UPDATED: Editors and Publishers, Heal Thyselves

Cartoongate has blown wide open. Fasten your metaphorical seatbelts and look out for flying crosshatch.

Michael Cavna of the Washington Post reports that the Columbus (OH) Dispatch has suspended its editorial cartoonist as it investigates allegations of plagiarism.

Disclosure: I know Jeff Stahler. We’re not close friends, just acquaintances. Seems nice enough, but that’s not the point.

The Dispatch’s investigation isn’t over. But it’s hard to imagine that this doesn’t mark the beginning of the end of Stahler’s career as a cartoonist. (He also draws freelance cartoons for USA Today and does the syndicated panel “Moderately Confused.”)

These allegations have been around for years. Cartoonists keep files of plagiarism real and imagined, and Jeff’s name came up often. No one I’ve talked to thinks he’s innocent, and neither do I. There’s too much of a pattern, over too long.

And there are others.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Other editorial cartoonists, including Pulitzer Prize winners, have long been reputed to be serial plagiarists within the industry. We’re not talking about accidentally regurgitating a gag you read elsewhere and thinking that you thought it up yourself. We’re talking about tracing artwork on a lightbox down to the slightest detail. We’re talking about intentionally repurposing a gag from another cartoon, changing it just enough to make it plausibly different, then passing it off as your own.

There is no excuse for this behavior.

I do hope, however, that editors and publishers at newspapers, magazines and websites that post cartoons consider their own role in encouraging plagiarism.

That’s right: it’s also their fault.

For at least 30 years newspaper and magazine editors and publishers have discouraged originality in cartooning. They have recruited, hired and given Pulitzers to cartoonists whose drawing style slavishly mimics the late cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, who died in 2000.

They have hired cartoonists like Stahler, whose politics are as bland as his ink line, while refusing to hire those with more original drawing styles. No daily newspaper—out of 1600 in the United States—has ever hired a staffer from the ranks of the dozens of “new breed” political cartoonists (Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Ward Sutton, Stephanie McMillan) who emerged from the alternative weeklies in the 1990s.

At award time, Pulitzers and other prizes invariably go not only to the safest work—stuff that takes no chances politically, stylistically or artistically—while brilliant younger talents like Tim Krieder and Lloyd Dangle were forced to quit drawing cartoons because no one would hire them, recognize them, or pay them for their work.

A classic example: after 9/11, over 60 cartoonists drew weeping Statues of Liberty. Over 60! It was appalling. Yet to this day, when you criticize the tendency of the profession to yield “Yahtzees,” as we call them, the guilty cartoonists say that their readers love them. Which is no doubt true. Readers love sentimental pap.

It’s up to editors to police their pages. That includes challenging their cartoonists to come up with material that isn’t merely original from a legal perspective—i.e., not traced from a Jeff MacNelly book—but original from a stylistic, political and conceptual framework.

Over the years, including as President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, I challenged the editors of major publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today and The Washington Post to seek out hard-hitting, fiercely original cartoons for their pages. For my efforts I have been roundly ridiculed. In the last year Matt Bors has taken up the battle against derivative work, including plagiarism. Now it’s his turn to be ostracized and mocked by richer, more successful cartoonists who aren’t fit to clean his inkbrushes.

Even syndicated reprints suffer from this elevation of the safe, bland and boring over edgy, smart and fun. Editorial cartoonists who take chances have seen their syndicated lists melt down over the last decade while guys like Stahler have prospered.

Alt weeklies were showcases for smart political cartooning throughout the 1980s and 1990s, providing paychecks and venues for emerging artists such as Matt Groening, Mark Alan Stamaty, Stan Mack and Carol Lay. Now many of them favor bland, apolitical work as well.

You know what’s weird about the editors’ Cult of the Safe and Funny? Safe cartoonists aren’t safe; “funny” cartoons aren’t funny. Dangerous cartoons get read and talked about. They draw in readers. Cymbal-crash cartoons like those that run in USA Today aren’t funny. They’re stupid.

Jeff Stahler’s defense ought to be that he was merely pursuing the logic of the industry to its logical conclusion. Stupid, bland, moderate, centrist, derivative shit pays.

UPDATE (12/10/11 13:40 EST): Jeff Stahler has resigned.


  • “Stupid, bland, moderate, centrist, derivative shit pays.”

    That about sums it up. The problem, of course, is that if a major newspaper hires a cutting edge cartoonist they run the risk of offending their readers. Even if said cartoonist goes for years without offending, that day will come. The day when their offices get flooded with calls, emails, letters – all saying “Cartoonist X offended me with his last cartoon, and I’m dropping my subscription to the A-Hole Times immediately!”. That’s really the reason they won’t hire cutting edge ….. anything. Music, movies, books, art, comics, whatever. It’s all bland when a mainstream corporation is behind it.

    In fact, I remember sitting on the NYC subway in the wake of 9/11, reading one of the major New York newspapers. And there it was: a political cartoon called “Terror Widows”. I almost choked on my bagel. Why? Because it was brilliant. I had been thinking EXACTLY what that cartoon was saying, and NO ONE else was saying it. That was the day I became a fan of said cartoonist.

    Sadly, he no longer is featured in that New York paper. For shame.

  • alex_the_tired
    December 8, 2011 12:12 PM

    Your point about “safe” cartooning was demonstrated to me on this most recent 9/11. A group of cartoonists put together (http://cartoonistsremember911.com/?show=slide&page_id=12) a collective memorial effort.

    The most surprising thing about it is that, for the most part, the cartoons are terrible. A syrupy, schmaltzy amalgam of patriotism rolled in all the tropes (Cops are heroes, We must all do our part, Evil will never win, etc.)

    The “Agnes” strip was one of the few that got it right. “Funky Winkerbean” did a good job too. But, as an example, look at the “Apt. 3-G” strip. They didn’t even interrupt the storyline, just shoved in a card at the end. A half-hearted, half-assed brush-off more than a concerted effort.

    I notice that not one of the cartoonists did a strip about how cops brutalize civilians. How the “heroes” of 9/11 are macing non-violent protesters, how they adhere to quota systems for ticketing, how one of them admitted in open court that cops would plant evidence on suspects to get arrest rates up.

    Like you said, nice safe cartooning. It goes well with the nice safe reporting.

  • Spacious Specious
    December 8, 2011 12:45 PM

    Here’s one of my rants on this subject repurposed from elsewhere:

    When I was younger, I pursued a career as an editorial cartoonist. Since I lived in a small, conservative town, this was a crash course in how “Conservatives” view cartoons.

    In those days, if you were to write an editorial in the newspaper that stated that Ronald Reagan was senile and supported the summary execution of nuns, people would write back and vehemently disagree with you. If you drew an editorial cartoon showing Reagan angrily shaking a cane on his lawn, you would get death threats. You might end up discussing politics with strangers on the way to your car.

    “Conservatives” appear to believe that cartoon images have the magical ability to bypass the critical faculties of children or other “idiots”. They believe that any cartoon image is intended specifically for the edification of people who do not have the capacity to read. Naturally, “Conservatives” are deeply concerned about anything that has undue or magical influence on the beliefs of children and other “mental defectives”. Consider the fact that Jack Chick is probably the most financially successful cartoonist of all times and you’ll begin to understand the power that “Conservatives” ascribe to cartoon images.

    So my screed takes some unfair pot-shots at Conservatives — Liberals also lose their shit at the sight of politically incorrect editorial cartoons. It’s a dangerous job and I’m glad I quit. All due respect to the fearless few that continue, whatever their political stripe may be.

  • I will accept what Mr. Rall says: that cartoonists who produce cartoons that are profitable for their publishers are nevertheless banned from publication. This illustrates the old, old adage: ‘Even in a country that does not censor the press, freedom of the press is only enjoyed by those who own one.’ Cartoonists who wish to remain employed must not only generate profits, they must also avoid threatening their publishers in any way, shape, form, or fashion.

    And the NYTimes recently made me aware that one of the first Germans executed after WWII was a cartoonist who had made cartoons during WWII demonising Jews and Americans.

    Of course, international law guarantees cartoonists the right to joke about Mohammed, but cartoons demonising the US carry an automatic death penalty under international law. Just ask Anwar Al-Awlaki.

    So all you unAmerican cartoonists have been warned: Might makes Right!

  • alex_the_tired
    December 8, 2011 6:01 PM

    Even better, take a look at this (http://news.yahoo.com/federal-judge-montana-blogger-not-journalist-014039441.html). Basically, a federal judge in Montana ruled that a blogger wasn’t a journalist, and thus wasn’t entitled to shield-law protections.

    I’ve argued for years that one of the biggest threats from blogger/journalism was the diminishment of the power the press. You may not have liked the bloated, lazy writers and editors at the local rag, but that 80-person staff represented an organization that could take a First Amendment fight all the way, and that ability was the only thing that kept most of the lawsuits from never emerging in the first place:

    Old Way:
    Irate Corporation: “Can we sue them?”
    Lawyer: “You’ll never win. They’ll walk into court, and unless you can prove real, deliberate pissery on their part, you will be thrown out on your ear. And god knows what they could find during the discovery phase. Shit, did you see what Bloomberg News uncovered about that $7.7 trillion? If only small, powerless individuals would wipe out the industry.”

    New Way:
    Irate Corporation: Let’s sue!
    Lawyer: Sure. We can win by default when we wear them down in about six months. We’ll use all the usual legal gimmicks. We’ll freeze their assets, we’ll file discovery motions for phone records, credit cards, etc. We’ll ask for continuances. When their nerves are finally shot and they’ve run out of money and days off from work, we’ll show up in court, they’ll be in an ER because they’re vomiting up blood or something, and we’ll win.”

  • Great post. Whatever corporate media are currently doing, their incomes are falling apart. It’s hard to say what kind of media environment we may have in 20 years… We can only hope that cartoonists (and journalists) with a conscience are gonna be in a better position than right now.

  • The true problem with editorial cartoons is that they are not a good means of imparting useful or important information. The kind of people that resort to cartoons to figure out their political views, aren’t the kind of people that appreciate anything more complicated than a picture of an American flag. I find these cartoons of Ted Rall amusing, but they aren’t important as all of the ideas he discusses are readily available in written word.

  • patron,

    I get what you’re saying, and I think you make a somewhat valid point, but I would like you to consider an additional thing or two.

    Cartoonists (and before I go any further, please forgive mistypings or incoherence, I have been going on no sleep for about 36 hours — school work is due and I’m avoiding two term papers by typing this) represent something beyond their drawings. A cartoonist is a luxury.

    We don’t notice, I suspect, all the nice little frills that have faded away in the last 30 years. Take airports. I can barely recall when going to the airport was something you actually dressed up for. Adults put on suits or dresses, children were told to behave. Not because some machine-gun wielding paramilitary thug hopped up on steroids was gonna spray you with lead if you made noise but because, well, it was the airport, and you didn’t want people to think you didn’t know how to behave. The flights used silverware. You got freebies.

    I haven’t been on a plane in about eight years. Buying a tiny, crappy bottle of wine that had enough for one and a half of those crappy little plastic cups for $6. Getting a “serving” of soda. Holy Christ Almighty, is the plane gonna actually land, or will we just buzz the runway at stall speed and the passengers can try to tuck and roll as they aim for the soiled mattresses?

    And it’s happening in supermarkets too. I was in Stop and Shop a few weeks ago. They’ve got a kiosk at the deli counter. People punch in their orders and pick them up after they finish the rest of their shopping. Idiot me, I went right to the counter and took a number. Although there were six people behind the counter filling orders, not one of them would make eye contact, not one of them would actually wait on someone who was standing right the fuck there.

    Ten minutes later, I was so angry, when I got my order, I simply put it in the dairy case a few aisles over. To hell with them, making me wait 10 goddamn minutes (I timed it) for a pound of swiss cheese while they fill every other order ever made. That’s not customer service. That’s giving the customer a giant middle finger, and that’s what the newspapers are doing by getting rid of cartoonists.

    Talk to someone who read the newspapers back in the 1960s or 70s. The papers used to be FUN. Even when it was serious news, you enjoyed reading the paper because it was produced by people who did it for a living and made a good living doing it. I’m not saying the papers were perfection, because they weren’t, but you got a sense that the people doing all the work to produce the paper weren’t “processing news units” for “consumer use.” They were working at a newspaper. And you got movie reviews and editorial cartoons and a million other things.

    Now? Every time I read a paper, I die inside a little. Because they’re such meager nothings. Ever see those time-lapse photos of meth heads? First shot: a nice, ordinary looking person. About six shots later (two years down the road) the thing looks like a freak. That’s what’s happening to the newspapers. They’re going the way of the airplanes (remember when airlines used to actually have metal utensils because no human being should be forced to try to eat with plastic knives that don’t cut worth shit at 25,000 feet? Remember when you didn’t have to buy the crappy cup of wine?) and the supermarkets (please scan your forehead into the barcode reader and drop dead. Thank you.)

    Everything’s becoming “just good enough.” I remember the used book stores. God, it’s a knife (and not a cheap plastic one, either) right through my heart to think about it. Can anyone remember walking into a used book store and getting that first whiff of dust and paper? The smell of age and substance. I can go into a B&N, close my eyes, inhale, and all I smell is nothing. A faint whiff of coffee, and that’s all. It’s like having a sexual encounter with a eunuch.

    Cartoonists are like that scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn where the young girl enjoys having a cup of coffee with her dinner not because she likes coffee, or even drinks it, but because she finds it reassuring that she can pour it down the sink. That even though her family is horribly poor, they have that small amount of luxury that she can waste a cup of coffee.

    And now the cartoonists are going extinct, and the papers are becoming just a little more pointless and interchangeable. Soon, they’ll be like climbing into bed with a comatose eunuch. Yes, a cartoon of a flag isn’t a particularly devastating statement, unless you’re the kind of halfwit who is easily manipulated by simple imagery. But some of the cartoons CAN make a lasting impact. They do fill a gap no other format can fill.

    How much longer before we finally run out of things to devalue? Shall we start closing more university departments? What do we need ballet schools for? Branch libraries? Nice local restaurants? Do the prisoners really need reading programs? Let’s just make everything as horrible as we can.

    As I said, I’m a little short of sleep. But I hope some of my points were coherent enough.

  • Oh yeah, newspapers have lost their value over the years, in particular, because they all borrow heavily from the AP which is the equivalent of saying the internet wins, you can get all the information in this paper online, and frankly we are getting all of our information from the AP.

  • Marion Delgado
    December 20, 2011 2:00 PM

    What distressed me about that observation, which I agree with, is I always loathed Jeff McNelly. Most of his editorial cartoons were really crude – Mallard Fillmore-type thought. I remember in particular seeing one (after the fact) about Watergate, basically saying the Soviets were circling America waiting for the traitorous Democrats and liberal media to blood and weaken the US (by persecuting Nixon, et al.) And I never thought Shoe even rose to the level of a standard sit-com.