Recount: A Magazine of Contemporary Politics

Political Cartoonists, the Endangered Species

By Matt Ozga | Mar 21, 2005 Print

Four single-panel cartoons, each one crudely sketched in pencil, rest on top of a small bookshelf in the editorial room of the Record (Bergen County, N.J.). “Dick?” says Jimmy Margulies, the artist behind the drawings, declaring his presence to his editor. “Cartoons.” This is a daily ritual; Margulies doesn’t need to say “Here are the rough drafts of four potential editorial cartoons for tomorrow’s newspaper, Dick, one of which I need you to approve so I can begin fleshing it out, refining it, and inking it; then wash my hands, call my wife, and be out of the office by 6:30.” The single-word announcement of “Cartoons” is enough.

Dick Benfield, the editorial page editor at the Record, a Hackensack-based daily newspaper, acknowledges his cartoonist with a grunt and a nod but continues to stare at his computer monitor: he’s a busy man. Meanwhile, outside Benfield’s office, Margulies fusses with the presentation of the four drawings – clearing excess trash from the top of the bookshelf, arranging the pages so they are uniformly spaced and parallel with the wall – and awaits his editor’s judgment.

Finally, Benfield appears from his office. He summons other writers and editors from their cubicles (“Mary-Ellen: cartoons”) and looks down at the sketches, all of which focus on the professional basketball players who had recently assaulted paying customers at the Detroit Pistons’ home arena. The office, for the moment, is an ad hoc art gallery. Four people crowd around the drawings, pondering, chuckling, while Margulies waits beside them.

Then the moment ends. After about 30 seconds of careful consideration, Benfield taps the winner. “This one,” he says, and re-enters his office. Margulies thanks him and wends his way back to his office, tucked in a corner of the newsroom, beyond the room that is responsible for the paper’s online content. “A lot of people probably don’t even know I have this office,” Margulies says.

The chosen cartoon depicts a mustachioed businessman in tie and suspenders asking his fellow sports marketers “Help me out here…which pro basketball player should we get to endorse these boxing gloves?” Margulies was asked if he would rather have drawn one of the three cartoons that he wound up unceremoniously dumping in the recycling bin after Benfield handed down his decision. “I didn’t have a strong preference,” he says.

Perhaps Margulies is correct in not rocking the boat. The era of salaried, on-staff editorial cartoonists working at daily newspapers has been steadily declining for years. Today’s cartoonists, facing both a hyper-saturated media environment and increasing corporate consolidation in the newspaper business, are having a harder time than ever convincing publishers they are worth a salary and benefits. As the situation grows more dire, some cartoonists have looked towards the Internet as a way to showcase their work digitally, but most are skeptical about the limitations of the medium. Time will tell whether the Internet will prove to be the savior of editorial cartooning, but most cartoonists would agree that the unique role the local cartoonist once played is sorely endangered. “There are about 85 cartoonists [employed by a newspaper] in the country,” said Daryl Cagle, cartoonist for the online magazine Slate. “That means it’s five times easier to get a job in the NBA.”

In February 2004, Chicago newspapers reported that some local firefighters had been making racist comments in transmissions over the department’s radio frequency. At the height of the controversy, the Chicago Tribune published an editorial cartoon by Doug Marlette which depicted a group of three firemen – attack dogs snarling and poised beside them – turning their hoses on a group of cowering African-Americans. A fourth firefighter attempts to point his colleagues in the opposite direction: “No, guys – the fire’s over there!”

What’s remarkable about this cartoon isn’t the public outcry it caused – although it did raise a ruckus with everyone from readers to firefighters to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who called the cartoon “disgraceful.” Even the cartoon’s extreme interpretation of the controversy – turning a few off-the-cuff uses of the n-word into Birmingham circa 1963 – isn’t incredibly noteworthy, because cartoons are, after all, supposed to make an immediate, visceral point.

The real issue, in terms of political cartooning, is Marlette’s relationship with the newspaper in which the cartoon appeared. The Chicago Tribune hasn’t had a staffed editorial cartoonist since Jeff MacNally died in 2000. Since then, the Trib has bought and used cartoons from its syndicate, Tribune Media Services, which is a far cheaper alternative to hiring a full-time cartoonist. “If you have someone on staff, it’s thirty, forty thousand dollars [a year],” said Steve Greenberg, graphic artist and political cartoonist for the Ventura County (Calif.) Star. “Syndicated material can be had for fifteen to twenty-five dollars a week.” Newspapers without cartoonists on staff are free to root through this material, “picking and choosing the most innocuous material,” Greenberg said.

The major disadvantage to this practice is it takes away the local voice from the content of the cartoons, a voice that can regularly and knowledgeably comment on matters of city, state, and national government from a localized point of view, effectively capturing the tenor of the town. Readers feel more engaged when they see local character in their daily editorial cartoon. A North Carolina resident on staff at the Tallahassee Democrat, Marlette has essentially nothing to do with the city of Chicago. But surely it is significant that his cartoon about a Chicago-specific issue sparked such a fiery controversy among the Tribune’s readership: it speaks to a need for Chicago cartoonists drawing from a Chicago perspective, or Baltimore cartoonists drawing from a Baltimore perspective, and so on. Yet local cartoonist jobs continue to become rarer.

When one has been employed in busy newsrooms for one’s entire professional life, the solitude of working at home can be jarring. Reached by phone, Milt Priggee sounded so excited to hear another human voice he spoke for nearly an hour with few interruptions, extemporaneously riffing on the state of political cartooning (and nearly draining my phone card in the process). “I tend to ramble, and this is what happens when you freelance,” Priggee said. “You don’t get to talk to anybody.”

Priggee lost his job as the editorial cartoonist of the Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) in 2000. Since then, he has been working out of his home in Oak Harbor, Wash., in the extreme northwest corner of the contiguous United States, freelancing and creating cartoons and animations for his website. To underscore the endless offing of staff editorial cartoonist positions, Priggee posted a Flash animation last October entitled “Coffins,” which lists 41 cartoonists who have been fired in the last few years, each one represented by a solid black coffin. Priggee – who has a unique gift for metaphor – sees the recent spate of editorial cartoonist “deaths” as symptomatic of a larger trend toward consolidation in the newspaper industry. “Publishers have a monopoly on local newspapers,” Priggee said. “The First Amendment as far as editorial cartoonists goes is dead. The foundation of the First Amendment is based on competition.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, when it wasn’t uncommon for a given market to have a dozen or more warring newspapers, the field of political cartooning flourished aesthetically and professionally, with nearly 2,000 cartoonists weighing in daily with their opinions. The 21st century hasn’t been nearly as kind to the ideals of competition on which the Constitution was based. In the last couple decades, major media companies such as Knight Ridder (owner of 31 daily newspapers in the United States, according to the Columbia Journalism Review), Gannet (101), and Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (186) have swooped into markets and, in many cases, eliminated all but one newspaper. Cartoons, which were once critical in helping to define a newspaper’s image relative to all the others in a bountiful news marketplace, have become afterthoughts in the minds of many publishers. The remaining 85 staffed editorial cartoonists are still free to express their opinions through their work, and often those opinions challenge the political status quo or conventional wisdom in thought-provoking ways. The difference now lies in the slow demise of local newspaper competition, which “augurs to a fewer number of voices,” said Nick Anderson, cartoonist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Fewer voices mean less informed debate, and because participatory democracy (ostensibly) relies on an informed and empowered citizenry, there is a way in which media consolidation could be viewed as un-American. The decline of editorial cartooning is one of the most glaring effects of that consolidation.

“[Less] than one-tenth of papers have cartoonists [on staff],” Priggee said. “What kind of a grasp are you going to have with one-tenth of your fingers?”

