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
“Who had a good year?” my friend and cartoonist colleague asked me. Again. “Who’ll win?” We have the same conversation every April.
A couple of weeks ago, it was time once again for an annual ritual familiar to thousands of journalists: attempting to predict the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes.
“They’ll give it to some loser. Like they always do,” I replied. “Or they won’t, and someone good will get it. Who knows? When are you going to accept that the Pulitzers are a completely, totally random occurrence?”
This is the biggest unspoken truth about the most respected award in American mediadom: there is no rhyme or reason to who wins a Pulitzer.
Theoretically, Columbia University awards the Pulitzer to the best work done the previous year in each given category: best play, best biography, best news photography of 2014, etc.
In reality, anyone can win. Anyone can be snubbed. It’s like a tornado tearing through a neighborhood, leaving one house standing intact while the others all get their roofs ripped off. Why that one? Who knows?
Many groundbreaking, big-name cartoonists get snubbed their entire careers, yet the list of winners includes many forgotten even to geeks of the genre — who remembers Edmund Valtman and Casey Orr? One recent April, I had to Google the name of the winning cartoonist. In a profession with fewer than 30 full-timers, I’d never heard of him (nor had many of my colleagues).
To call the Pulitzers quirky would be putting it mildly. There are repeat finalists who never win the actual prize. An artist may make a big splash in a given year, creating a single piece or series of cartoons widely discussed in the media, yet get passed over, even as a finalist. When the winner is announced, whether we love the cartoonist’s work or think he or she is awful, the selection always feels like it comes out of left field — not least to the winner himself or herself. It’s like — really? Him? Me?
Disclosure: I have been a finalist once. Feel free to call it sour grapes — you wouldn’t be the first. But not every cartoonist has gotten to be a finalist, so I have little reason to complain (not that it stops me).
Truth is, I’m fascinated by systems, particularly those in which subjective human beings are assigned to decide objective truths; whether it’s guilt or innocence at trial or who drew the best cartoons over a 12-month period, I am fascinated by process (procès is the French word for trial.)
Alongside my colleagues I have studied and discussed the outcome of the Pulitzer Prize for my category (editorial cartooning) for more than 20 years. It’s an obsession, and perhaps not a good for my psyche, but there it is. Over the years, many members of the cartooning award committee, which picks the three finalists, have confided the details of their deliberations. I know how they winnow down stack of entries down to a small group of contenders, what criteria they consider, how they discuss their final choices.
So what accounts for the Prize’s wild unpredictability?
For a long time, I was convinced that the explanation for Pulitzer weirdness lay primarily with process.
You’d think every committee member would look at every entry, right? No. To make the job easier, committees some years divvy up the entries among the jurors. Let’s say there are 80 entries and four jurors. Each juror reads his 20-share of entries, then divides them into “yesses” and “nos.” The yes entries go the next round while the nos are purged. The other jurors will never see a portfolio rejected in the first round. Since the identity and the tastes of the juror who first (and second, and third) winds up with your portfolio, luck plays a big role.
Some years, the committee comes up with an ad hoc point system to winnow down the stack of entries: rank quality of drawing between 1 and 10, say, and quality of the writing between 1 and 5, and add the two together. Points are a sort of math, so they feel rational, but of course they’re inherently arbitrary.
I have disabused myself of the notion that Pulitzer committee members want to send some sort of message, as in “it’s time that a woman won,” or a young person, or a Republican (though that last one is highly unlikely, because only 7% of American journalists identify with the GOP). Everyone I’ve talked to who has sat in the room has told me that making a statement isn’t a major consideration, and I believe them. In fact, they usually don’t spend much time talking to each other.
I’ve heard some crazy stories.
The big one comes up every year: what with everyone in a hurry to make it to the open bar, judges rush through the process. If you’re a long-winded, wordy cartoonist, your stuff might not get read.
One year, I was told, all the entries by the “young” (i.e., under age 45) cartoonists were set aside because one of the judges couldn’t understand them, with the agreement that, later in the winnowing-down process, the youngsters would be revisited. Everyone forgot.
Every year, at least one of the jurors has never seen a political cartoon before, and has to have the form explained to him or her by other jurors. No one suggests that the judge recuse himself.
Where I am now — and this could change — is that the choice of jurors determines the winners. Specifically, and especially in the cartooning category, jurors have no taste.
Please understand! I am not saying this colloquially, as in, they have bad taste. That is not what I mean.
What I mean is that the Pulitzer jurors have no taste.
They don’t know anything about cartoons.
To have bad taste as a judge, one must possess knowledge about a subject. For example, were I to judge the Heisman Trophy, I would need to know a lot about football, especially about up-and-coming college players. If I had bad taste, I would, as a well-informed panelist, give the trophy to a player who didn’t deserve it. However, I don’t know anything about football. I don’t watch it or even read about it. I don’t even know the names of all the teams. I should not judge the Heisman Trophy because I am an idiot when it comes to football.
I have no taste in football. Indeed, to have bad taste in football would reflect a massive increase over my current knowledge.
Every year, an examination of the list of Pulitzer Prize jurors in the editorial cartooning category reveals a startling absence of basic knowledge, much less expertise, about editorial cartoons.
The United States has two dozen or so professional political cartoonists and perhaps an additional two dozen comics museum curators, academics and editorial cartooning historians. For reasons unknown, the Pulitzer folks carefully avoid inviting any of these people, who live and breathe comics, to judge the cartoon category.
This year, one of the jurors was a freelance tech writer who has written a handful of short bits about cartooning-related controversies but no, as far as I can find online, analysis or reviews. The committee for 2014 also included an adjunct curator of comics — perhaps the chief curator was busy — for an institution that doesn’t have, you know, an actual comics museum.
There was also a pair of executive editors. Unlike opinion editors and editorial page editors, executive editors don’t deal with actual cartoons on the job. They don’t choose cartoons, or work with a staff cartoonist. Indeed, these two executive editors work at papers that don’t have a cartoonist, and run few if any syndicated cartoons.
The committee’s chairman is the editor-in-chief — a position that doesn’t work with cartoons — for a paper, in San Antonio, that fired its cartoonist years ago, and never replaced him.
A two-time Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist did judge the Pulitzer this year — but not in the cartoon category.
What you have, then, are five people, chosen basically at random off the streets, asked to look at more than a thousand cartoons and decide which ones they like best.
“I like this one.”
To be fair, other categories have fewer spectacularly unqualified jurors. Breaking news photography was judged by five photographers. Poetry, by two literature professors and a poetry columnist. History, by three historians.
Each committee of judges sends its three finalists up to the big Pulitzer Board who can select one winner, decide not to award the prize in that category at all, or select some random fourth winner outside of the three finalists.
If that’s not random enough for you, the eclectic group of editors, academics and journalists who comprise the Pulitzer Board decide winners of prizes in everything from best editorial writer to best biography to best play to best poet to best cartoonist.
These are not stupid people. But they’re also not experts in the subjects they’re asked to judge.
Steve Coll’s writing on the Middle East, South Asia and the war on terror is some of the best. But I’m not sure I trust him to pick the best editorial cartoon AND the best poem out of the, oh, two of each he reads of them each year. Because he’s an editorial page editor, I’d have faith in Paul Gigot to judge political cartoons, except for the fact that he’s at The Wall Street Journal, which doesn’t publish any. I love Gail Collins’ columns for The New York Times, but I’ve read her for decades — and never once has she mentioned political cartoons, which leads me to doubt she follows them attentively.
Assign random judges to carry out random judging processes and you get random outcomes. That’s my theory.
For now. It could change.
Because it’s all so incredibly weird.
To paraphrase Elvis Costello, I used to be disgusted. But hey — now I get it. They’re not ruling against me! It’s all random. Who knows? Maybe I’ll win! Or not. Whatever, it’s. All. Random.
Now I’m highly amused.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre couldn’t have happened here in the United States. But it’s not because American newspapers have better security.
Gunmen could never kill four political cartoonists in an American newspaper office because no paper in the U.S. employs two, much less four, staff political cartoonists — the number who died Wednesday in Paris. There is no equivalent of Charlie Hebdo, which puts political cartoons front and center, in the States. (The Onion never published political cartoons — and it ceased print publication last year. MAD, for which I draw, focuses on popular culture.)
When I began drawing political cartoons professionally in the early 1990s, hundreds of my colleagues worked on staff at newspapers, with full salaries and benefits. That was already down from journalism’s mid-century glory days, when there were thousands. Many papers employed two. Shortly after World War II, The New York Times, which today has none, employed four cartoonists on staff. Today there are fewer than 30.
Most American states have zero full-time staff political cartoonists.
