Jeff MacNelly worked with great distinction as editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, earning two Pulitzer Prizes, until his death in 2000. His position at the Tribune remains unfilled.
Michael Ramirez, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, was fired last November by the Times 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 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.
Bob Englehart, editorial cartoonist of the Hartford Courant, was recently offered a buyout. He declined but he understood. His position was seen as expendable.
More than a trend, the forced extinction of the American political cartoonist position is well underway. 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.
The continued degradation of the position raises troubling ethical questions about corporate profit, journalistic responsibility and the public trust. As numerous ethicists have pointed out, bottom-line, marketplace decision-making can be harmful, perhaps even disastrous, to journalism's social role. Michael Bugeja argued persuasively in these pages that corporate greed and downsized newsrooms are two of the "seven deadly corporate sins" that bedevil journalism. Perhaps no group has been sinned against more than the editorial cartoonists.
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 famed "Join or Die," whose severed snake represented fractious American colonies-the form has captured political experience in ways that mere words could not.
In some cases, American history itself has been influenced by cartoons. Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast helped bring down New York City's corrupt 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 Sen. Joe McCarthy and Pres. 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 short-sighted 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. Money is often cited by a newspaper when a cartoonist's position is cut. 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 cartoons are available for a few dollars each week through syndication?
Syndication thus is another reason for the elimination of positions. The 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 himself likely would not be employed by the Tribune Company of today.)
Cartoonists are not meekly accepting their degradation by corporate "suits." In an artistic protest, organized by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, cartoonists declared last Dec. 12 "Black Ink Monday." The AAEC web site posted more than 100 cartoons decrying the loss of positions. Many of the cartoons also appeared in newspapers, including some on other dates and at least one comic strip which entered the fray.
For example, a cartoon by Steve Sack of the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed three severed hands holding art pens. Standing near was "the bean counters," a pudgy man in bow tie and suspenders, brandishing a bloody sword. The cartoon said, "The Pen is Mightier than the . . . Oh. Right. Never mind." Another cartoon, by Rick McKee of the Augusta Chronicle, depicted birds in a cage with newspaper lining the bottom. "We'll die of constipation!" a bird cries. "Ever since they got rid of the editorial cartoonist, this paper's not worth a crap!!"
Many of the "Black Monday" cartoons specifically targeted Tribune. Cartoonists feel that MacNelly's vacant Chicago position sends a not-so-subtle message to the many newspapers owned by Tribune. Ramirez's Los Angeles Times, KAL's Baltimore Sun, and Englehart's Hartford Courant are all Tribune newspapers.
Nick Anderson's contribution showed an accountant with a fistful of dollars hanging like King Kong on Chicago's Tribune Tower. A piece by Jeff Parker of Florida Today was titled, "1754 - The Tribune Company Buys Ben Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette." It depicted Franklin interrupted in his work on the "Join or Die" cartoon by a colonial executive who says, "OK Franklin, Out! A staff cartoonist is an expensive luxury." Gary McCoy of the Belleville News-Democrat portrayed Boss Tweed in 1873, pointing to work by Thomas Nast, and saying, "Let's stop them damn pictures!" The second panel showed a Tribune Company executive pointing at a headline that read, "Cartoonist Position Nixed." "Done!" the Tribune executive proclaims.
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 http:www.msnbc.com. Mark Fiore, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News, creates animated cartoons weekly at http:www.markfiore.com. Indeed, animation via the Web shows especial promise. JibJab, at http:www.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," Rehnquist said. "From the viewpoint of history it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without them."
Stacy Curtis of the Times of Northwest Indiana offered, perhaps naturally, a more visual affirmation in a two-panel cartoon for "Black Ink Monday." The left panel, titled "Opinion Pages with a Staff Editorial Cartoonist," showed a snarling watchdog. The right panel, "And Opinion Pages without a Staff Editorial Cartoonist," depicted the bumbling Disney dog, Goofy.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp. 3,14-15.