One of the reasons editorial cartoons can’t have the same influence as they once did, of course, is entirely practical. In the latter half of the 19th century, when most publishers hadn’t yet assimilated this newfangled “photography” invention into their newspapers, cartoons were often “the [only] visual within the medium,” said Howard Finberg of the Poynter Institute, who, in 2003, wrote a series of articles about political cartoonists and the Iraq war. In 1871, Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly drew a series of about 50 cartoons targeting the crooked New York City political machine Tammany Hall. Although Nast’s influence on the day’s politics are often vastly overstated – the cartoons did not single-handedly bring down the Tammany Hall machine; that wouldn’t happen until Teddy Roosevelt became president – his drawings certainly helped to turn public opinion against the rampant theft and corruption within City Hall. His cartoons, many of which featured his scathing caricature of Tammany Hall member William “Boss” Tweed, added a powerful, unequivocally provocative visual component to a story that had been largely shrugged off by the public (which, at the time, had a literacy rate of only 80 percent, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy). One of Nast’s cartoons depicted Tweed, his obesity comically exaggerated, his hands smugly buried in his pockets, his head replaced by a giant money bag. It is, as Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop described it in their 1996 history of political cartoons “Drawn and Quartered,” “the perfect cartoon.”

Today, a political cartoon, no matter how perfect it is, is unlikely to change public opinion to the extent Nast’s did. “Society’s different,” Finberg said. “There are all the other forms of communication and ways of getting information” competing with political cartoons and the newspapers that publish them. Roughly one out of every four Americans (25.6 percent) read a newspaper daily in 2002, down from 1990, when more than one-third of the population (33.7 percent) were daily followers of print journalism. People are increasingly turning to television for their news; and Internet bloggers, cable TV blowhards and talk radio blowharders have cornered the market on unbridled opinion-spew in the public sphere. It would seem that static, black and white political cartoons don’t stand much of a chance.

Still, at their best, today’s political cartoons can still kick up a fuss (see Marlette’s firefighter controversy for proof of that); they can still challenge power structures, go against the grain, rouse some rabble. “I like a cartoon that provokes thought,” Anderson said. “It’s not my goal necessarily to provoke anger – sometimes it is, but not every day.”

Most editorial cartoonists are currently on the left of the political spectrum – makes sense, considering the good ones question and challenge the status quo. “There’s no sense in doing a cartoon about, ‘Isn’t the administration doing a great job?’” said Jeff Danziger of the New York Times Syndicate. Faced with another four years of Bush, cartoonists are vowing to pull no punches in their handling of national government matters. Matt Davies of the Journal News (White Plains, N.Y.) is a name often cited among cartoonists as doing some of the best, most forward-thinking work in the field today. A London native, Davies won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning “for his piercing cartoons on an array of topics, drawn with a fresh, original style,” according to the Pulitzer committee. Davies trucks in deep, multi-layered symbolism. A recent cartoon depicted Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s nominee for Secretary of State, sitting at a piano labeled “White House foreign policy.” Rice, “the concert pianist,” has her hands raised in the air, as if about to strike the first chord in some grand symphony, but there is only one key on the piano, and no music sheet in the stand. Surely this is a critique of the one-note, if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us mentality of the Bush administration, as well as its lack of a plan in establishing democracy in Iraq. And as an added bonus, it references Rice’s background as a classical pianist. Neat trick.

Drawing a well-thought-out, meaningful political cartoon such as the above example is hard work, the result of an entire day’s thinking and planning and drawing. Before he showed his editor his four preliminary sketches, Jimmy Margulies had already put in an entire day at the Record’s office. Margulies began his morning by attending the daily editorial meeting in between perusing several print and online newspapers, using his cartoonist’s sense of news judgment to sniff out a usable topic. He decided that his cartoon would be about the brawl that had broken out at a recent Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers basketball game. The brawl was featured prominently in many papers; more importantly, it was part of the national conversation. Margulies wasn’t about to touch the dry lead story in the New York Times that day – “Major Creditors Agree to Cancel 80% of Iraq Debt.” “That’s not something ordinary people care about,” he said.