Many big states — California, New York, Texas, Illinois — have one.
No American political magazine, on the left, center or right, has one.
No American political website (Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Slate, Salon, etc.) employs a political cartoonist. Although its launch video was done in cartoons, eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s new $250 million left-wing start-up First Look Media refuses to hire political cartoonists — or pay tiny fees to reprint syndicated ones.
These outfits have tons of staff writers.
During the last few days, many journalists and editors have spread the “Je Suis Charlie” meme through social media in order to express “solidarity” with the victims of Charlie Hebdo, political cartoonists (who routinely receive death threats, whether they live in France or the United States) and freedom of expression. That’s nice.
No it’s not.
As far as political cartoonists are concerned, editorials pledging “solidarity” with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is an empty gesture — corporate slacktivism. Less than 24 hours after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel fired its long-time, award-winning political cartoonist, Chan Lowe.
Political cartoonists: editors love us when we’re dead. While we’re still breathing, they’re laying us off, slashing our rates, stealing our copyrights and disappearing us from where we used to appear — killing our art form.
American editors and publishers have never been as willing to publish satire, whether in pictures or in words, as their European counterparts. But things have gone from bad to apocalyptic in the last 30 years.
Humor columnists like the late Art Buchwald earned millions syndicating their jokes about politicians and current events to American newspapers through the 1970s and 1980s. Miami Herald humor writer Dave Barry was a rock star through the 1990s, routinely cranking out bestselling books. Then came 9/11.
When I began working as an executive talent scout for the United Media syndicate in 2006, my sales staff informed me that, if Barry had started out then, they wouldn’t have been able to sell him to a single newspaper, magazine or website — not even if they gave his work to them for free. Barry was still funny, but there was no market for satire anywhere in American media.
That’s even truer today.
The youngest working political cartoonist in the United States, Matt Bors, is 31. When people ask me who the next up-and-comer is, I tell them there isn’t one — and there won’t be one any time soon.
Americans are funny. Americans like funny. They especially like wicked funny. We’re so desperate for funny that we think Jon Stewart is hilarious. (But…Richard Pryor. He really was.) But editors and producers won’t give them funny, much less mean-funny.
Like any other disaster, media censorship of satire — especially graphic satire — in the U.S. is caused by several contributing factors.
Most media outlets are owned by corporations, not private owners. Publicly-traded companies are risk-averse. Executives prefer to publish boring/safe content that won’t generate complaints from advertisers or shareholders, much less force them to hire extra security guards.
Half a century ago, many editors had working-class backgrounds and rose through the ranks from the bottom. Now they’re graduates of pricey graduate university journalism programs that don’t offer scholarships — and don’t teach a single class about comics, cartoons, humor or graphic art. It takes an unusually curious editor to make the effort to educate himself or herself about political cartoons.
Corporate journalism executives view cartoons as frivolous, less serious than “real” commentary like columns or editorials. Unfortunately, some editorial cartoonists make this problem worse by drawing silly gags about current events (as opposed to trenchant attacks on the powers that be) because they’ve seen their blandest work win Pulitzers and coveted spots in the major weekend cartoon “round-ups.” When asked to cut their budget, editors often look at their cartoonist first.
There is still powerful political cartooning online. Ironically, the Internet contributes to the death of satire in America by sating the demand for hard-hitting political art. Before the Web, if a paper canceled my cartoons they would receive angry letters from my fans. Now my readers find me online — but the Internet pays pennies on the print dollar. I’m stubbornly hanging on, but many talented cartoonists, especially the young, won’t work for free.
It’s not that media organizations are broke. Far from it. Many are profitable. American newspapers and magazines employ tens of thousands of writers — they just don’t want anyone writing or drawing anything that questions the status quo, especially not in a form as powerful as political cartooning.
The next time you hear editors pretending to stand up for freedom of expression, ask them if they employ a cartoonist.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, 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
Pando Daily, a web publication that offers technology news, analysis, and commentary, with a focus on Silicon Valley, has hired me as a full-time staff cartoonist and writer.
I will be drawing editorial cartoons, spot illustrations and comix journalism, as well as writing both short-form as well as feature-length commentary and journalism about politics, tech and the intersection between politics and tech — in other words, tech as politics. Whatever feels smart and right; we’ll do it.
This is exciting.
