'Save the editorial cartoonists!'

By Chris Lamb
Feb 18, 2004

Nothing is more patriotic than social criticism. . . . The First Amendment doesn't exist so that we can freely praise our elected officials, it exists so we can freely criticize them.

Editor & Publisher, February, 2004
John Sherffius, the editorial cartoonist of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recently resigned after a series of disagreements with the newspaper's editor over his criticism of President George W. Bush and the Republican Party. In one of his last cartoons for the paper, Sherffius drew a Republican elephant riding a pig representing pork-barrel projects. The caption line read: "The party of fiscal discipline."

When the deputy editorial page editor asked Sherffius why he didn't include a Democratic donkey in the drawing, Sherffius replied that, according to newspaper accounts, Republican projects were receiving most of the money. The explanation satisfied the deputy editorial page editor but not the newspaper's editor, Ellen Soeteber, who told him he should either learn to take more direction or look for work elsewhere, The New York Times reported Jan.12 .

Given such a choice, Sherffius quit, creating yet another vacancy in a profession that has seen its numbers fall alarmingly. Twenty-five years ago, there were about 150 editorial cartoonists working full-time for newspapers; now there are perhaps half that many.

The state of the art is a result of both the economics of the newspaper industry and of editors who have little appreciation or understanding for political satire. Too many editors want editorial cartoons to be like news stories -- fair and balanced. But that's not what editorial cartoons are supposed to do. When "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau was once criticized for being unfair, he responded that "criticizing a political satirist for being unfair is like criticizing a260 -pound nose guard for being too physical."

As the newspaper industry has declined in both readership and influence, so too have the journalistic responsibilities of editors, who opt for publishing generic syndicated cartoons over provocative, staff-drawn cartoons because they are cheaper and generate fewer phone calls. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader once expressed the frustration of his beleaguered colleagues by telling editors: "(Editorial cartooning) has a proud history of treating readers to a unique mix of devastating humor, savage ridicule, bitter irony, and chilling tragedy. And you people are killing it."

Since the days that Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast helped destroy New York City's "Boss Tweed," editorial cartoonists have made a profound contribution to our democracy by pointing out the naked truths of our emperors. The Washington Post's Herbert Block, or Herblock as he signed his drawings, captured the excesses of the Red Scare by caricaturing U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Herblock and Paul Conrad reduced Richard Nixon to the diabolical politician he was.

Years before President Clinton was impeached for his sexual behavior, Clay Bennett, then working for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, drew Clinton wearing a T-shirt that said: "I'm With Stupid." Below it was an arrow pointing straight down. (His newspaper did not publish the drawing.) As the Bush administration has shamefully questioned the patriotism of its critics, a number of editorial cartoonists nevertheless have had the courage to raise legitimate questions about the administration's war in Iraq.

Nothing is more patriotic than social criticism. Editorial cartoons are as irreverent as the Boston Tea Party and as American as the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment doesn't exist so that we can freely praise our elected officials, it exists so we can freely criticize them -- and editorial cartoonists represent the most extreme form of criticism in the newspaper. Newspapers who give their cartoonist the freedom to express their own views, as free as possible from editorial restraint, reinforce the provocative message that an uninhibited exchange of opinions not only strengthens but maintains a democracy; in fact, it is necessary for a democracy.

Twenty years ago, James Squires, who was then the editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote an op-ed piece that said a single drawing by Jeff MacNelly, the paper's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, could cause him more grief than all the words written by all his reporters in a year. Nonetheless, he insisted he was committed to letting MacNelly do his job as unrestrained and unfettered as possible.

Because MacNelly, Dick Locher (the newspaper's other editorial cartoonist), and other talented cartoonists "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 wrote, "to censor them would be a definite disservice to art, and a probable danger to democracy."

But the Tribune's support for editorial cartooning belongs to another time. For economic reasons, the newspaper did not fill either the vacancy left by Locher's retirement nor has it found a successor for MacNelly, who died in June2000 . Instead of expressing provocative editorial cartoons on its editorial pages, the newspaper now apologizes if its syndicated drawings upset its readers.

Newspaper editors need to quit acting like government bureaucrats and corporate accountants. If they begin acting like guardians of the public trust, as they're intended to do, they may find that their editorial pages give their readers something to look forward to in the morning. They can do this by hiring editorial cartoonists.

Editorial cartoonists, however, will continue to be endangered species until publishers and editors believe cartoonists are worth saving. And how do you do that? Joel Pett believes that newspapers could hire cartoonists without sacrificing their bottom line. "If they take seriously the journalistic side of their obligation," he said. "If they sign on to the quaint but true notion that journalism ought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, there's no better way to afflict the comfortable than with editorial cartoons."

Chris Lamb, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication at the College of Charleston (S.C.), is the author of  Drawn to Extremes: The Limits of Editorial Cartoons in the United States, which will be published this year by Columbia University Press.

Reprinted with permission of the author.