One year after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, political cartooning is under more threat than ever. But the real threat is job cuts and editors who refuse to hire cartoonists, not terrorists.
I’m white, male, able-bodied, educated, tall. Got a solid resume. I’m relatively adaptable. I started out as one of hundreds of professional political cartoonists. Now there are fewer than 20. Yet I’m freaked out.
I’ve survived poverty, getting mugged and being shot at and managed to remain pretty calm. But I’m more worried now.
Given how relatively good I have it, I can’t imagine how freaked out everyone else must be. Like, for example, black people when they get stopped by cops. Or Tamir Rice’s parents.
There are countless anxiety-inducing news stories tailor-made for this news junkie with a special interest in economics and the Middle East. This week alone, the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen widened into a full-fledged Sunni-Shia diplomatic rift over the execution of a Shia cleric. Scary. Then there’s the falling stock market, which controls me, over which I have no influence, and against whose effects I am unequipped to protect myself. The boom-bust cycle of capitalism is giving us bigger, more frequent troughs punctuated by shorter boomlets whose benefits all go to the top 1%.
I can’t believe anyone likes capitalism. Most people are a paycheck away from homelessness. Jobs are scarce. Jobs keep paying less. Bosses keep getting meaner. Everything gets more expensive.
Capitalism is so depressing it makes one nostalgic for Soviet-era queues for toilet paper.
In what is in danger of becoming a pattern for me, I have to apologize to the Baby Boom generation, specifically for rolling my eyes when Boomers whined about turning 50. That’s when you lose your job, can’t find a new one, struggle to care for aging parents while feeling your own body start to fall apart. They were right. The fifties are a bitch. (Though fiftysomething Gen Xers have less cash than they did.)
To mangle Hunter S. Thompson, last year got weird. I’m trying to go pro, but I’m not sure what that means.
2015 was the year when what used to be my boring safe job, drawing political cartoons, became more dangerous than my other job, part-time war correspondent.
Psycho gunmen slaughtered my colleagues at Charlie Hebdo, making France the nation where a journalist was most likely to get murdered in 2015. More psycho gunmen tried to shoot up a right-wing anti-Muslim cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, only to get themselves killed by the local SWAT team. There were always death threats; now they’re scarier and more specific.
After Charlie and Garland, you’d think newspapers and magazines would have rallied around what’s left of American editorial cartooning. There is zero, zip, nada support for American cartoonists by editors or publishers. Post-Charlie, they all wrote passionate editorials defending free speech. They said nice things about cartooning. While they fired more cartoonists. Refused to hire any. Stopped printing them.
The cowards didn’t even reprint the Charlie cartoons so their readers could see what the fuss was about.
The annual convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in Columbus inaugurated the new normal: police police police, police dogs, police snipers on the roof. When I went on tour to publicize my book Snowden, security became a routine part of the equation — for the first time in nearly 20 books.
No wonder no one under 30 wants to become a political cartoonist. Not only is there no work and no respect, your impoverished ass might get shot with an AR-15.
So then a few weeks ago I looked at my chest. I probably do this more than you do, because a wart on my chest once nearly killed me. I noticed a new bump. A growing new bump. I found myself in the somewhat ridiculous role of the first male in three weeks to pass through the automatic doors of the rhodamine-pink special Breast building at my hospital. I’m anti-sexist. Still, it does something to a man to be quizzed about his menstrual and lactation histories. Not to mention worrying about the possibility of becoming one of the couple of thousand American men who get breast cancer each year — you just know the system isn’t set up for that.
Fortunately, I dodged that bullet. Just a lipoma.
A bullet that hit me square in the chest last year, albeit metaphorically, was fired by Nick Goldberg, an editor at The Los Angeles Times. He accused me of lying in his newspaper, a grave offense in journalism unless your name is Bill O’Reilly, and fired me. I hadn’t lied. He was wrong. After I presented proof that I’d told the truth, the Times — under pressure, since the Internet was going crazy due to their disgusting refusal to reconsider — didn’t issue a retraction or hire me back. Presumably fearing a lawsuit, they doubled down. Goldberg still draws a salary. Not me.
