Tag Archives: publishers

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

 

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Censor Google

Last week’s EU court ruling ordering Google and other search engines (there are other search engines?) to process requests from European citizens to erase links to material about them is being criticized by techno-libertarians. Allowing people to clean up what has become the dreaded Permanent Record That Will Follow You the Rest of Your Life, they complain, creates an onerous inconvenience to tech companies, amounts to censorship, and infringes upon the free flow of information on the Internet.

Even if those concerns were valid — and they’re not — I’d agree with the European Court of Justice’s unappealable, final verdict in the case of Mario Costeja González, a Spanish national who asked that a Google link to a property foreclosure ought to be deleted since the debt had since been paid off and the matter has been resolved. He did not request, nor did the court rule, that the legal record itself, which dated back to 1998, be expunged from cyberspace — merely that he ought not to suffer shame or embarrassment for his former financial difficulties every time an acquaintance or potential employer types his name into a browser, for the remainder of his time on earth, and beyond.

Offline, the notion that people deserve a fresh start is not a radical concept; in the United States, even unpaid debts vanish from your credit report after seven years. So much stuff online is factually unreliable that “according to the Internet” is a joke. There are smears spread by angry ex-lovers, political enemies, bullies and other random sociopaths. The right to eliminate such material from search results is long overdue. It’s also not without cyber-precedent: after refusing to moderate comments by “reviewers,” many of whom had not read the books in question, Amazon now removes erroneous comments.

The ruling only affects Europe. But Congress should also introduce the U.S. Internet to the joys of forgetting. Obviously, obvious lies ought to be deleted: just last week, conservative bloggers spread the meme that I had “made fun of” the Americans killed in Benghazi. I didn’t; not even close. Google can’t stop right-wingers from lying about me, but it would sure be nice of them to stop linking to those lies.

But I’d go further. Lots of information is accurate yet ought to stay hidden. An unretouched nude photo is basically “true,” but should it be made public without your consent?

We Americans are rightly chastised for our lack of historical memory, yet society benefits enormously from the flip side of our forgetfulness — our ability to outgrow the shame of our mistakes in order to reinvent ourselves.

“More and more Internet users want a little of the ephemerality and the forgetfulness of predigital days,” Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of Internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute, said after the EU court issued its decision. Whether your youthful indiscretions include drunk driving or you had an affair with your boss as an intern, everyone deserves a second chance, a fresh start. “If you’re always tied to the past, it’s difficult to grow, to change,” Mayer-Schönberger notes. “Do we want to go into a world where we largely undo forgetting?”

Ah, but what of poor Google? “Search engine companies now face a potential avalanche of requests for redaction,” Jonathan Zittrain, a law and computer science professor at Harvard, fretted in a New York Times op/ed.

Maybe. So what?

Unemployment, even among STEM majors, is high. Tech companies have been almost criminally impecunious, hiring a small fraction of the number of employees needed to get the economy moving again, not to mention provide decent customer service.

Google has fewer employees than a minor GM parts supplier.

Would it really be so terrible for Google to hire 10,000 American workers to process link deletion requests? So what if lawyers make more money? They buy, they spend; everything trickles down, right? Google is worth more than Great Britain. It’s not like they can’t afford it.

Onerous? Google has a space program. It is mapping every curb and bump on America’s 4 million miles of roads.

They’re smart. They can figure this out.

“In the United States, the court’s ruling would clash with the First Amendment,” the Times reported with an unwarranted level of certitude. But I don’t see how. The First Amendment prohibits censorship by the government. Google isn’t a government agency — it’s a publisher.

This is what the EU story is really about, what makes it important. In order to avoid legal liability for, among other things, linking to libelous content, Google, Bing and other search engines have always maintained that they are neutral “platforms.” As Zittrain says, “Data is data.” But it’s not.

Google currently enjoys the liberal regulatory regime of a truly neutral communications platform, like the Postal Service and a phone company. Because what people choose to write in a letter or say on the phone is beyond anyone’s control, it would be unreasonable to blame the USPS or AT&T for what gets written or said (though the NSA would like to change that).

Google-as-platform is, and always was, a ridiculous fiction. Search results, Google claims, are objective. What comes up first, second and so on isn’t up to them. It’s just algorithms. Data is data. The thing is, algorithms are codes. Computer programs. They’re programmed by people. By definition, coders decide.

Algorithms are not, cannot be, and never will be, “objective.”

That’s just common sense. But we also have history. We know for a fact that Google manipulates searches, tweaking their oh-so-objective algorithms when they cough up results they don’t like. For example, they downgrade duplicated content — say, the same essay cut-and-pasted across multiple blogs. They sanction websites that try to game the system for higher Google listings by using keywords that are popular (sex, girls, cats) but unrelated to the accompanying content.

They censor. Which makes them a publisher.

You probably agree with a lot of Google’s censorship — kiddie porn, for example — but it’s still censorship. Deciding that some things won’t get in is the main thing a publisher does. Google is a publisher, not a platform. This real-world truth will eventually be affirmed by American courts, exposing Google not only to libel lawsuits but also to claims by owners of intellectual property (I’m talking to you, newspapers and magazines) that they are illegally profiting by selling ads next to the relevant URLs.

Although the right to censor search results that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” (the words of the EU ruling) would prevent, say, the gossip site TMZ from digging up dirt on celebrities, there would also be a salutary effect upon the free exchange of information online.

In a well-moderated comments section, censorship of trolls elevates the level of dialogue and encourages people who might otherwise remain silent due to their fear of being targeted for online reputation to participate. A Google that purges inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant items would be a better Google.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

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