Having witnessed the disintegration of print media since before there was an Internet, mostly due to terrible management decisions, I’m thrilled to join a news organization that is forward-looking, gutsy and smart. It says a lot about Pando’s understanding of the value of visual media that, while newspapers and magazines fire cartoonists, they’re hiring them. This will be first full-time job as a cartoonist, and I couldn’t be happier.
Editorial cartooning has been dying/getting killed, so my hiring — coupled with that of Matt Bors at Medium last year — points the way to a possible way out of the print newspaper trap. Lots of websites that can obviously afford to hire writers — Salon, Slate, HuffPo, etc. — can easily afford to take on cartoonists…and they should, because cartoons are popular online, and provide a type of commentary no other medium can replicate.
All you have to do to see that this is a good fit is to spend a few minutes reading stories at Pando. They do what I care about: go after the truth, and kick ass.
If you’re a fan of my syndicated political cartoons and columns, don’t worry — those will go on. I will also continue my cartoons and blog for The Los Angeles Times. I will continue to work on new book projects, including international conflict reporting.
Thanks for supporting me and my work.
Susan here. There is a cartoon that I’ve seen played over and over again, for more than ten years now, and I’m sick of seeing it. And that’s a picture of Iranians working on a “Fatboy bomb”. And it always only one bomb, which they never seem to finish, even after ten years of working on it.
C’mon, cartoonists. This is getting old. If it takes Iranians ten years to make one Fatboy, and they’re still not finished with it, then they are not a credible threat to anybody.
As his colleagues shifted in their seats in awkward disgust, disgraced former Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial cartoonist Bill Day delivered a smarmy, tacky 15-minute filibuster masquerading as a defense of plagiarism.
The arena-like setting was a conference room at this year’s Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention, held in Salt Lake City. Earlier this year, Day, a 60-year-old artist whose career spans three decades at several papers, including the Detroit News, was accused of one count of plagiarism – scraping an illustrator’s rendition of an automatic weapon from the Internet, removing his signature and copyright information, adding words and additional artwork, and presenting it as his own without the customary attribution or permission from the original artist. (He claimed that he pulled the cartoon after being made aware that there was a problem, and that no newspapers ran it. In fact, it went out to hundreds of papers.) Even more serious in the jaundiced eyes of cartoonists attending the convention this year, a Tumblr blog collected at least 160 discrete sets of repurposed cartoons drawn by Day himself, totaling nearly 1000 pieces. In these recycled, or “self-plagiarized” cases, Day created a “new” cartoon by altering a few details of a previous work and issuing it as new.
Barely behind the scenes in all this was Daryl Cagle, formerly a cartoonist for the Honolulu Star Bulletin, and now sort of an Arianna Huffington of comics aggregation and syndication. Cagle distributes Day’s work. When the scandal broke, rather than fire Day – something that I had to do to two of my colleagues when I was a syndicate executive – Cagle vigorously defended his actions, bragging that he was “amused” and did the same thing himself, and encouraged other cartoonists to follow their example as a way to cut corners and meet deadlines. Said encouragement took the form of posts to Cagle’s influential blog, keeping Day on board the syndicate, dissembling on his behalf, doing even more outrageous things himself, and organizing an Indiegogo fundraising campaign on Day’s behalf – the only such campaign conducted on behalf of any editorial cartoonist on Cagle’s roster – that raised $42,000 from fans and sympathetic readers who believed Cagle’s videotaped plea that one of America’s best editorial cartoonists was in danger of becoming homeless. (I was one of them. I contributed $100.)
Despite Cagle’s best efforts to muddy the waters and rally his own cartoonists, many cartoonists disapproved of what Day had done, and more so of his brazen, unrepentant attitude. Two days before the convention, in fact, he sent out yet another cartoon – an obit cartoon of the not-dead-yet Nelson Mandela – that appears to have been repurposed.
Plagiarism, conflict of interest, cartoon repurposing and other ethical violations have been a long-standing problem in the field. When I was president of the Association between 2008 and 2009, I managed to push through the first ethics-related bylaw in the 50-year history of the Association: a proviso that permits the Board of Directors to expel a member it determines to have committed plagiarism. This didn’t go far enough: it didn’t cover nonmembers like Day, for example. But it was a start.
Many cartoonists seemed to believe that calling out fellow artists for ethical lapses would turn us into a sort of “cartoon police,” ultimately resulting in internecine conflict that would terror us apart. Some of us, mainly me and my friend Matt Bors, replied that bad behavior by a few members of a profession is a bigger threat, since it tarnishes the entire field by association, especially when the main professional Association of that field remain silent, and thus guilty of tacit consent.
This year’s convention organizers decided to address the issue by holding a town hall forum on plagiarism, recycling, etc. with the centerpiece being a proposed AAEC Code of Ethics drafted by myself and Bors. Our proposal spans a full range of lapses, from brazen plagiarism – tracing and Photoshopping other people’s work, through the kind of thing that Bill Day does, all the way to stealing other people’s ideas and jokes.
A few weeks before the convention, Bill Day expressed an interest in attending in order to defend himself. He believed himself completely guiltless and thought that most of us would come around to his way of thinking if we heard from him in person. It should be noted that he had already published at least two blog entries in which he accused the Association of being composed of a pit of snakes – he literally drew this – and attributed his actions to a busy schedule holding down multiple jobs while trying to support his family. Oh, and not to be forgotten: he also blamed the death of his brother and even his – I swear this is true – his cat. He didn’t make a direct link saying that he had plagiarized and recycled due to these events, or even because he was simply too busy to do good original work, but the line of argument was clear to all.
I didn’t think it was a good idea for him to come to the convention. And I will also confess to being more than a little frightened. He lives in Tennessee, a state with liberal gun laws. And I was by far his most strident critic.
In the event, he requested time to speak on the first day of the convention, Thursday. But when the scheduled time rolled around, he was nowhere to be found. He told the incoming president that the crowd wasn’t big enough. However, everyone was there. What did he want us to do, get people off the street? He rescheduled for Friday. It was supposed to take place over breakfast, but instead of Day pleading his case, there he was, chowing down on our food – food he didn’t even pay for, since he wasn’t registered for the convention and isn’t a member anymore. Again, he wimped out.
Annoyed, I hit the social networks, letting the world know that this manipulative plagiarist had wussed out not once, but twice, distracting us from important business and wasting everyone’s time. I heard from several colleagues, urging me to take down my posts lest the supposedly emotionally unstable Day finally be pushed over the edge and commit suicide. Apparently, the night before at a local bar, he had been talking about offing himself. I replied that, since it is evident that he doesn’t usually do what he says, there was nothing to worry about.
At this writing, he is still alive and still spending his $42,000.
Finally, on Saturday morning, Bill decided to grace the microphone with his presence. Following an engaging presentation on the history of editorial cartoon plagiarism in the United States by Joe Wos – did you know that the famous Paul Revere cartoon of the Boston massacre was brazenly plagiarized, and that he was called out and pretty much threatened with a duel over it? – and an overview of the proposed code of ethics, Bill took the stage. Incoming president Mark Fiore warned him that he would be limited to a strict 15 minutes, as we were getting started late and we had not planned for him to speak at this time. Everyone was quiet and respectful. No rolling eyes. We just sat and watched.
It was an epic act of self-immolation.
For 13 minutes, Bill Day revisited how he first got into cartooning. About his childhood in the segregated Deep South, how a friend was murdered in a racial bias incident. Then he seemed to get obsessed over accusations that his plagiarism stemmed from laziness. “They call me the lazy cartoonist,” he kept saying. He talked about how he waited until the age of 34 to land his first staff cartooning job, apparently something he still feels bitter about. (I turn 50 this year, and have never gotten one.) He held up a photograph of a box-sorting facility where he had worked in Memphis, for FedEx, and bitterly complained about here he was, at age 60, sorting boxes rather than drawing cartoons. (Many of the cartoonists in the room have performed manual labor, including yours truly.) He pointed out that he volunteers, reading to children in underprivileged areas, and held up a photograph of himself with African-American children. You could almost hear an audible gasp of disgust from the audience at this I-have-black-friends gambit. Not to mention, if he’s too busy to draw original work, why does he have time to volunteer anywhere? He didn’t say it, but the implication was clear – struggling to make ends meet after getting laid off by the Commercial Appeal prompted him to cut corners as a cartoonist. But if that was the case, why not just apologize and promise not to do it again? Especially now that he has a cool $42,000 to live off of for at least the next year?
As I watched Day ramble, I kept thinking that I could have gotten him off the hook in three minutes flat. All he needed to say was that other cartoonists, like John Sherffius, have used copyrighted and trademarked material as important components of their cartoons, and that he didn’t know it was wrong to do so. That he only did it once. That he wouldn’t do it again. And that if any royalties came in, if the cartoon ran anywhere, he would send them to the original copyright holder. As for the repurposed cartoons, he could have said – quite credibly – that he wasn’t the only guy who did this sort of thing. (Mike Ramirez comes to mind.) That it’s his work to recopy, he owns the copyrights. That you can’t punish someone retroactively. If the association decides to enact a rule against this sort of behavior going forward, he would abide by it, but until then, he was guilty of nothing more than cutting corners. Frankly, that would have done the job. But he couldn’t. Like the telltale heart in the Edgar Allen Poe story, his guilty conscience wouldn’t let him. He knew he was corrupt. So he had to make lame excuses.
He brought up his dead brother. And his dead cat. Again.
By the way, it turns out that it wasn’t a dead brother at all. I found out that afternoon that it was really a cousin. I bet he didn’t have a cat either.
Finally, at Minute 13, he began to address the issue of the plagiarized cartoon. But he talked so slowly that, even though Mark Fiore let him run on an extra five minutes, he didn’t get anywhere. The issue remained as opaque, and undefended, as ever. It was hard to watch: sad, infuriating, and ultimately the very definition of pathetic.
Bill left the room so that we could consider the code of ethics.
Mostly, cartoonists expressed the usual doubts. In particular, they were concerned about the strong enforcement provisions that I had included, directing the Association, when it becomes aware of ethical misbehavior, to issue public statements about them and to notify employers. Paul Fell said that we were in danger of fighting while we were rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and in the end there might only be three of us left. Patrick Henry-like, I exclaimed, “Better three with integrity than 300 without!”
Some anti-Code cartoonists pointed out that there’s a gray area when it comes to defining plagiarism. Bors countered this by saying that that shouldn’t be an excuse to throw up our hands and not take any action at all.
Steve Kelley, until recently the cartoonist for the New Orleans Times Picayune and now the co-creator of “Dustin,” conceded that ethics has become a serious issue yet characteristically called for a free market solution: with the Internet, he said, you can always count on a blogger to reveal these things, and then the cartoonist in question is shamed and loses his job. I think that this is when the vibe in the room started to shift. “Look at Bill Day!” I said. “He’s a plagiarist. His employer enables him. In fact, thanks to his employer, who also recycles cartoons without letting editors know, he got a $42,000 raise – the biggest raise in American editorial cartooning! No one else in this room got a raise like that. Hell, many people in this room don’t even make that much.”
One of the big problems has been that cartoonists guilty of plagiarism have worked for years for newspapers and syndicates that remained unaware of their actions. So In extreme cases, I think it’s important for the Association to inform them. We can’t fire anyone, nor should we want to, but if an employer wants to keep a plagiarist on board – like Daryl Cagle is currently doing – they should make that decision with their eyes open. I drew an analogy with the American Medical Association, that if the AMA became aware that one of their members, or any doctor, is a quack, his patients and employers have the right to know. Otherwise, we would be complicit. This is not without precedent. Past presidents of the Association have notified cartoonists’ employers.
It would be no small stretch to say that Matt Bors and I were the only two people in the room arguing in favor of putting the Code of Ethics on a ballot for consideration by the membership. And yet we carried the argument. Although it felt lonely at the time, I have to say that there is no better place to be than in a group of friends and colleagues who respect you enough to change their minds if you are able to make a strong argument against their previously long-held convictions. I am grateful for their open-mindedness and willingness to listen.
As we prepared for this vote, Daryl Cagle moved that all discussion cease. That we never discuss the topic of ethics at all. That we not vote on whether or not to have such a code. That we not vote on whether or not to put a code on the ballot for the membership to consider. That we just simply stop talking about it. “This will destroy the Association. All this backstabbing,” he said, visibly furious. If English has any meaning, of course, this is the very opposite of backstabbing. This is all out in the open. Outgoing president Matt Wuerker, presiding over the business meeting, asked if there was a second to Daryl’s motion. There wasn’t. Crickets. Not even his syndicate cartoonists were willing to contribute to such a brazenly anti-democratic attempt to squash the discussion. And so, the ballot goes out to the nation’s editorial cartoonists later this year. They will get to decide whether plagiarism, recycling, conflicts of interest and the like should be something that the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists take a public stance against.
Every other journalistic organization does.
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.
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
Once again hack blogger Alan Gardner of The Daily Cartoonist, the boosterish cut-and-paste pseudo-news site, is running interference for ethics-challenged cartoon kingpin/plagiarist enabler/cartoon recycler Daryl Cagle.
Quoting Cagle’s laughable blog (without seeking comment from me, Matt Bors, Ann Telnaes or other cartoonists who have challenged him), Gardner writes: “Daryl Cagle responds to the criticism that by switching positions (and changing a cartoon) that he’s undermining editorial cartooning.”
Of course, no one criticized Cagle for “switching positions” (on whether the Boston Marathon bombing suspect “deserved” his Miranda rights). Nor did anyone criticize him for “changing a cartoon.” Changing cartoons is done all the time.
What Daryl was criticized for was the equivalent of selling weapons to both sides in a war: the reprehensible act of issuing two versions of the same exact cartoon, one pro-Miranda rights, the other anti, and selling both versions at the same time.
Alan Gardner knows that. Which makes him a disgusting, slimy liar.
Either that, or he’s a moron.
I’m giving him credit. I’ll go with lying sack of dung.
Doesn’t matter if they deserve it: criticizing the work of a creative person who isn’t successful is mean. Not to mention pointless. If they’re not doing well, and their work sucks, the system is working.
Take on a cartoonist or writer who is raking in the cash, on the other hand, and his fans will accuse you of sour grapes. “You’re just jealous!” they’ll say.
Which is true, but also not true.
I’ll start with the not-true part.
I’ll focus on cartoonists because that’s my chosen profession, and I happen to think I’m good at it, and I sometimes issue broadsides against cartoons I think are such an insult to my profession that their shitsmeariness literally takes money out of my pocket merely by toiling in the same genre.
Lots of cartoonists make more money than I do. Yet you won’t find me tearing them a new critical asshole. Matt Groening makes more money than he can count. Is he perfect? Hell no. But as far as I can tell, he deserves every cent. Charles Schulz, Gary Larsen, Garry Trudeau, Bill Mauldin, James Thurber — all cartoonists who made or make bank. Schulz still makes tens of millions a year, and he’s dead. All got more awards than I could dream of. As far as I’m concerned, the system worked in these cases.
If my criticisms of other cartoonists were motivated by simple sour grapes, by the simple equation of he-has-more-good-stuff-than-I-do, I would attack the most successful, richest cartoonists the most. Or I’d draw a line at my level of income and fame, and grouse about everyone above it. Of course, this would delegitimize my complaints.
Some of the cartoonists whose work I criticize respond by saying that my work sucks. In other words, I don’t have standing to attack them. Which, if true, is silly: you don’t have to be a (rich) film director to have a (valid) opinion on a movie. Then they fall back on the sour-grapes argument: I’m jealous of their talent.
Indeed, I am jealous of other cartoonists’ talent. I wish I drew as well as Matt Bors, wrote as brilliantly as Ruben Bolling, had as much passion as Stephanie McMillan, as much control as Jen Sorensen, as much crossover appeal as Shannon Wheeler, as much consistency as Tom Tomorrow. None of whom, by the way, make more money or have earned more awards than I have. Which, for me, is evidence that the system is not working. They should make more money and win more awards — not than me, goddammit! — than the hacks whose crap I ridicule.
Am I jealous? Damn right, I’m jealous.
I’m jealous when people get stuff they don’t deserve.
Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist, is one of the worst published writers in an American newspaper, an insult to logical reasoning, and more damning of all, deadly wrong about major issues. His job is to prognosticate, yet he has no ability to see past his bushy porn-star mustache. He was, for example, in favor of invading Iraq because he thought the U.S. would do a good job there. He was wrong when a lot of other people were right. He was listened to. They weren’t. And the consequences were devastating. Friedman lives in a palace. Does he deserve it? Hell no. Do I deserve it? More than him, that’s for sure.
I recently applied to a minor cartooning contest called “Best of the West.” It’s for political cartoons that run in the Western United States. Since I do cartoons for The Los Angeles Times, I applied. When the results came out, I was disgusted. This is because (a) it turned out the judge for the contest is close friends with the first-prize winner. They’re co-hosting the editorial cartoonists’ annual convention in three months. Talk about conflict of interest. I was jealousgusted (new word! use it, spread it around) by (b) by no objective standard could the first- or second-prize winners of Best of the West be judged to have done better cartoons than me or, say, Jen Sorensen, who also applied. Jen’s worst-ever cartoon is better/smarter/more political than number one or number two’s best-ever cartoon. So is mine. It’s not even close. We wuz robbed. So were others, including third-place “winner” Matt Bors. No one with eyes would put number two — who the same week published an “editorial cartoon” that, if I were on a prize committee, would have by itself have disqualified him from consideration — above Matt Bors in an editorial cartooning contest.
I bring up “Best of the West” because it literally means nothing. Well, maybe 0.02% of nothing. No prize money. No acclaim. The only reason I applied was that it’s been years since I won any prize whatsoever, and in a tough environment even 0.02% acclaim might be worth having. So just to be clear: I’m jealous. Not of Matt Bors, who got screwed as much as I did, well, slightly less, but still. I’m jealous of numbers one and two, who hold jobs, with full benefits, while I don’t. And I’m angry at the judge, because he knew — or should have known — that he made a shitty decision, and one devoid of basic ethics to boot.
Now several of my colleagues have taken me to task for talking about how certain hack cartoonists have staff jobs, with medical benefits, while I don’t. This, they tell me, makes me look petty.
If the homeless veteran on the street outside the Starbucks where I am writing this sees me typing this on my shiny $3000 laptop, a $2.40 coffee cooling at my side, $650 glasses perched on my nose, is he jealous? Well, he should be. I don’t blame him if he comes in here and beats me to death. The gap between what I have and what he doesn’t have is so huge that he would literally have to be stupid and crazy not to hate me. I don’t deserve what I have, not compared to him. I don’t deserve to be the beneficiary of that gap.
Now let’s take a detour down Theoretical Lane: Imagine that — and that this is somehow provable — that by objective standards, he has led a better life than me. That he has worked harder, made better choices, been nicer, more creative, etc. Let’s further imagine that he and I both know this fact. Does he have a right to be jealous? Damn right he does. Would it be petty for him to express this fact? To tell passersby: “Hey, look at that (relatively) rich asshole in there. I spent my life saving children, creating great art and giving generously to the poor. All he’s done is draw pictures and whine about the president.”? Of course it wouldn’t. He’d have every right. Not only that, he’d be wrong not to make such a point. Because it would make a Very Important Argument: that the System does NOT work. If the system, which governs everything, doesn’t work, then everything is suspect. Clearly this calls for radical and immediate reassessment. It’s like capital punishment: a faulty tax audit is an injustice, but putting an innocent man to death represents such a grotesque and immense gap between the way things should be and the way they actually are that you have to stop executing people entirely.
I’m not comparing my loss in “Best of the West” (or, for that matter, the Pulitzer Prize) to the case of Todd Willingham, the innocent man poisoned to death by the state of Texas under Governor Rick Perry (who then tried to cover it up). What I am arguing, in certain cases, is that to reflexively accuse a critic of petty jealousy/sour grapes is to automatically assume that injustice either (a) doesn’t exist or (b) shouldn’t be complained about — in other words, to assume the role of the oppressor.
When I write about bad cartoons, I mention the Pulitzers and six-figure salaries of their creators first, in order to show my hand (a key component of integrity in arguing): I’m annoyed at said bad cartoon not because it is bad per se (there are millions of bad cartoons by, say, high school newspaper cartoonists that don’t deserve mention); and second, to make the case that the system is disproportionately rewarding those who don’t deserve it at the expense of those who do. This is important, because there are people like Lisa Klem Wilson, my former boss at a newspaper syndicate that has since gone out of business called United Media, who believe, as she said at a morning meeting, that “we live in a meritocracy. The best stuff rises to the top.” I remember thinking and saying: “What world do you live in?” When you look at, say, the list of Pulitzer Prize winners and compare them to some of the high-profile creators who lost those same years, it’s hard to see where people like Lisa are coming from. But they’ll never change their minds unless those of us who see things differently point these things out.
I am envious of anybody who has more than I do. Who, besides a monk, doesn’t want a nicer house? A bigger bank account? A good job? But I’m not angry about it, except in the generalized rage I feel about inequality in general, which informs my politics. No one deserves more anything than anyone else. To believe otherwise is to accept and enable evil.
Matt Bors won a major cartooning award, the Herblock Award, two years ago. $15,000! They cover the taxes! Tom Tomorrow won this year. I was envious, but I wasn’t jealous. They’re both great cartoonists. They deserved it. Jealousy is directed at the undeserving. As long as they have nice things that other people deserve more — a lot more — I’ll be jealous.