I used to be a sound sleeper. Head hit the pillow, I was gone until morning.
No more. Insomnia is my new normal. I’m jittery, nervous, distrusting. Lots of nightmares. If you can be so totally wronged, libeled by a corporation that’s literally trying to destroy your career because of its opaque conflict of interest with outside parties (the Los Angeles Police Department), and it doesn’t make any difference when you prove you’re innocent, where common sense and human decency no longer hold sway, well, that’s a weird, unsettling world where you can never relax. If I get four hours a night, that’s better than most.
The thing that surprises me most about workplace shootings is that there are so few of them.
Under the doctrine that 2015 sucked so hard, 2016 has got to be better, I’m cautiously optimistic about the coming year. Yet anxiety remains.
My new graphic biography Bernie is about Bernie Sanders. Sales figures will be directly proportionate to the senator’s performance in the primaries. There’s cause for optimism in New Hampshire but the South is a challenge and now you’ve got The New York Times skewing expectations by suddenly claiming that the Iowa caucuses are do or die for Bernie, even though no one thought he was going to win there before. It’s Hillary’s campaign to lose. I knew that. But it was hers to lose in 2008, and she did.
What if Bernie crashes and burns? Then my book dies. Or what if Bernie becomes the nominee, and the book gets huge — will there be enough security? If not, I die. Anxiety turns everything into a lose-lose.
Behind all that anxiety, of course, is money. Not enough of it.
Every month that I manage to pay all the bills is a miracle. I move money around, scare up just enough extra work, hustle hustle hustle. My colleagues marvel at my energy. What’s my secret? Being tired all the time, and depressed, and not knowing how I’ll be able to eat in 10 years, much less retire. Probably like you.
Like most Americans, I don’t have substantial retirement savings. If I don’t work, I live maybe a year or two before moving to the great outdoors.
I fantasize about a soft landing. Maybe some magazine or website or newspaper will take me on full-time. Maybe with benefits? It’s OK, I don’t need benefits.
Or an academic gig — teaching journalism or cartooning or history somewhere. It would be fun. I’d be good at it. But where? How? You can’t apply to a college or university; the academic job application process is insanely time-consuming and the reply is always a rejection. An offer has to come to you.
One must trust in the universe. The philosopher Eckhart Tolle says the universe will provide what you need.
Unless it doesn’t.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net and SkewedNews.net, is the author of “Snowden,” about the NSA whistleblower. His new book “Bernie” about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is now available for pre-order. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2016 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
Originally published by ANewDomain.net:
Supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are plotting to assassinate Australian and American cartoonists, Foreign Policy magazine is reporting.
As an American cartoonist who prefers not to get assassinated, I believe this is an extremely worrisome story.
As you can probably imagine, I have been giving a lot of thought to the possibility that Australian and American cartoonists might get blown away à la Charlie Hebdo, and even more consideration to the possibility that I might be one of them.
As a result of said thinking, I have this to say: If some ISIS asshole kills me, it’s totally Obama’s fault.
Since at least a year ago, the Obama Administration has pulled out all the stops to stop wannabe jihadi American citizens and residents from traveling to Syria, typically via Turkey, to join the Islamic State.
In October, the FBI arrested Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. He faces 15 years in prison for trying to go to Syria to join ISIS. They grabbed Adam Dandach, 20, at Orange County California’s John Wayne airport, of all places, for the same thing. This past February, it was three guys from Brooklyn of Central Asian ethnic descent, this time at JFK. In April, four Somali-Americans in Minneapolis. Scores of Americans have been arrested by federal authorities while trying to join ISIS.
To which I, possible future dead cartoonist, ask: WTF?
Why not let them leave?
