stress. But they won’t survive by selling a diet of bland and boring to consumers who have more information options than ever before. Refusing to embrace what was cool and relevant in the ’70s set the stage for the death of music radio in the ’80s and ’90s–supplanted by news talk and satellite. Whether it’s cartoons or music reviews or political analysis, playing it safe is suicide.

(Ted Rall, an editorial cartoonist for Universal Press Syndicate, is President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.)



9 Responses to “THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Suicide via Conformity”

  1. Joe Says:

    I would be thrilled to see better editorial cartoons in the newspaper. The dailies I subscribe to are the WSJ and Newsday, and Newsday never fails to print something completely lame. Why waste the space and the ink? Like Ted said – bland, cliched.

    The last time I saw consistently interesting cartoons in print form was something called The Funny Times.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Cartoons are not the only political discourse censored by omission – print, broadcast, editorial, it is all sanitized in order to protect the interests that control and support big media.

    How are we supposed to take control of building our future when we all have mittens on? Ha!

    Don’t despair Ted, how many revolutionaries in history have been salaried, their ideas disseminated by state/corporate media outlets?

    answer: if they were, they weren’t revolutionaries.

  3. Thomas Daulton Says:

    Hey Ted, you and other Lefty cartoonists have devoted a lot of thought to the decline of newspapers, especially recently. But I’m surprised to see Consortium News beating you to this column:

    American Media Misdiagnosis

    They argue that the newspapers’ decline in the U.S. co-incides with rampant political toadying to the Right over the past 8 years. There might be something to that.

    You have lamented press toadying in many ways over the years, but to the best of my memory, I don’t think you’ve explicitly linked it to the industry’s financial decline. Am I wrong?

    Even Republicans could get behind this theory — although I happen to think the press gave Bush much more of a free ride than Clinton, you can certainly point to a lot of ways that Clinton and other Democrats bamboozle the press and simply get away with it.

    In other words, at some level (even subconscious) the U.S. newspaper consumer has sensed that the papers are peddling a crock of sh·t, no matter which political side you’re on. And hence the sentiment has been slowly building, maybe for decades, but sharply after Americans were taken by surprise by 911: people don’t care to pay money for a hardcopy of myopic sh·t anymore.

    Has the foreign press suffered the same way the American newspapers have? That might be a counter-indicator. A lot of foreign press has always been tabloid, long before 911, so the foreign press has probably changed _less_ in _relative_ terms over recent years.

  4. Flamingo Bob Says:

    One of the last places to find honest analysis and criticism in America has been the editorial cartoon. The reason? These artists can be somewhat cushioned against the smear campaigns that have destroyed the lives and careers of so many other more “serious” critics. They can still use the quite legal defense “Hey, it was just a joke.”

    This has been the reason many of us are now in the habit of visiting the websites of Mr. Rall, Tom Tomorrow, etc. when we want to know something. It was the only “media source” where I found a reflection of my doubts about Iraqui WMD’s. It is certainly among the very few places I find any skepticism about solving an economic crisis by emptying the Treasury into the pockets of the greed-heads who caused that crisis in the first place.

    Small wonder, then, that the megalithic companies owned by these greed-heads are suddenly dumbing down the process and turning off the taps.

    Like the ongoing extinction of the Professional Journalist in favor of the Ranting Unverified Blogger, this is all part of the business of manufactured consensus. Problems have been identified in the current strategy and steps are being taken.

    Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert better watch their asses too…

  5. Susan Stark Says:

    I used to be able to read Tom Tomorrow in the Village Voice. They discontinued him. That pisses me off.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    You said “Editorial cartoonists don’t need any special degrees” but then 3 paragraphs later you comment on hack work being selected over quality. What is your definition of hack work? That which is created outside of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists? So special degrees aren’t required but membership is?

  7. Anonymous Says:

    ” Imagine if the Oscars were repeatedly awarded not just to films that weren’t the best of the year, nor to films that weren’t that great, but to total turkeys”

    Dude, that’s reality.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    I can’t explain how difficult it is to take “cartoonists losing their jobs” seriously. I believe you have over rated your value.

  9. steve mielczarek Says:

    Steve here.
    Tell me about it.
    Finally, I turn into a brilliant cartoonist.
    And I have to quit.
    Neglect hurts. “Ouch!”
    I give up.
    I’m going to live in a cave.
    Cook bugs for supper.

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