Penciling four sketches of potential cartoons took the better part of the afternoon, and at around 4:30 p.m., Margulies showed his editor what he had come up with, and his editor handed down his judgment. “Sometimes I feel [a cartoon] is the lowest common denominator if it gets the pick,” Margulies said, but was quick to explain he meant lowest common denominator in a good way, a populist way. After all, cartoonists don’t expect readers to pore over political cartoons – the longest amount of time they’ll spend on one is maybe 15 seconds, Margulies said, “so it’s better to be simpler.” But drawing simple cartoons isn’t so simple. Margulies takes extra care in getting the composition of his cartoons exactly right; they have to flow in a way that is natural to the human eye. As he drew his cartoon, Margulies sporadically leaned back from his desk, exhaled, and widened his eyes, testing the cartoon for its compositional focus. If more shading was needed, he’d dip his paintbrush and add some shading; if more negative space was needed, out came the Liquid Paper. All told, about an hour and a half of drawing time was put into a cartoon that will take less time to read than a sign on the freeway. “A political cartoon is instant gratification,” said Drew Sheneman of the Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.). “Too few things in the newspaper are like that.”

This means, of course, that the content in political cartoons – no matter how complex the symbols may be – are always reductive, boiling an issue down to its essence, then boiling down that essence even further and making a strong point about it. “You never let the facts get in the way of a good cartoon,” Priggee said. This reductive aspect of cartooning has always been one of its chief assets. Right now, in journalism schools across the country, students are arguing whether objective or subjective reporting better gets at the truth of a situation. Cartoonists would certainly side toward the latter. “Sometimes you can get closer to the truth doing what I do, cutting through the crap and oversimplifying,” Margulies said. As hard-hitting, power-challenging salvos in the battle between the afflicted and the comfortable, political cartoons, it can be argued, fulfill certain bedrock journalistic ideals – the truth! the fourth estate! – better than any objective reporting could.

So where does Margulies’s basketball cartoon fit in? Certainly it doesn’t challenge those in power, unless the term “power” is broadly defined to include 6-foot-7-inch power forwards. The cartoon isn’t “super-controversial,” Margulies said. “No one’s going to be in favor of NBA players going into the stands and beating up fans.”

The basketball cartoon is a “gag cartoon,” one that makes no real point about an issue, choosing instead merely to comment on news events in a humorous way, similar to what Jay Leno does in his nightly Tonight Show monologue. (The Leno comparison is a popular one; Daryl Cagle, Nick Anderson, Sheneman, and Priggee each invoked Leno’s square name when discussing gag cartoons.) Debates about the relative worth of gag cartoons have created a “split [among cartoonists] for as long as I’ve been doing this,” Margulies said. Like Margulies, Anderson is a cartoonist whose work usually has depth and substance; he tries not to feed readers “a daily diet of Twinkies.” But he’ll throw a gag cartoon out to Louisville Courier-Journal readers every now and then; they can be spiritually and creatively replenishing for both artist and audience. “If readers see you throwing a fastball every day, they start to turn you off,” Anderson said.

Some, however, see such cartoons as playing into the hand of the national syndicates who are trying to kill off local editorial cartooning. Gag cartoons “represent laziness, pandering to where [cartoonists] can make a sale,” said Steve Greenberg. Most cartoonists, even those on staff at a daily newspaper, are affiliated with a syndicate that peddles their work to assorted publications throughout the country. Those syndicates have a far easier time selling cartoons when the material is inoffensive, politically ambiguous, and has national appeal, making them suitable for reprinting in Newsweek’s quotes-and-cartoons department “Perspectives” (whose cartoon reprints have been “atrocious,” said Cagle) or the Sunday New York Times’s “Views” feature in the Week in Review section. Greenberg, like all the other cartoonists interviewed for this article, wouldn’t name names, but there are some editorial cartoonists whose work seems to skew towards gag humor, including Mike Smith of the Las Vegas Sun, Jeff Stahler of the Columbus Dispatch, and the oft-reprinted Steve Kelley of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

It behooves cartoonists to get their work reprinted in as many places as possible – they get exposure that way, not to mention extra income, and every little bit helps. “There’s not a lot of money in [cartooning] – not that I know of,” Danziger said. When his cartoons are reprinted in Business Week, Margulies said he receives $325, which is “really good, at the high end of it.” His weekend gig as a caricaturist-for-hire – parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings – also brings in extra dough.

As readers continue to leave traditional “dead-tree media” (to use Milt Priggee’s term for newspapers and magazines) in favor of digital media, it would seem that cartoons should follow the money and make the move with their readers. But there’s a problem. Transplanting a static political cartoon from its equally static print environment to the dynamic information superhighway effectively enervates the original cartoon of any power it might once have had. Daryl Cagle’s online archive of editorial cartoons from the print realm works because it’s a valuable, organized resource – “the best thing that’s happened to editorial cartooning in a while,” Margulies said. But in terms of new, exclusively web-based content, consumers of digital media expect more than ink and paper. Posting traditional cartoons on the Internet is “like taking an engine out of your car and putting a horse in there instead,” Priggee said.

Priggee and a small handful of others have turned to animation as the next wave of editorial cartooning. To call it “animation,” however, is being generous. Priggee’s work is probably the crudest, but even the work done by more animation-savvy cartoonists – Mark Fiore, for instance – isn’t exactly Pixar-quality stuff. Bandwidth is a concern, as is the learning curve a new media form presents. Priggee is still learning the ropes, but he would advise future editorial cartoonists to learn how to animate from the beginnings of their careers. “The door that is opening is the Internet, the digital world,” Priggee said. “You have to learn how to draw and animate on the politics of the day.”

Fiore has been the great success story of the digital age of cartooning. A former staffed cartoonist at the San Jose Mercury News, Fiore has since devoted all of his time to his web-based animated cartoons, which now features relatively lively motion and sound; a recent cartoon was a sing-along to the tune of “Take Me out to the Ballgame” (“Fill them up with the steroids…”).

Fiore, though, is an anomaly, the only person to make a comfortable living wage based solely on income from animated political cartoons, Greenberg said. Most aren’t so lucky. “The Internet is democratic – anyone can get their name on there,” Greenberg said. “But as a way to make a living, it’s not happening for most people. There’s no guarantee you’ll get any income from it, and there’s no guarantee readers will come across it.” Priggee is optimistic about the future of digital cartooning, but its present is a little iffy; he asked me several times during our phone conversation to make sure I plug his website in this article.

People have been sounding the death knell for print media as a whole since the Internet rose to prominence in the mid-1990s, but newspapers survive. And despite reduction in newspaper readership, despite the loss of scores of staff editorial cartoonist positions, despite gag cartoons and their perceived malevolent effect on the field, political cartoons survive too. To ensure this survival and maintain the relevance of cartooning, several steps have been taken. When legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block, known professionally as Herblock, died in 2001, he donated nearly $50 million to the creation of the Herb Block Foundation. Part of the Foundation’s money will be used to advance the craft of political cartooning. The Association of American Political Cartoonists, meanwhile, works with Newspapers in Education to present Cartoons in the Classroom, a program that encourages using editorial cartoons as teaching tools in middle school and high school. (Cagle estimates that half of the e-mails he receives are from “kids forced to study political cartoons,” asking what a particular cartoon on his site means.) Through programs like these, political cartoonists are working on keeping their chosen craft the vibrant, relevant force in American society that it has proven to be over the last two centuries. “It’s definitely a more positive strategy than we’ve taken in the past,” said Anderson. “Which has been complaining.”

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