As I wrote recently, the legal basis for these arrests is skimpy. But never mind the morals or the law. What about common sense?
I thought the idea was to fight them over there so we wouldn’t have to fight them here, right? So, about these self-radicalized guys — why not let them go to Syria?
The word is already getting out among ISIS fans that it’s getting hard to travel from the U.S. to Syria, and that you might get slammed with a “material support to a terrorist organization” charge if the feds learn about your plans. Those who are stuck here in the States will naturally turn to Plan B: carrying out attacks here in the — yuck on this word — “homeland.”
Before he was accidentally blown up by an American drone this past January, Al Qaeda spokesperson Adam Yahiye Gadahn, a.k.a. Azzam the American, advised English-speaking would-be terrorists to think globally, kill locally:
“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”
I’ve followed politics and U.S. foreign policy my whole life, yet I can’t imagine the rationale for this policy of apprehending Americans for wanting to join ISIS. If they want to go, let them — hell, give them a first-class plane ticket.
Originally published by ANewDomain.net:
Jon Stewart’s decision to leave “The Daily Show” at what critics universally call the top of his game serves as another reminder of just how humor-deprived contemporary American television has become.
Stewart is, like his fellow Comedy Central alum Stephen Colbert and standup megastar Louis C.K., one of the most overrated talents of our time. Not that he isn’t fast on his feet – he is. Not that the camera doesn’t love him – it does. Not that he doesn’t understand timing – he does.
What Stewart isn’t is falling-down-on-the-floor hilarious. His fits and starts, lurching style of monologue elicits plenty of knowing guffaws and the occasional eye-rolling laugh at the expense of, typically, an ideologically inconsistent politician. But because he refuses to take the chance of alienating his audiences by offending them, he never risks falling off the high wire you have to climb in order to achieve comedy greatness.
If you want to be really funny, you have to be dangerous.
(To illustrate this point, I was going to cite a farm-based joke by Rudy Ray Moore, the black comedian and Blaxploitation filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s so outrageous and so obscene that I’m pretty sure I’ve never work again if I did. Now that’s some wickedly funny stuff.)
I remember – actually, as a cartoonist, I am traumatized by recollecting – a female friend telling me why she turned against the late great George Carlin.
She loved Carlin. She owned many of his albums. She had seen him in concert many times. She couldn’t stop talking about how brilliant he was. Then, she explained, he said one joke that offended her feminist sensibilities. After that, he was dead to her.
I was baffled and a little disgusted. “In baseball, if you hit the ball 35 percent of the time, you’re a God. So you need to tell me that George Carlin told thousands of jokes that you loved, gave you hours of pleasure and countless laugh out loud moments, but because of one joke, he was dead to you? You fired a guy with a .999 batting average!” (I’m more in the 30 percent range.)
Here’s the joke that pissed her off: “Have you ever noticed that the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck anyway?”
Neither Jon Stewart nor Stephen Colbert nor John Oliver are ever going to say anything that funny. Or that mean. That’s not their business model. They walk between a very narrow set of lines defined by decades of political correctness.
Which is fine. Really. I don’t have a problem with what they do. The issue isn’t that they play it safe; the problem is that America is so starved for comedy that they manage to pass this bland stuff off as the real thing. The only reason that they have been so successful is that, following decades of horrible late-night tedium like Jay Leno, David Letterman and the inexplicably still on the air “Saturday Night Live” which, contrary to conventional wisdom was never very funny but is certainly much less so now.
“The humor that makes me laugh hardest is the material I know would offend or insult someone else,” wrote “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams in 2008. “But offending isn’t enough. The audience gets more out of humor if the messenger is putting himself in danger.” Adams says it’s a universal law, and I agree with him. It certainly applies to me. My most outrageous work – on 9/11 widows, Pat Tillman, making fun of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – is also some of my funniest. And it definitely put me in danger: I stopped counting the death threats at 1000. And I lost some good jobs.
Every now and then, someone has to kill a humorist to remind us how dangerous good humor can be.
Of all things, last month’s massacre of – whether you like them or not, outrageously funny – cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris reminded some Americans of what exists elsewhere, but has been lost here, or perhaps never existed: an over-the-top, ribald, take-no-prisoners culture of satire, particularly in print but also on television.
Every few years, I make the rounds in Hollywood trying to pitch TV show ideas. During the peak of the Bush years, and before the idiotic “That’s My Bush!,” I presented to executives all over Los Angeles my idea for a comedy, either live action or animated, that made fun of the Bush family and the president’s top officials. The hook was, Bush was actually a reluctant leader, didn’t want to be there, and was secretly brilliant but didn’t want to let on. His daughter Jenna was really running the show. Dick Cheney was a softhearted wimp who broke into tears over nothing.
Maybe the show was a dumb idea, I don’t know, I’m not a TV executive. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is, Hollywood was so satirically illiterate that they rejected the idea based on legal fears: they were worried about being sued by the first family. As I repeatedly explained, Bush and Cheney and their families were public figures, so it would have been possible to mock them six ways till Sunday without having to worry about a successful lawsuit. Besides, almost every other Western country on earth had some sort of comedy show that sent up their political leaders: France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, even, at the time, Russia. They were all quite popular.
I explained that, as an editorial cartoonist, I routinely say all sorts of terrible things about the president, and yet, here I am, not in prison, at least not yet. But the pitch meetings never got beyond the legal questions. That’s how safe TV has become: they don’t even know what the legal landscape looks like.
There have been some bright spots. But you have to wonder, would anyone greenlight “The Simpsons” today? How about “South Park”?
There is no denying the success of the Comedy Central approach. Millennial viewers who would never watch the evening news nevertheless enjoy, and learn from, the fake news format pioneered by Stewart and Colbert. But make no mistake: that is not hard-hitting political satire.
Louis C.K., who is undeniably much funnier than those two, nonetheless likes to keep things safe as well. Although these incredibly incisive when issuing humorists observations about divorce, relationships, parenthood and popular culture, he generally shies away from straight-ahead politics.
The fact that it hasn’t always been this way tells us that things can change. In the 1960s and 1970s, even the relatively tame Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby routinely delivered more trenchant humor than you’ll find on television today. Richard Pryor, of course, was a God. Hell, Lenny Bruce got arrested! That’s not going to happen to the big-time comedians that we are constantly being told are so funny today.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of great humor out there – but not on the national stage, not on network television.
So now that the big Comedy Central stars have left, Colbert to the blander than bland Tonight Show (notice how no one talks about him anymore?), Stewart to whatever he figures out, we have an opportunity to reconsider the fact that, as a humor-loving people, Americans have the God-given right to watch dangerously funny TV shows – and there has never been a time when they were more needed.
American news media outlets refused to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that provoked the slaughter of 12 people in Paris last week on the grounds that their policies forbid the depiction of imagery that intentionally mocks religion. Which opens up a great loophole for politicians in trouble.
Newspaper circulation has been plummeting for the last 50 years. Media executives have tried to reverse the trend by cutting their newsrooms, shrinking their page counts and giving away their content for free online. As the circulation of Charlie Hebdo shot from 60,000 to 5,000,000 after the massacre of their staff, there may be a way forward after all.
Here’s what you need to understand the state of political cartooning in the United States:
After the massacre of four cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo last week, 25 remain on staff at the French publication, whose circulation ranges between 30,000 and 60,000 per week.
In the United States, a total of 25 staff political cartoonists are employed by the nation’s 1,350 newspapers, which have a combined circulation of 44,000,000 daily in print, plus 113,000,000 unique online visitors.
The total number of political cartoonists employed on staff by all American websites is one.
The total number at all magazines is zero.
It wasn’t always like this. According to a report issued by the Herblock Foundation, there were 2,000 political cartoonists on staff at newspapers a century ago.
Sure, print media has had to cut back due to a half-century of declining circulation. Writers, photographers and others have all suffered. But cartoonists have been eliminated at the highest rate of any journalism category by far: 99%.
New online media outlets like the Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, Vox, Yahoo News and The Intercept have hired hundreds of journalists — yet no political cartoonists.
There are more political cartoonists working in Iran and China than here.
Why has the U.S. become such a satirical desert?
In candid moments, editors confess that they’re afraid. They’re scared of angry emails from readers. (Prose doesn’t elicit as much reaction.) They’re worried their boss’ country-club buddies will complain about a cartoon. They’re terrified that a major advertiser might cancel its account. Narrowing profit margins and post-9/11 conservatism have amplified editorial cowardice.
When cartoons make the headlines, like last week, it’s another story.
News outlets couldn’t get enough political cartoons post-Charlie, noted Tjeerd Royaards, editor of the Dutch cartoon web magazine Cartoon Movement. (Disclosure: Cartoon Movement has published my work.) But they wanted it all for free: “the majority of media website[s] simply embedded the cartoons from the[ir] Twitter feed[s], foregoing the courtesy of asking the artists for permission to show their work, let alone pay for it.”
Royaards continued: “Although the media certainly seemed to wholeheartedly support cartoonists in the wake of the [Charlie Hebdo] attack, this support proved to be dubious, and might even be considered a greater threat to political cartooning than any terrorist attack could ever hope to be.”
Writing about the state of the profession this week, my colleague the alternative political artist Mr. Fish painted an even bleaker portrait of the future:
“The significance of those [declining cartoonist job] numbers might best be understood when compared to the dwindling numbers of an endangered species, not unlike the polar bear, who draws worldwide sympathy primarily when pictured drifting forlorn and alone on a shrinking block of ice or lying skinless and butchered by mindless thugs on a crimson bank. Likewise, it should be noted with some urgency that something systemic in the culture (similar to global warming, corporately inspired, government subsidized and willfully ignored by a disempowered public) is substantially diminishing the cartoonist population and threatening the very survival of the rendered word and the contemplative caption — and the very essence of creative dissent.”
Mr. Fish’s biological metaphor is an apt one.
Over the past few decades we have warned editors that we were in trouble. It’s worse now.
We are probably already past the tipping point after which political cartoonist extinction becomes inevitable.
One major threat is the loss of artistic diversity. In the same way that insufficient genetic diversity can cause a species to enter a death spiral — the cheetah is a famous example — American political cartooning no longer has enough practitioners to grow via cross-pollination, by being influenced by and against one another the way that I, for example, saw the work of the cartoonists Mike Peters and Pat Oliphant in the 1970s and wanted to ape the first and rebel against the latter. Most working political cartoonists in the U.S. are over age 55. So many have been laid off or discouraged that, even if I were given a zillion dollars to hire all the best cartoonists left, I’d have trouble finding 10 or 20. A profession that offered a dazzling variety of styles as recently as 2000 looks increasingly cut-and-paste.
There are only two basic styles left: the older, crosshatched, donkeys-and-elephants single-panels influenced by the late Jeff MacNelly, and the wordier, multi-panel approach that emerged in alternative weeklies during the 1990s.
Getting back to the polar bear analogy, there aren’t enough “newborn cubs” — young political cartoonists in their 20s — to form the roots of the next wave of political cartoonists if and when editors gain the courage to start hiring. Aside from the fact that there’s no way for a young political cartoonist to earn a living, young adults don’t see political cartoons in the media they consume.
The top websites read by Millennials, like Vice, Upworthy and BuzzFeed, refuse to hire political cartoonists. You can’t get inspired to pursue a profession if you don’t know it exists.
What to do?
I’m hoping for greed. Nothing gets clicks like a political cartoon. At some point, some twentysomething editor at a news start-up is going to figure that out.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM