SYNDICATED COLUMN: Who Polices Political Cartooning?

An Art Form in Crisis Ignores the Rot Within

“Ted Rall, mop-headed antiestablishment political cartoonist, has abundant talent, a 1,400-drawing portfolio, seven years’ experience, the acclaim of peers and the approval of newspaper editors who, every so often, print his work. What he lacks is someone who will hire him full-time.”

That’s from The New York Times.

In 1995.

Editorial cartooning, a unique art form whose modern version originated in 18th century France and has become more pointed, sophisticated and effective in the United States than any other country, was in big trouble back then. Newspapers, the main employers of political cartoonists, were closing and slashing budgets. Those that survived were timid; cowardly editors rarely hire, much less retain, the controversial artists who produce the best cartoons, those that stimulate discussion.

Things are worse now.

Much worse.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by but the number of full-time professional political cartoonists now hovers around 30. In 1980 there were about 300. A century ago, there were thousands.

Cartoonists blame tightfisted publishers and shortsighted editors for their woes. Many decry news syndicates for charging low rates for reprinted material. “If an editor can get Walt Handelsman and Steve Kelley for ten bucks a week, why would he pay $70,000 a year for a guy in his hometown?” asked Handelsman, then the cartoonist for The New Orleans Times-Pacayune, in the 1995 Times piece cited above.

There’s also the Internet. As happened across the world of print media, the Web created more disruption than opportunity. Dozens of cartoonists tried to sell animated editorial cartoons to websites. Two succeeded.

Digitalization decimated the music business, savaged movies and is washing away book publishing. If the titans of multinational media conglomerates can’t figure out how to stem the tide, individual cartoonists who make fun of the president don’t stand a chance.

We can only control one thing: the quality of our work. It pains me to admit it, but to say we’ve fallen down on the job would be to give us too much credit.

We suck.

Day after day, year after year, editorial cartoonists have been churning out a blizzard of hackwork. Generic pabulum relying on outdated metaphors—Democratic donkeys, Republican elephants, tortured labels, ships of state labeled “U.S.” sinking in oceans marked “debt,” cars driving off cliffs, one hurricane after another, each labeled after some crisis new or imagined. Cut-and-paste art styles slavishly lifted from older cartoonists down to the last crosshatch. Work so bland and devoid of insight or opinion that readers can’t tell if the artist is liberal or conservative. Cartoons that make no point whatsoever, such as those that mark anniversaries of news events, the deaths of corporate executives like Steve Jobs, and even holidays (for Veterans Day: “freedom isn’t free”).

To be sure, editors and publishers have hired and promoted the very worst of the worst. Prize committees snub brilliance and innovation in favor of safe and cheesy.

In the end, however, it’s up to the members of any profession to police themselves individually and collectively. I often say, no one can publish your crappy cartoon if you don’t draw it in the first place. Amazingly my colleagues have chosen to ignore the existential crisis that faces American political cartooning. Rather than rise to the challenge, their work is becoming even safer and blander.

Moreover, we cartoonists are failing to hold one another to basic journalistic standards. This year political cartooning has been hit by two plagiarism scandals. David Simpson, a long-time Tulsa political cartoonist with a history of this sort of thing, was fired by the weekly paper there after he got caught tracing old cartoons by the late Jeff MacNelly on a lightbox. Jeff Stahler, a cartoonist familiar to readers of USA Today, was recently forced to resign by The Columbus Dispatch after long-standing rumors of stealing ideas exploded into a series of too-close-for-comfort pairings of his work and classic material from The New Yorker.

They’re only the tip of the iceberg.

There are plagiarists who have Pulitzer Prizes sitting on their shelves. There are even more “self-plagiarists”—people who shamelessly recycle the same exact cartoon, changing labels on the same image in order to meet a deadline. They shortchange their readers and their clients—and collect the biggest salaries in the business.

Meanwhile, it is impossible for the “young” generation of talented cartoonists who came out of the alt weekly newspapers—those under 50—to find work at all.

Within the mainstream of the profession the general consensus is that we should keep quiet and wait for the storm to pass. They make excuses for serial plagiarists, self-plagiarists, and hacks. At this writing the professional association for political cartoonists, which in 2009 imposed its first penalty for plagiarism in its 50-year history under my presidency, has still failed to act to enforce that rule or issue a code of ethics.

“This is bad for the profession,” I heard from more than one colleague after the Stahler story broke. “Let’s be quiet.”

