Tag Archives: Pierre Omidyar

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Editors, Not Terrorists, Killed American Political Cartooning

Terrorism doesn’t scare political cartoonists nearly as much as editors — and the corporate bean-counters who tell them what to do.

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.

It’s annoying.

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.

Why not?

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

 

EXCLUSIVE SYNDICATED COLUMN: What Really Went Wrong at First Look Media

Just over one year ago, billionaire eBay cofounder Pierre Omidyar issued one of the most dramatic announcements America’s beleaguered journalists had experienced in their lifetimes. After decades of closing newspapers, shrinking newsrooms, vanishing foreign bureaus and the near extinction of investigative reporting due to brutal, relentless budget-cutting, Omidyar would endow a new company, First Look Media, with a staggeringly large sum of cash – $250 million – to be deployed in the service of a breathtakingly ambitious attempt to reinvent advocacy journalism in everything from investigations of financial corruption to sports coverage.

Even better, from the standpoint of progressives living in the political wilderness since the rise and fall of George McGovern, First Look Media would be edited by leftist pundits and advocacy journalists like the legal columnist Glenn Greenwald, to whom former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked more than a million classified US government documents, the documentarian Laura Poitras, also involved intimately in the Snowdon saga, and the respected anti-militarism critic Jeremy Scahill.

As some cynics opined, it all sounded too good to be true. (Disclosure: for just shy of a month earlier this year, I worked for Pando Daily.) Why would a billionaire like Omidyar bankroll a bunch of antiestablishment types like the financial reporter Matt Taibbi – hired away from Rolling Stone – whose mission in life is in large part to undermine global capitalism?

Although it’s too soon to declare First Look dead and gone, and Omidyar claims to be as committed to his utopian company as ever, things have gone from bad to worse over the last year. Omidyar’s $250 million pledge shrunk to $50 million. The mission to fund hard-hitting journalism and commentary was recast as, among other things, possibly a “platform” expected to generate significant revenue. Tales of shrinking budgets, diminished expectations, shrinking ambitions and staffers leaving after complaining of managerial incompetence appeared with increasing frequency in the trade press.

From the outside, it quickly became clear that First Look was less than a well-oiled machine, or even a reasonably functional journalistic startup. Fellow writers and cartoonists who responded to First Look’s repeated calls for resumes (disclosure: I was one of them) described treatment ranging from unprofessional snubbing of award-winning pros to outright rude, such as going silent after asking them to come in for an interview.

Even more damning was the company’s egregious violation of Jeff Bezos’ axiom: always underpromise and overdeliver. One year after declaring itself a left-wing media monolith to rival Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, all First Look has to show for itself is a crappy WordPress blog with less basic functionality than many private individuals feature on their personal cat-photo websites. Updates have been scattershot and infrequent. Coverage has been anything but wide-ranging. And the journalists gone wild implied by Omidyar’s original big splash either never got hired or, if they did, never saw print.

Where, everyone wanted to know, did the $250 million go?

A couple of months ago, a First Look staffer emailed me to find out how much it would cost to run my syndicated cartoons. When they got the quote – which was lower than much larger websites pay, certainly we’re not talking about websites backed by a quarter billion dollars – they said they wouldn’t be able to afford cartoons. I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much: we were under the impression, the staffer replied, that cartoon content is cheap.

Aside from the terrible politics – if a billionaire can’t pay decent prices for content, who can? – I began to wonder whether Omidyar was starving First Look.

Media outlets, understandably interested in an experiment that, if successful, might have led to a new model for public interest and advocacy journalism in the digital age, have speculated and reported obsessively on last week’s departure of Taibbi, hired to run what was going to be First Look’s second “magazine,” or “vertical,” in industry vernacular, after The Intercept, where Greenwald writes about the Snowden revelations.

As always, when there’s a disaster there are numerous causes. But all of the coverage I’ve read so far has missed the biggest flaw of all in First Look’s business model: the fact that Pierre Omidyar kept, and is still keeping, tight control of the purse strings.

It amazes me that people as savvy as First Look’s top editors didn’t insist, before leaving respectable publications like the UK Guardian and Rolling Stone for a start-up, that Omidyar put the $250 million (or $50 million, or single-digit millions now) in escrow, or at least under the control of a group of trustees of whom Omidyar would be just one, and would include top editorial staff like Greenwald.

I met with a high-level First Look official during the summer to discuss the possibility of working together. I asked: “Where’s the $250 million?” He didn’t know. He couldn’t say.

A structure that allowed Omidyar complete control of the company’s finances was bound to put a crimp on editorial independence, which was apparently the main reason Taibbi left. Who wants to be a billionaire’s plaything? No matter how well the job pays, it only ends badly. Given Omidyar’s reported authoritarian control freak personality, which apparently even extends to personally signing off on – and denying – taxi receipts, it seems even more insane to take a job leaving him in complete charge of the money.

I wasn’t there (though I would’ve loved to have been), but this looks to me like a group of writers working in a profession that had been mistreated for so long that they were exceptionally vulnerable to the seduction of a smooth-talking charmer who passed himself off as an angel investor in the future of liberalism and journalism. Of course, this might all work out in the end. I hope it does.

Hell, Greenwald is supposedly going to meet his boss Omidyar in person for the very first time.

Better a year late than never.

(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 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM