SYNDICATED COLUMN: Want to Support Free Expression After Charlie Hebdo? Hire a Political Cartoonist.

Here’s what you need to understand the state of political cartooning in the United States:

After the massacre of four cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo last week, 25 remain on staff at the French publication, whose circulation ranges between 30,000 and 60,000 per week.

In the United States, a total of 25 staff political cartoonists are employed by the nation’s 1,350 newspapers, which have a combined circulation of 44,000,000 daily in print, plus 113,000,000 unique online visitors.

The total number of political cartoonists employed on staff by all American websites is one.

The total number at all magazines is zero.

It wasn’t always like this. According to a report issued by the Herblock Foundation, there were 2,000 political cartoonists on staff at newspapers a century ago.

Sure, print media has had to cut back due to a half-century of declining circulation. Writers, photographers and others have all suffered. But cartoonists have been eliminated at the highest rate of any journalism category by far: 99%.

New online media outlets like the Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, Vox, Yahoo News and The Intercept have hired hundreds of journalists — yet no political cartoonists.

There are more political cartoonists working in Iran and China than here.

Why has the U.S. become such a satirical desert?

In candid moments, editors confess that they’re afraid. They’re scared of angry emails from readers. (Prose doesn’t elicit as much reaction.) They’re worried their boss’ country-club buddies will complain about a cartoon. They’re terrified that a major advertiser might cancel its account. Narrowing profit margins and post-9/11 conservatism have amplified editorial cowardice.

When cartoons make the headlines, like last week, it’s another story.

News outlets couldn’t get enough political cartoons post-Charlie, noted Tjeerd Royaards, editor of the Dutch cartoon web magazine Cartoon Movement. (Disclosure: Cartoon Movement has published my work.) But they wanted it all for free: “the majority of media website[s] simply embedded the cartoons from the[ir] Twitter feed[s], foregoing the courtesy of asking the artists for permission to show their work, let alone pay for it.”

Royaards continued: “Although the media certainly seemed to wholeheartedly support cartoonists in the wake of the [Charlie Hebdo] attack, this support proved to be dubious, and might even be considered a greater threat to political cartooning than any terrorist attack could ever hope to be.”

Writing about the state of the profession this week, my colleague the alternative political artist Mr. Fish painted an even bleaker portrait of the future:

“The significance of those [declining cartoonist job] numbers might best be understood when compared to the dwindling numbers of an endangered species, not unlike the polar bear, who draws worldwide sympathy primarily when pictured drifting forlorn and alone on a shrinking block of ice or lying skinless and butchered by mindless thugs on a crimson bank. Likewise, it should be noted with some urgency that something systemic in the culture (similar to global warming, corporately inspired, government subsidized and willfully ignored by a disempowered public) is substantially diminishing the cartoonist population and threatening the very survival of the rendered word and the contemplative caption — and the very essence of creative dissent.”

Mr. Fish’s biological metaphor is an apt one.

Over the past few decades we have warned editors that we were in trouble. It’s worse now.

We are probably already past the tipping point after which political cartoonist extinction becomes inevitable.

One major threat is the loss of artistic diversity. In the same way that insufficient genetic diversity can cause a species to enter a death spiral — the cheetah is a famous example — American political cartooning no longer has enough practitioners to grow via cross-pollination, by being influenced by and against one another the way that I, for example, saw the work of the cartoonists Mike Peters and Pat Oliphant in the 1970s and wanted to ape the first and rebel against the latter. Most working political cartoonists in the U.S. are over age 55. So many have been laid off or discouraged that, even if I were given a zillion dollars to hire all the best cartoonists left, I’d have trouble finding 10 or 20. A profession that offered a dazzling variety of styles as recently as 2000 looks increasingly cut-and-paste.

There are only two basic styles left: the older, crosshatched, donkeys-and-elephants single-panels influenced by the late Jeff MacNelly, and the wordier, multi-panel approach that emerged in alternative weeklies during the 1990s.

Getting back to the polar bear analogy, there aren’t enough “newborn cubs” — young political cartoonists in their 20s — to form the roots of the next wave of political cartoonists if and when editors gain the courage to start hiring. Aside from the fact that there’s no way for a young political cartoonist to earn a living, young adults don’t see political cartoons in the media they consume.

The top websites read by Millennials, like Vice, Upworthy and BuzzFeed, refuse to hire political cartoonists. You can’t get inspired to pursue a profession if you don’t know it exists.

What to do?

I’m hoping for greed. Nothing gets clicks like a political cartoon. At some point, some twentysomething editor at a news start-up is going to figure that out.

(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.)




  • alex_the_tired
    January 13, 2015 5:51 AM

    Well, I can’t hire a political cartoonist, seeing as how I don’t have a newspaper that I control …

    But I did just finish ordering my one-year subscription to Charlie Hebdo. And if any religious fanatics are reading, I’ll let you in on the reason. Because it’s the opposite of what the desired end goal was.

    I bought “Satanic Verses” after the fatwa. Why? Someone decided that I shouldn’t read a book. Oh, there’s no better way to drive me to a register with a particular item in hand. I still haven’t gotten more than three pages into what, otherwise, was a book that would have sold about six copies and left Salman Rushdie an obscure author hunting-and-pecking at his typewriter at a penny a word.

    Now I have a subscription to Charlie Hebdo. Christ, I even got off my ass and sent Ted some money.

    I hope all the wannabe terrorists take the point: Declaring something “wrong” or “immoral” or whatever simply makes it that much more appealing. Tell me that you’ve decided I can’t read or see something because it offends you? Sorry, but whoever told you that you have a right to not be offended was either congenitally insane or simply an idiot.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go learn French so I can laugh at cartoon drawings.

    • Your reasoning coincides with mine.
      Many years ago, when “Christians” were declaring the perversity of the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” (without having seen it), I made up my mind that I simply HAD TO SEE the movie.
      As it turned out, the local church that my wife and I attended at that time made the decision to show the video at the preacher’s home, for anyone interested.
      I found the movie extremely compelling and in accordance with my own convictions.
      I will not allow anyone to dictate to me what I have to believe.

    • To see France’s free speech protests one would think that the all world was at peace until these ungracious few who responded in anger to being taunted spoiled the joyous, freedom inspired celebratory mood of the republic.

      It seems the West forgot it was waging a Crusade against Islam because the deaths and casualties were so one-sided. How decadent to leave the killing machine unattended and full on, so the deaths you are responsible for, you lack even awareness of.

    • Alex,
      Did you see the racist depiction of the kidnapped pregnant Boko Haram girls flapping their big loose black lips about welfare payments? I haven’t seen any free speech as free as that since the black face minstrel shows that amused Lincoln and Reagan’s welfare queen pitches.

      “Je Suis Charlie” morphs into “Je Suis Breivik” under the spotlight. You’ll have to keep us up on the retro humor in your subscription.

      • alex_the_tired
        January 14, 2015 6:43 AM


        Part of the reason I subscribed is because I cannot find reasonable discussion about the publication. The New York Times won’t run the cartoons. Internet discussion (with a very few exceptions) is basically already in the two-camp model: this is repellent vs. this is free speech.

        It will take a few weeks for the first issue to arrive. When it does, I’ll put up a review. So let’s both circle each other, growling, until then. 😉

  • I had to see “The Quiet American” when it was pulled after 9/11 for its depiction of American terrorism in SE Asia. Not good media to accompany a War on Terror spiel.

    I also had to buy “Stupid White Men” after it was going to be pulped by the Stupid White Men who found it to be a too true depiction of themselves.

    You know how censorious these sensitive Patriots can be to free speech.

    Patriotic joke here:

    Prisoner is getting a rectal feeding by a Patriot.

    Patriot asks if the Prisoner would like some coffee. Prisoner nods yes.

    Funnel up the ass, the coffee is poured in and Prisoner screams.

    Patriot asks if the coffee is too hot. Prisoner says NO! TOO SWEET! TOO SWEET!

    Chuckle up free speechers. Obama called the rectal feeders Patriots.

    Patriots tire of the “Je Suis Charlie” and start chanting “Je Suis Breivik.”

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