No.

What’s bad for the profession is bad work. How can we expect editors and publishers to respect us unless we respect ourselves?

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

10 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Who Polices Political Cartooning?

  1. Hmmm…
    Times they are a changing. Like it, hate it the situation is what it is.

    While a natural and logical business development syndication played a strong part in destroying the business. The best things in life may be free, but people don’t value what’s cheap. Ironically the internet did the same thing to newspapers. By making their content free and easily accessible they made it worthless.

    Can editorial cartooning survive? In a way political humor has enjoyed a renaissance because of John Stewart and Steven Colbert. These men have built for themselves a following unrivaled by any previous political satirist. So yes there is an audience and therefore a market for the product. The question is finding a marketplace and connecting with the audience in a way that gets them to pay money. Editorial cartoonists have lost their old marketplace. Clearly newspapers and alt weeklies are no longer a viable. Current internet strategies clearly aren’t yielding a living. So how do you make your work a commodity people will pay for when you have no ability to limit access? How do you create scarcity where there is none?

  2. Ex,

    Do your mommy and daddy know you’re using their computer? Seriously, take a look at your “reply” and take a look at my original post. I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about an entire class of persons.

    Now — come on, I know you’re tired and grumpy, it’s all that sugar, but stick with me — take a look at Whimsical. I don’t agree with what Whimsical has written, but you know what? Whimsical is actually presenting an argument. I can at least find a common ground with which to discuss the matter with him (or her, I’m not sure of Whim’s gender), and as a result, even though I may disagree, I consider the points raised because they show effort.

    You, ex, on the other hand, are a tiresome little dweeb. You refuse to stick to the issue at hand, you don’t offer any insights, you just stand there telling people to stop bitching.

    No. I refuse to surrender my right to bitch about anything I damned well choose to, especially when that diktat is coming from someone who won’t even present a rational, legitimate argument. Seriously, look at what you wrote. It’s pathetic. You make not one single cogent or worthwhile point, at all.

    I’ve tried to be reasonable ex, I really have. But you need to take a little time to learn how to debate, and how to present your points, or you need to stop making a fool of yourself. I realize my notions about the Internet are not likely to win any converts, but guess what, the validity of an argument — and the delight of the debate — is not linked to the popularity of the stance taken.

    Now I have to go check that damned chicken I’ve got in the oven which should have been ready half an hour ago. And that bottle of wine I left on the table isn’t going to drink itself!

  3. @alex: You’re sounding more deluded by the day. First it was the programmers that ruined your life, now it’s the internet as a whole. What’s next? The airplane? The boat? “If it wasn’t for the damn airplanes and boats, our businesses wouldn’t be able to off-shore our jobs!”

    When I read your thoughts, I understand completely why you’re in the situation you’re in. Stop the fucking whining. It’s not going to help you. If you’re really at the point where thoughts like “If only the internet didn’t exist” are reasonable in your mind, you need to seek professional help. If you can’t pay for it, then seek assistance from your state’s social services. Or a family member. Someone. Anyone. The quicksand you’re in is only going to get deeper and deeper – until you permanently slip below the surface.

  4. I recall Whimsical saying in a previous post that he thought alex_the_tired was his intellectual equal. Reading this thread, I couldn’t agree more. Could. Not. Agree. More!

    LOL!

    (Seriously, I am lol. Right now.)

    (wipes tears from eyes ….)

  5. Whimsical,

    “It is? Wow, that’s going to come as a shock to the people at Penny Arcade. Or Riot Games. Or Facebook. Or Amanda Palmer. Or Louis CK. All of whom are making good livings, and employing others. What do they all have in common? They were willing to adjust their business model to the realities of the internet, rather than trying to break the internet by forcing it to conform to their business model.”

    Just to stick to one example: Facebook. Facebook employs a total of under 2,000 people. Amanda Palmer, Louis CK, how many people do they employ? The Internet represents an increase in “efficiency.” The purpose of society is not to be efficient. The purpose of society/the social contract is to keep everyone’s head above water. You can call that socialism, communism, or the democratic promise of jobs for all, and it’s always the same thing: If you support the rules by which we all agree to live by, you will actually be able to work within that system to support yourself.

    I am not blaming JUST the Internet for all this collapse. It has been coming ever since Reagan. But the Internet is the best tool to enable big business to hobble the middle class since the whip. And everyone going around singing the praises of a system that, as an essential component of its nature requires a net LOSS of jobs, as well as a net drop in the amount of income from the remaining jobs, simply is incompatible with the system we’re all trying to survive in, a system that requires the stability of a job that has a reasonable expectation of being there indefinitely.

    As to the idea of the government paying for retraining and so forth. How? With what money? I don’t want to go off on an economics tangent, but you can’t just keep printing greenbacks. The more you put out, the less each has in purchasing power. And what of the emotional toll? Can you imagine constantly going back to school and constantly landing a job for three months before the industry gets shipped out to Thirdworldia? How many loops like that can the normal person take? I remember graduating from college with such hopes of finally being able to go out and DO something, of earning my own living. The Internet, regardless of how many friends it allows you to make, takes that away.

  6. alex_the_tired

    “What I’m saying is that the Internet model cannot be made to work. That it is, in and of itself, defective.”

    It is? Wow, that’s going to come as a shock to the people at Penny Arcade. Or Riot Games. Or Facebook. Or Amanda Palmer. Or Louis CK. All of whom are making good livings, and employing others. What do they all have in common? They were willing to adjust their business model to the realities of the internet, rather than trying to break the internet by forcing it to conform to their business model.

    So your basic premise is entirely false, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of your argument.

    As for Trader Joes, they should try adopting a “pay what you want” model. They’d probably improve their revenue, not to mention make a ton more off of merchandise.

    “The fix to the business model is to return to the most recent version that actually kept them from going broke.”.

    No, it isn’t. The fix is to adopt a model that actually works with the internet, rather than trying to break the internet to fix your business model.

    “So here’s the two questions: 1. How is the Internet a going forward, exactly? Yes, it’s more convenient, and faster, and all that, but how, exactly, does the Internet improve employment prospects, except in the two cases of someone who telecommutes or someone who is in the Internet business?”

    Since when is “improving employment prospects” the be-all and end-all of going forward? The Arab Spring alone, which would not have been possible without the Internet;Not to mention the improvement in human knowledge and the increasing freedom of information more than justifies putting the Internet in the “going forward” category.

    Dont try to shift blame, either. The lost jobs are the results of conglomerates wanting to stick to a broken business model, not the internet.

    “2. Do you deny that there have been instances of “the next big thing” that have turned out, after the fact, to have been disastrous?”

    I acknowledge that people have occasionally used technology and new knowledge in disastrous ways. But overall, technology and the corresponding increase in human knowledge has never been anything but a net positive for the human race.

    More knowldge and more learning and more spreading of information can never be a bad thing, even if some people use it badly.

    ” Editor making $60,000 a year who could have an apartment and buy things? Bang! Now it’s some poor bastard picking through trash cans and driving up taxes because he’s going to keep get arrested for loitering, shoplifting, public urination, thrown into jail, processed through the system, back out on the street, going to the ER when it’s cold to get admitted for the night by injuring himself, etc.”

    And I’m all for government programs paying his bills and re-education fees while he gets retrained for a new job (and doing it again, and again, if necessary). Just like the answer for the buggy whip manufacturers wasn’t blowing up car plants, the answer now isn’t blowing up the biggest and most important achievement in human history because some people are too lazy or stubborn to learn how to use it.

    The answer is to fix government so it takes care of those people who will be displaced because of technological advances, NOT to stop those advances.

    “You’re also eliminating the social contract. Buy a house? Are you nuts? I don’t have a stable job. I can’t buy a house. So there goes the value to all those people’s homes. Retirement account? We all saw what happened with those. How much longer before the pension funds start defaulting?”

    And this is somehow the internet’s fault? Gee, I thought it was the fault of those greedy bastards on Wall Street. You know, the ones some folks are using that horrible, horrible internet to organize AGAINST?

    “I’m not saying the Internet is the sole cause of all these problems.”

    And Im saying its not the cause of any of them. But it might just be the cure for a few of them.

    “But I see people every day now, wandering head down, typing into devices with their thumbs, oblivious to what’s going on around them as cars go driving by and I simply cannot accept that the technology that has them doing these things — at least in that application — is a benefit.”

    Well, that’s a different argument altogether. Yeah, the internet has stunted face to face interatcion somewhat. So what? I’ve found friends I haven’t talked to in 15 years, and we talk on Facebook on a regular basis. That we don’t talk face to face is a minor irrelevancy, more than overcome by the benefits the Internet provides.

  7. Whimsical,

    What I’m saying is that the Internet model cannot be made to work. That it is, in and of itself, defective. An analogy to this would be the free sample that stores hand out. At my local Trader Joe’s, they’ve actually got a kiosk where you can try a free sample of whatever particular overpriced item they’re trying to unload that day. They do not, however, hand away everything for free. They also do not allow people to come in, fill their carts to the brim, and then wheel them out without paying.

    You say “Either Media conglomerates will fix their business model, or they DESERVE to go broke.” That’s exactly what I am saying. The fix to the business model is to return to the most recent version that actually kept them from going broke.

    “As for your lame thalidomide example, what you’re proposing is the equivalent of going ‘Welp, thalidomide didn’t work to cure morning sickness, guess we’ll have to cure morning sickness by forcing every pregnant woman to abort.'” No. It isn’t. I’m saying that one anti-sickness pill didn’t work. I then — in my Original Post — said that I wasn’t turning my back on the whole premise of medication, just on that one pill, and for that one use.

    “‘Turn off the internet’. What a ridiculous statement. Even if such a thing were possible, and Thank God it isn’t, going backwards is NEVER the answer. I thought you were a progressive, not a regressive.”

    Okay. First. I am a progressive. Part of being “progressive” means that you factor in the human aspect of any business plan. Oh, I can outsource this to Somewhere Else and make More Profit than I was already making. So it isn’t about me choosing to starve for some noble goal, it’s about me making MORE profit. Why? Because my SHAREHOLDERS demand it. Progressives reject the elevation of SHAREHOLDER to god status. And when I factor in the human portion, the Internet has caused far more misery than people are willing to look at. Every job is in jeopardy. Wages, which have been stagnant for decades, continue to be, in no small part because everyone is scared to death to actually demand more money because, yes, the Internet can help make their jobs go away in a heartbeat.

    So here’s the two questions: 1. How is the Internet a going forward, exactly? Yes, it’s more convenient, and faster, and all that, but how, exactly, does the Internet improve employment prospects, except in the two cases of someone who telecommutes or someone who is in the Internet business? 2. Do you deny that there have been instances of “the next big thing” that have turned out, after the fact, to have been disastrous? Look at the railroad. What a marvel. Everyone was for it. Except the plains indians who saw that it meant the end of the their way of life. But, then again, they weren’t progressives, just a bunch of regressives.

    I think a lot of us haven’t realized exactly how bad it’s becoming. Thanks to the Internet, we are now tracked pretty much around the clock. A post you made in 1997 could come back one day and cost you your job. Teachers report that students will google them, circulate the results in class and so decimate the teacher’s ability to hold sway in the classroom that the teacher will actually have to be reassigned. I’m not trying to start a fight here, but I disagree with your assertion that the Internet is a step forward.

    Society is a collection of people, all working together to stay alive. So everyone (I’m doing the broad strokes here) has a job to go to. Some of those jobs have few skill requirements and are easily learned. Some take years and are hard to replace. And if one — horse and buggy shop attendant — goes away, that small number of people can transition to other jobs with related skill sets.

    The Internet has eliminated scores of jobs and career paths, and it has rendered any re-education as being fraught with the problem of possibly being rendered useless at any time as well (flip through Leviathan and the description of war). This isn’t a good thing. Far from it. It is social upheaval at its most dangerous because you are now turning the accumulation of expense that is someone who went to school and earned a degree, and that person’s buying power (a necessary fundamental for the economy), and you’re eliminating it. Editor making $60,000 a year who could have an apartment and buy things? Bang! Now it’s some poor bastard picking through trash cans and driving up taxes because he’s going to keep get arrested for loitering, shoplifting, public urination, thrown into jail, processed through the system, back out on the street, going to the ER when it’s cold to get admitted for the night by injuring himself, etc.

    You’re also eliminating the social contract. Buy a house? Are you nuts? I don’t have a stable job. I can’t buy a house. So there goes the value to all those people’s homes. Retirement account? We all saw what happened with those. How much longer before the pension funds start defaulting?

    I’m not saying the Internet is the sole cause of all these problems. But I see people every day now, wandering head down, typing into devices with their thumbs, oblivious to what’s going on around them as cars go driving by and I simply cannot accept that the technology that has them doing these things — at least in that application — is a benefit.

  8. alex_the_tired

    “Turn off the internet?” You must be joking. THAT’S your answer to a broken business model? What’s next, you going to make life easier for the horsewhip and buggy manufacturers by advocating blowing up auto plants?

    Either media conglomerates will fix their business model, or they DESERVE to go broke and go away.

    As for your lame thalidomide example, what you’re proposing is the equivalent of going “Welp, thalidomide didn’t work to cure morning sickness, guess we’ll have to cure morning sickness by forcing every pregnant woman to abort.”

    “Turn off the internet”. What a ridiculous statement. Even if such a thing were possible, and Thank God it isn’t, going backwards is NEVER the answer. I thought you were a progressive, not a regressive.

  9. Part of the problem is what happened to music after Edison invented the phonograph: why pay a local musician when you can hear one of the world’s most famous musicians for less money on your phonograph? And so most local musicians found they could no longer support themselves with their music. As Mr. Rall says, why pay a local cartoonist when the local newspapers can buy one of the world’s most famous syndicated cartoonists for a very nominal sum? (I remember when the Dallas Morning News laid off its staff cartoonist, once quite famous and frequently re-published in the New York Times.)

    The other part of the problem is that businesses develop “rules of thumb” that work. Until they don’t.

    Retailers “knew” that the correct retail mark-up was 49%. And then Gibson drove many out of business by building stores in low-rent locations with big parking lots and a 40% retail mark-up.

    Newspapers “knew” that the circulation price was the cost of paper and ink and printing (cf. the film Teacher’s Pet), while advertising paid the editorial costs. Advertisers knew to pay for ads based on the circulation price. With the Internet, the cost of producing one more copy is $0, which means the circulation price should be $0, which means advertisers should pay $0, so the whole model breaks down, and no one has figured out a reasonable replacement.

    With printed newspapers, everyone followed the “rules of thumb”, which worked for a century or more. Advertisers had no idea how effective their ads were, but they “knew” that, in a high-price newspaper like the New York Times, ads were worth the money, since the people buying the newspaper had the money to buy their products.

    Now, with the Internet, advertisers can see for certain who has looked at their ads, and who has clicked through their ads to buy their product. (They cannot be sure how many of those who looked but did not click through were motivated by the ad to go look at the product in person and then buy in the old-fashioned way.)

    But the old “rule of thumb” of paying for ads based on the cost of producing one more copy continues to pervade what publishers can collect for advertising revenue.

    And the pressure to get as many clicks on the ads as possible has made most publishers fearful of excessive circulation charges.

    Eventually, publisher will come up with a solution, or maybe private publishing will go the way of buggy whips, and we can all just rely on the government to tell us everything we need to know about what’s going on.

  10. Ted,

    The answer’s simple. Shut off the Internet. There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the ship’s computer is infected with a virus, and, you guessed it, the episode takes something like 39 of its 42 minutes until Geordi LaForge, chief engineer of the flagship of the Federation, figures out that the way to deal with the virus is — duh — to wipe the computer core and do a clean reboot from the protected backup copies.

    I’ve watched for years now as paper after paper hands out every single thing for free and then stands there going, “Why won’t people pay a premium for what we’re handing out for free? We’ve got a website, AND we let people cut the heart of every story right out of it and post to their heart’s desire on our competitors’ sites. And still people don’t subscribe to our more expensive product. Hmm. Perhaps we should PAY people to go to the website? Maybe we could try division by zero?”

    I hear there’s some sort of SOPA bill or some such that would, basically, end the Internet. Ted, I think the entire media community should be praying for it to happen. I realize that a lot of readers, like a lot of CEOs, don’t want to listen to the part of the equation that says, “and this part is for salaries, so that people can have middle class existences.” But that part of the equation is very important. Millions of jobs have evaporated, and people very blandly state that those jobs are never coming back. This is followed by a few hysterics who start shrieking about how hard they’re lives have been and how they never complained (riiiiiight) and how everyone just needs to toughen up.

    There is such a thing as an innovation that turns out to be wrong; look at thalidomide. Just because I’m against thalidomide in pregnant women doesn’t mean I’m against the whole pharmacological discipline. It doesn’t even mean I’m against thalidomide (which has other uses for which it is safe), I just don’t see why the media people can’t see it: if your starship computer is infected with a virus, reboot from the protected backup. If you’re going broke because the website isn’t making enough money, stop putting all your content online for free. You may still go broke, but at least you put up a fight.

Leave a Reply