Tag Archives: Daily Beast

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Editorial Cartooning, R.I.P.

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A Powerful Form of Journalistic Commentary Falls Victim to the Digital Dark Ages

This week I’m heading to Salt Lake City for an annual ritual that may soon come to an end: the annual convention of the nation’s top political cartoonists. This is bad news for my summers. It’s terrible for America, which is about to lose one of its most interesting art forms.

The AAEC convention is always a blast. Hundreds of intelligent, quick-witted and hilarious guys — sadly, it’s almost all men — talking politics, the media and culture, one-upping each other with one witticism after another, even during serious panel discussions and the you’d-think-it’d-be-deadly-dull business meeting. Partisan divisions fall away as drinks flow, gossip unfurls and jokes fly; one of my dearest friends is a conservative cartoonist.

Turns out, even the dumb editorial cartoonists are smart. The same men who crank out Uncle Sams and avenging eagles blasting feckless Talibs, cartoons choked with outdated labels and metaphors no one understands, turn out to be hilarious, funnier and a shitload smarter than the stand-up comics (hi, Louis C.K., hi Jon Stewart) we’re supposed to be worship these days. (Why the dumb cartoons? They say that’s what their editors want.)

Alas, editorial cartooning is dying in the United States. After decades of decline (punctuated by countless warnings), there are so few political cartoonists left that it’s hard to see how the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists can survive much longer. If the current trend continues, political cartoons — which are thriving in pretty much every other country on earth, helping to effect radical change in places like Syria, Iran and Spain — will disappear from the United States, which perfected the art form, at the peak of its golden age.

A hundred years ago, political cartoonists ruled the earth. Like dinosaurs. There were thousands of newspapers and thousands of cartoonists working at them. Bill Mauldin, Paul Conrad, Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant were stars, boldface names. As newspapers declined, cartooning jobs vanished. In 1990 there were about 280 professional political cartoonists left. By 2000, roughly 80. Now less than 30. Many states don’t have one.

The layoffs continue. The Bergen Record just laid off Jimmy Margulies. He won’t be coming to Salt Lake City.

It’s the same story with syndication. It costs a paper about $15 or $20 a week for three to five cartoons by an award-winning cartoonist, but even that’s too much for cash-strapped newspapers. They’ve slashed their syndication lists. (They say they’ll use the savings to hire local cartoonists — but never do.) Many papers are doing without cartoons entirely.

In a field where bad news is the new normal, the New York Times’ 2012 request to cartoonists to produce hundreds of pieces a week for free stood out. Enough, we said. We refused. So the Times told us to take a walk. No other change at the Times has prompted as many reader complaints — but editors don’t care.

We joke — what else would we do? — that we should, like World War I veterans, go in on a bottle of champagne to be opened by the last man standing. Demographically and actuarially, that will be Matt Bors. At age 29, Bors is the youngest professional political cartoonist in the U.S. Despite the long hours he puts in supplementing his syndication income as an editor, blogger and freelance illustrator, he earns $30,000 in a good year. “I feel honored to be the youngest band member on the Titanic,” Bors says.

No wonder no one else wants to get into the field.

One of this year’s convention speakers is Victor Navasky, the author of a new book about political cartooning. Its subtitle references the “enduring power” of political cartoons. Yet Navasky mostly ignores developments since the 1980s, when Jules Feiffer and Matt Groening (“Life in Hell”) sparked the “alternative editorial cartooning” movement that includes artists like Bors, Ruben Bolling, Tom Tomorrow, Jen Sorensen, Keith Knight, Stephanie McMillan and yours truly.

American editorial cartoons have never been this smart, funny or relevant. Yet the best and brightest cartoonists of our generation are being pushed out of work because they can no longer earn even a meager income. In recent years talented cartoonists including Lloyd Dangle (“Troubletown“), David Rees (“Get Your War On”), Mikhaela Reid (“The Boiling Point“) and Tim Krieder (“The Pain—When Will It End?“) have called it quits because they couldn’t pay their bills.

The causes:

No jobs. No newspaper or magazine has hired a cartoonist from the new generation in more than 20 years.

Fewer opportunities. Fewer papers or magazines are running work by freelancers. Just last week, Time magazine quietly announced that it would no longer run cartoons. They’d been buying reprints for $20 each — a big change from 2001, when they were paying $800 to four artists, including me, for original content — but it was still too much.

Shrinking rates. The Village Voice, which gave Feiffer and Groening their starts, was famed for its cartoons. Groening got the Voice to pay $500 a cartoon in the 1980s. By the time I came on board in 1999, it was $100. Five years later, they slashed it to $50, take it or leave it. Now they don’t run comics at all. If I had a dime for every email I get from editors that start out “I’m a big fan of your work but I don’t have a budget for cartoons,” I’d be rich. Yet there’s always a budget for writers.

Censorship. It’s often what you don’t see that has the biggest effect. The cultural and political establishment has ruthlessly suppressed the new generation of cartoonists (I’d say young, but it’s been going on so long that some of these “new” cartoonists are over 50). You’d have to ask the gatekeepers why, but I suspect that our style (snottier, influenced by punk rock), politics (further left) and demographics (Gen X and Gen Y) are hard to relate to when you’re a Baby Boomer editor, producer, museum curator or book publisher. They don’t hate us; they don’t get us. So they don’t give us any play. (For example: Navasky’s book.) Which translates to less visibility and fewer dollars in our pockets.

There are bright spots. The liberal blog Daily Kos reposts edittoons. Nsfwcorp, a subscription-only print periodical, commissions original work, exclusive to them. But those are not nearly enough to sustain the medium.

Anyone who reads cartoons understands that they’re unique. Mixing words and pictures delivers commentary in a compelling, memorable way that prose — I say this a writer — can’t match. As editorial cartooning disappears, reformers lose an arrow in their quiver. Corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs get away with more.

The bloodbath in journalism in general and cartooning in particular is usually blamed on the Internet. Professional cartoonists work for newspapers and magazines; they’re forced to cut back as print display ad dollars are replaced by digital pennies. What revenues cartoonists can earn by selling directly to their readers — books, original drawings, merchandise — is getting sliced ever more thinly by online competitors: online meme generators, amateur webcartoonists, YouTube videos.

But that’s not the whole story.

At newspapers, cartoonists are the first fired, the last hired. When media gatekeepers — including those on prize committees — reach out to a cartoonist, they gravitate toward old-fashioned cartoonists who use hoary tropes like donkeys, elephants, labels and lots and lots of random crosshatching. Fetishizing the past is counterproductive because it discourages innovators. Also, it doesn’t work. Readers don’t respond. But editors blame cartooning as a medium when their real problem is their lousy taste in cartoons.

The New York Times Book Review is rightly skeptical about Navasky’s optimism about the future of editorial cartooning online: “An increase in distribution channels is not the same thing as a creative renaissance, and so far major online news sites have resisted the chance to hire their own political cartoonists.”

As a writer and cartoonist, I’m constantly looking for jobs. Sites like The Daily Beast, Salon, Slate and Huffington Post always post listings for writers. Lots of them. But they never hire cartoonists. From U.S. newspaper websites to the new Al Jazeera America, there’s lots of work for writers (albeit, for the most part, poorly paid). No one wants to hire cartoonists.

Why not? I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. It’s probably just groupthink coupled with a general lack of understanding of the “enduring power” of the medium. Newspapers first hired cartoonists because they were popular with readers. They still are. Portable electronic devices and the Web are quintessentially visual — duh — and cartoons — especially political cartoons — are massive clickbait with awesome viral potential. Someone at some point is going to re-figure out that people like comics. Then there’ll be a scramble to find edgy graphic content — comix journalism, editorial cartoons, animated cartoon videos — followed by the unwelcome discovery that due to years of censorship and impoverishment, there aren’t many cartoonists left creating professional work.

In the meantime, the Internet will continue to be something few people would have predicted: a sea of text as bland as the op/ed page of The Wall Street Journal.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in March 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Presidential Tokenism, Part 2

Hillary Clinton’s One-Woman Affirmative Action Program

The last few weeks have seen a full-court press by MSNBC and other Democratic media organs to either — one can’t be sure which, but it’s definitely one or the other – promote Hillary Clinton as the Party’s 2016 standard bearer or run her up the flagpole to see if anybody salutes.

Another Clinton? Sounds pretty boring to me. But no, proto-pro-Hillary forces assure us that promoting Madame Secretary to First-Ever Female President is an inherently exciting prospect, a history-making thrillapalooza that would smash glass ceilings, change everything in Washington, and remove waxy buildup.

“The enthusiasm and hunger for a Hillary Clinton presidency is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” enthuses strategist/pundit James Carville, who just slapped together a Hillary PAC to raise cash for 2016.

I don’t know about you, but the fact that the female One owes her political career entirely to having been married – and not particularly well married – to a president doesn’t exactly strike me as a glorious victory for feminism. Again, Carville and the gang, most irritatingly and recently centered around Tina Brown (another supposedly successful woman who married her way into prosperity), are sure sure sure that installing a commander-in-chief with XX chromosomes represents a magic game changer.

Or that we’ll think that it does.

“Even more than her husband, Hillary has become a symbol of something larger than herself,” one of Brown’s Daily Beast house web “reporters” swooned in a bit of puff that Kim Jong-un would deem too over-the-top. “[Hillary Clinton] is an embodiment of baby-boom second-wave feminists who see her elevation to the pinnacle of world affairs as their own story writ large. Now, they want to see her in the White House so they can die happy.”

Maybe we should let them die alone and in pain.

We have four-plus years of this guy from Chicago with a big shit-eating grin to prove that demographic novelty hardly guarantees ideological progress. (Sorry, long-term unemployed. You’re welcome, Wall Street.) And the passing of former Margaret “1,000,000 fired miners” Thatcher reminds us that estrogen isn’t enough if you’re a liberal, much less a progressive, hoping to reform capitalism into something slightly less heartless.

We’ve traveled down Clinton Inevitability Road before.

Democrats took a long, hard look at her in 2008 and in the words of one of the most tasteless T-shirts I have ever seen, consciously and decisively chose “bros before hos.” Voters asked to reconsider the current Secretary of State are being asked to forget that they rejected her.

They’re also being asked to forget her awful record: botching healthcare reform in 1993 by ginning up a convoluted system designed to line the pockets of the big insurance companies in Hartford, voting not just for the disastrous lost war against Afghanistan but the Iraq fiasco, and the minor detail that when it comes to affirmative, actual accomplishment as a US Senator and now Secretary of State, there isn’t a lot to look at.

Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard the MSNBC talking point. Hillary has done an amazing job as Secretary of State, she’s so competent, she’s worked so hard. “She traveled tirelessly, visiting more countries than any of her predecessors did and cementing her reputation as a serious and inspirational figure in her own right,” says Tina’s Beast. But really, so what? So she logged a bunch of frequent flyer miles. And?

Where’s her signature achievement as a diplomat, the big peace agreement, the disarmament success, the new detente? Why isn’t she taking up Iran on its offers to reestablish diplomatic relations? Why has she made no progress on the Israel-Palestinian conflict? Henry Kissinger had the Paris peace talks, SALT and opening ties with communist China, yet he was still a monstrous war criminal who deserves to be retroactively executed – and yeah, he’s a giant next to Hillary.

The Hillary for President bandwagon looks and feels an awful lot like the Obama campaign while it was revving up in 2006. Once again, we’re seeing an attempt to seduce voters with politically-correct tokenism.

We were supposed to overlook Obama’s inexperience (oh the irony, Hillary warned us about that during the 2008 primaries, and on that she was so so right) and brazen hypocrisy (his entire candidacy was predicated on his “opposition” to the Iraq war, which he repeatedly voted to fund, never voting no once) because he was, you know, black. That, and youngish. I had the same argument with so many of my liberal friends back in 2008, and they all told me the same thing: Obama looks different, so he feels different, thus he will be different.

My liberal friends are sad now. And many, many Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Pakistanis – there are so many of them – are as dead as the American economy.

This time Democrats are being asked to overlook Hillary’s – not inexperience, she’s definitely been around Washington –lack of accomplishment. They want us to forget that, far from undermining patriarchy, a vote for Hillary Clinton would reinforce it by passing over millions of brilliant women who really did make it on their own. Once again, not being an old white Ivy-educated Protestant male is supposed to masquerade as inherently imminent change, a radically safe affirmative-action program for the benefit of a single individual substituting for actual policies.

Haven’t we learned anything from Condi Rice or Colin Powell? Let’s stop judging politicians by the color of their skin — or the curve of their breasts — but by their lack of character.

This ridiculous system, presided over by out-of-touch hacks, keeps trotting out the transparently absurd argument that being a white Ivy-educated Protestant female guarantees something awesome. What and how, no one can say. Just vote for her. Hope for the best. Shut up.

What’s disturbing about the Rise of Hillary Part 2 is that it’s all personality, no politics. Economy? No comment. Environment? Nothing to say. Secretary is a celebrity, all image, no vision for where she wants to lead us. And the media thinks it’s peachy.

The days when politicians broke promises are long gone; betrayal of principles seems quaint now that there are no principles on offer to sell out. Now there are no promises during campaign season, only platitudes. There are no policies, only avatars.

Look! She’s a woman!

The pre-race for the 2016 Democratic nomination is being promoted not as a clash between visions, as we saw in 1980 between Jimmy Carter’s Southern centrism and Ted Kennedy’s classic New England liberalism, but as a friendly rivalry.

The nomination is Hillary’s if she wants it, so much so that Joe Biden won’t run if she does. How would a second President Clinton be different from a first President Biden? Does either one have a jobs program? No one’s asking.

The race for Leader of the Free World has been reduced to jostling between two suits in the executive suite, girls against boys, angling for a CEO slot scheduled to open up. Which is fine. What I don’t get is: why are we supposed to pay attention?

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Pirate This Book

Borders Goes Bankrupt. Will Books Survive?

Borders Books and Music, which once employed 30,000 workers at more than 600 stores, is bankrupt. Those numbers have been halved. And even after these massive cuts, analysts say, Borders is probably doomed.

The next time you walk past the empty ghost store where your local Borders used to be, you may ask yourself: Are we becoming a post-literate society?

Everywhere you look the printed word is under economic siege. Despite a 20 percent increase in demand in recent years, libraries are laying off, closing branches and reducing hours. Newsweek, one of the most venerable titles in magazine history, was recently sold for a buck (plus a promise to assume tens of millions in debt). Twitter is priced at $3.7 billion, nearly twice the public enterprise value of The New York Times ($2.03 billion).

The key word, of course, is the one in front of the word “word”: “printed.” We are reading more than ever. Just not in print.

According to a fascinating new study conducted by the University of Southern California, 94 percent of all data is now stored in digital form. (That ticked up a point as you were reading this.) Thanks to the Internet and various gadgets we read about 4.3 times more words each day than we did 25 years ago.

The more words we read, however, the less we want to pay the people who write them. The Times of London lost 90 percent of its online readership after it put its website behind a $4-a-week pay wall.

Why does this matter? Quality. The Huffington Post, recently sold to America Online for $315 million, points to a possible future in which the rewards go to ruthless aggregators who cater to Google common search phrases with slideshows about kittens and Lindsey Lohan. They rely on free blogs for most of their content. We’re getting exactly what they pay for: crap.

If you think journalism is bad now, it’s going to get even worse. The message is as loud and brassy as Arianna: real journalism doesn’t pay. Inevitably the best and brightest are gravitating to other fields.

Another unintended consequence of the digital revolution is lower memory retention. I recall significantly more of what I read in print than online; I’ve found the same to be true of my friends.

Norwegian researcher Anne Mangen told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam about a paper she published in The Journal of Research in Reading. Mangen believes that we remember more of what we read in print than on a computer screen. This additional retention is due to variables that serve as unconscious memnonic devices: fonts, position of text, images, paper texture, etc.

“The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking with the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads— take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the e-book, or the mobile phone,” argues Mangen. “Materiality matters…One main effect of the intangibility of the digital text is that of making us read in a shallower, less focused way.”

My personal experience convinces me that there is a difference. On the Kindle, everything looks and feels the same. When I read the Times on newsprint, part of what helps me remember a story is the ad that ran next to it and the photo underneath. Sure, Kindle readers remember much of what they read. But not as much as old-fashioned bookworms.

It is hard to quantify the value of a country’s intellectual life. But as Americans read more and more, less of it printed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are losing something precious and irreplaceable.

So what’s the solution? European booksellers, publishers and newspapers receive generous government subsidies. Here in the U.S., where pseudo-free markets are a national religion, the feds bail out billionaire bankers, not bookstores.

In order to successfully compete with online sales and e-books, brick-and-mortar retailers will have to learn the lesson of Borders: middle of the road equals mediocre.

Beginning at least ten years ago Borders buyers began eschewing risks. Buying into the “blockbuster mentality” of stocking stacks of sure-thing bestsellers, they stocked fewer books by midlist authors—profitable, but not bestselling, titles. Browsers found fewer surprises at Borders. As for top-selling books, they’re cheaper at Costco and on Amazon.

Barnes and Noble has been struggling too, but their strategy seems to stand a better chance than Borders. B&N’s inventory is wide as well as deep. The fronts of their stores feel “curated,” the way good independent stores bring in customers with the promise of discovery and serendipity. If consumers want something obscure, odds are there’s a copy or two in the back, spine out.

It’s a frightening thought: America’s intellectual future may depend on the fate of a superstore.

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

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL

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