Tag Archives: Village Voice

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 The same men who crank out Uncle Sams and avenging eagles blasting feckless Talibs, cartoons choked with outdated labels and metaphors no one understands, turn out to be hilarious, funnier and a shitload smarter than the stand-up comics (hi, Louis C.K., hi Jon Stewart)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

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Cut-and-Paste Revolution, Part I

Winter Looms. Occupy Movement Wiggles Fingers. What Next?

“Let’s recreate Tahrir Square.” The email blast that began it all in June, a call for opponents of America’s wars and bank bailouts and rising income inequality and a host of other iniquities to occupy a public plaza two blocks from the White House, drew its inspiration from the Arab Spring.

The call worked. For the first time since the unrest of the 1960s, Americans joined spontaneous acts of protest and sustained civil disobedience in vast numbers. Why? Perhaps Americans, smugly dismissing the Muslim world as inherently inhospitable to democracy, were embarrassed to watch themselves shown up by people willing to face down bullets in Bahrain and Yemen and Libya. What’s a little pepper spray considering the thousands killed in Syria? Maybe Tahrir appealed because it worked. Or seemed to work. (Note to revolutionaries of the future: never trust the old regime’s military when they say it’s OK to leave them in power.)

The Arab Spring begat an American Fall. An aging Canadian magazine publisher cut-and-pasted the Freedom Plaza occupation (which still goes by the name of October 2011 Stop the Machine). Then he preempted STM, scheduling it to begin a few weeks earlier. He moved it to New York. Finally, he branded his cut-and-paste occupation with a better name: Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street, not-so-new but much improved by its proximity to the national media based in Manhattan, began with aimless milling about the closed streets of the Manhattan’s financial district. It was ignored. A week later the collision of a thuggish NYPD officer, a dollop of pepper spray and four stylish young women made the news. “The cops spraying a bunch of white girls, well, our donations have tripled,” victim Chelsea Elliott told The Village Voice. Within a month, OWS was the beneficiary of an unreserved endorsement by The New York Times editorial board. On Sunday, no less–the most widely read edition.

More than a thousand cities now have their own occupations, cut-and-pasted from their format of their Washington and New York granddaddies. The Occupations trend white and young. They claim to be leaderless. Most of them cut-and-paste their tactics from OWS. They first take over public parks in downtown areas. Then they either apply for police permits to use a public park (as in Washington), obtain approval from private owners (as in New York), or take over spaces sufficiently unobtrusive so that the authorities grant their tacit consent (as in Los Angeles, where the encampment is in the city’s mostly disused downtown).

With a few exceptions like Denver, where police forcibly cleared out and arrested Occupy Denver members and confiscated their tents and other property, most local and federal law enforcement agencies have assumed a “soft pillow” approach to the Occupy phenomenon.

This missive to Occupy L.A. participants gives a sense of the modus vivendi: “The event organizers say they have talked to the police and the police say they are welcome. There are certain rules planned to be in place, such as moving tents off the grass onto the sidewalk at night. Please follow the directions of the police or any officials. The lawn has an automatic sprinkler system that someone who went and watched says turns on at 8 pm – 9 pm. The park area closes at 10 pm, but sleeping on the public sidewalks adjacent to the street is allowed from 9 pm to 6 am. That is the sidewalk surrounding the park area, not the sidewalk within the park area. Also, keep in mind you can be charged for clean-up and repairs, so wherever you go, be sure you do not create any need for clean-up or repairs. Please be very mindful of this.”

Aware of the fact that the movement has grown in response to official pushback–in New York after the pepper-spraying of the four women as well as after a threatened “clean up” operation similar to what went down in Denver–police are reluctant to create a spectacle of violent official repression. Protesters, meanwhile, are understandably reluctant to become victims of violent official repression. There have been hundreds of arrests, but no violent showdowns as we’ve seen in Athens. Leftist professor Cornel West seems to get booked every other day yet looks none the worse for wear.

In the absence of serious confrontation the occupations have become campsites. After police threatened to sweep up Freedom Plaza in Washington hundreds of supporters poured in to face down the police. The U.S. Parks Police blinked; now Stop the Machine has an official four-month permit. The same thing happened when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg scheduled a police-led “clean up” of Zuccotti Park. A night’s worth of phone calls by panicky city politicians made him back down.

Also, as The Nation reports, the NYPD wasn’t certain they had legal grounds for evicting the Occupiers from Zuccotti Park, which is public but privately-owned: “Jerold Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says that these spaces ‘occupy a somewhat murky terrain in terms of what activities and conduct of public users within the space should be acceptable and what goes beyond the pale.’ That is, the protesters have been able to set up camp in Zuccotti not because of any regulation that protects their presence there, but precisely because of a real lack of any defined regulations at all.”

With free food, legal services, a press table and bilingual information booths–plus the passage of time–Occupy Wall Street looks increasingly permanent.

Occupy movement outposts utilize an anarchist-inspired “general assembly” structure to make decisions ranging from the profound (resolved, that we should jail Obama) to the mundane (what time shall we hold the next general assembly). Everyone gets to speak. A “mic check” of repeated lines pass everything said to the outer ring of listeners. Attendees indicate approval by holding their fingers up and wiggling them. Downward wiggling indicates disapproval; sideways wiggling reflects uncertainty. Forming a triangle with one’s fingers is a demand for a point of process.

Why this approach? No one asks. That’s how it goes with cut-and-paste.

Crossed arms are a “block.” Anyone may block any motion. A 999-to-1 vote means no passage. Blocks, we are told by non-leader facilitators, are a nuclear option. “You might block something once or twice in your lifetime,” Starhawk, a genre novelist introduced as an experienced facilitator at one of the D.C. occupations. But a lot of nukes went flying around. Occupy Miami took weeks to get off the ground because rival factions (liberals vs. radicals) blocked one another at every turn.

Cut-and-paste at every turn: the local occupations use similar interfaces, even typefaces, for their websites and Facebook pages.

The movement has grown nicely. But, just as Mao found it necessary to adapt industrial-proletarian-based Marxism to China’s agrarian economy with “Marxism with Chinese characteristics,” activists are about to face the negative consequences of trying to replicate Tahrir Square in the United States. The U.S. isn’t Egypt. It isn’t even European. Americans need Tahrir Square with American characteristics.

Conditions on the ground necessitate a reset.

Namely: the weather.

IN MY NEXT COLUMN: Winter is coming. What will happen to the northern Occupations when the snow starts falling?

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

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL