Political Cartooning Was Murdered. Here’s the Autopsy.

Image result for charlie hebdo massacre

A century ago newspapers employed more than 2000 full-time editorial cartoonists. Today there are fewer than 25. In the United States, political cartooning as we know it is dead. If you draw editorial cartoons for a living and you have any brains you’re working in a different field or looking for an exit.

You can still find them online so political cartoons aren’t yet extinct. But they are doomed. Most of my colleagues are older than me (I’m 55). As long as there are people, words and images will be combined to comment on current affairs. But the graphic commentators of tomorrow will be ad hoc amateurs rather than professionals. They won’t have the income and thus the time to flesh out their creative visions into work that fulfills the medium’s potential, much less evolves into a new genre.

With zero youngsters coming up in the ranks and many of the most interesting artists purged, our small numbers and lack of stylistic diversity has left us as critically endangered as the wild cheetah. The death spiral is well underway.

June 2018: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette fired Rob Rogers, a 25-year veteran, for drawing cartoons making fun of President Trump. (Rogers had always been a Democrat.)

January 2019: Steve Benson, the widely-syndicated winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was fired by the Arizona Republic after three decades of service.

            May 2019: Gatehouse Media fired three cartoonists on the same day: Nate Beeler of the Columbus Dispatch, Rick McKee at the Augusta Chronicle and Mark Streeter at the Savannah Morning News.

June 2019: In one of the strangest offings, the New York Times fired both of its cartoonists, Heng and Patrick Chappatte, in order to quell criticism over a syndicated cartoon—one drawn by an entirely different cartoonist. The Syrian government thugs who smashed Ali Ferzat’s hands with a hammer in 2011 were more reasonable than editorial page editor James Bennet; the goons only went after the actual cartoonist whose cartoons offended President Bashar Assad. Nor, by the way, did the Syrian dictator ban all cartoons. Political cartooning is now and forever banned from the 100%-censored Times.

And of course in 2015 the Los Angeles Times, whose parent company had recently been purchased by the Los Angeles Police Department pension fund, fired me as a favor to a prickly police chief because he was angry at my cartoons. In 2018 the same paper fired cartoonist David Horsey for the crime of accurately describing White House press flak Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ looks as those of a “slightly chunky soccer mom.” As at a Stalin-era show trial, they forced Horsey to apologize before giving him the boot.

Individual cartoonists are under fire around the world. Only in the United States, “land of the free,” has the art form as a whole been targeted for systematic destruction by ruling elites and cultural gatekeepers. After decades of relentless, sweeping and never-reversed cutbacks there are now far more political cartoonists in Iran than in the United States. After terrorists murdered 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, a single publication in France, hundreds of U.S. newspapers ran editorials celebrating the power of cartoons; 99% of these hypocritical blowhards didn’t employ a single cartoonist.

American editorial cartooning didn’t just die. It was murdered.

Here’s how it happened/it’s happening:

Cartoonists were overrepresented in mass layoffs. Publishers fired numerous journalists. But they always came first for the cartoonists.

Scab syndication services undercut the market. A few discount syndication companies, one in particular, sold bulk packages of heavily discounted hackwork, undercutting professionally-drawn cartoons.

Publishers killed the farm system. The early 1990s marked the start of a vibrant new wave of “altie” political art by Generation Xers. Urban free weeklies carried our work but deep-pocketed dailies and magazines refused to hire us. Gifted young cartoonists realized they’d never be hired and abandoned the profession.

Social media mobs spook editors. Twitter and Facebook make it easy for six angry dorks to look like thousands of angry readers ready to burn down a newspaper over a cartoon. Cowardly editors comply and sack their artist at the request of people who don’t subscribe to the paper.

Prize committees reward(ed) bland cartoonists. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Alties like Tom Tomorrow, Andy Singer, Clay Butler, Ruben Bolling, John Backderf and Lloyd Dangle were reinventing American political cartooning. Their revolution would not be recognized. The Pulitzer Prize committee snubbed alties. (Though some have been finalists—me in 1997—no altie has won a Pulitzer.) Among the older traditional cartoonists as well, prizes usually went to safe over daring. Awards signal what’s acceptable and what’s not. Editors pay attention. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.

Legacy employers blackballed edgy cartoonists. Click data proves that controversy is popular. Faced with shrinking circulation, however, print newspapers and magazines played it safe and avoided controversy. Kowtowing to advertisers rather than the readers who drive circulation, publishers fired the controversial cartoonists—the ones whose work readers were talking about—first. Another self-fulfilling prophecy: the dull cartoons Americans saw in major outlets like USA Today elicited little response from readers. They weren’t missed after they vanished.

Billionaire newspaper “saviors” refuse to hire cartoonists. When billionaires buy papers they invest in reporters and editors. Not cartoonists. One exception is Sheldon Adelson, who hired Mike Ramirez at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. But 90% of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway-owned newspapers employ zero cartoonists. Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the LA Times after they fired Horsey and me; his paper hired a bunch of underpaid Millennial writers but never replaced or brought back the two cartoonists. To his credit Jeff Bezos kept Tom Toles and Ann Telnaes on at the Washington Post, but he hired “dozens of reporters”—and no one new to draw cartoons. (Historically many newspapers have employed multiple cartoonists.)

Twee identity-politics cartoons are boring. Boosters sometimes point to sites for Millennial cartoonists as a bright spot. For the most part, these cartoons are flat, preachy and predictable. Right or left, political correctness is death to political cartooning.

Online media sites refuse to hire cartoonists. News sites like Huffington Post, Salon, Slate and Vox are heirs to print newspapers. None employ cartoonists. Don’t they realize theirs is a visual medium?

Cartoonists fulfill the market for crappy cartoons. Editors, publishers and award committees have made clear what kind of cartoons they are most likely to buy and reward. Jokes should be conventional, preferably derivative. Sacred cows must not be criticized. Patriotism is mandatory. Artistic styles remain frozen safely in the 1960s, when most editors were kids. Cartoonists have a choice: give the marketplace what it wants or go hungry. Many cartoonists produce work they know is beneath their talents, readers don’t react when they appear in print and no one takes note when the cartoonist gets laid off.

I love editorial cartooning. All I ever wanted to do was draw for a living. When I was growing up, political cartooning was clever and dangerous. Punk rock.

Now it’s Muzak.

Muzak is dead.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

25 thoughts on “Political Cartooning Was Murdered. Here’s the Autopsy.

  1. Ted, thank you for laying out the tragic sequence so pointedly. Journalism has been dying for such a long time its death rattles barely register as static, but reading your analysis was like getting jabbed with a trocar. May it get the attention it merits and turn into a rallying cry for something, anything! Best, Amy Pagnozxi
    PS: Don’t write off the millenials yet. The bland ones have the edge, (they’re more monetizable) but the edgy have the numbers. Millennials occupied Wall Street.)

    • I disagree that the bland ones are more easy to monetize. To the contrary, and I experience this personally as a cartoon editor, the edgier the work, the more likely it is to be passed around.

      • Interesting. Still, that would depend on the nature of distribution.

        I regularly visit dkos comics merely because they compile comics from some of the artists mentioned in the column (Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling). I do believe that the “Democrats good (right or wrong) / Republicans bad” ethos that is palpable in the comments sections predictably shifted the nature of the cartoons over the years – while e.g. Ruben Bolling’s genius sometimes does shine through, there is a strong tendency to hand in another version of Trump = Russki Traitor…

        Matt Bors mixes things up a little, even though he didn’t yet manage to get kicked out of dkos like Ted 😉

      • Andreas, there’s a lot of pressure on cartoonist on the left to become mouthpieces of the Democratic Party. The way I look at it, until they start paying me, I’m not going to sell out for nothing! A lot of my colleagues who started out on the left has become shills for the DNC. And for what? To avoid angry comments from people who don’t buy their stuff anyway? So stupid, such a waste of good talent. If I can’t tell it like it is, I don’t want to do this job anyway. I used to be in banking and I was pretty good at it. I could go back.

      • Andreas,
        You make an interesting point concerning Daily Kos. They have “This Modern World.” It’s literally the only reason I go there.

  2. Too true, although we’ll note that real reporters are also on the endangered species list.

    Wha hoppen? Usta be that every left-ish newspaper had at least one far-right editorialist. Controversy stirs up the readers, increases sales, and generally gets people involved. Strong opinions make ’em think about their own – maybe that’s the problem. Can’t have the sheeple thinking, that would be bad for TPTB….

  3. Ted,
    I’m going one layer further out. I don’t think you’re completely wrong, but I don’t think you’re completely right.
    The problem is that the whole “critical of the left” segment of news went bad at just about the same time. Sure, the reporters were retained, but as anyone who has worked in a newsroom can tell you, the editors set the tone.
    In “Spotlight,” (the movie) the Boston Globe’s “expose” on pedophile priests was met with two comments:
    1. The Boston Phoenix (I once won a T-shirt from them with a silk-screened pocket protector that wore one of my nipples to a bloody stump) covered the story first and was ignored because it didn’t have the footprint the Globe had.
    2. Duh. You’re telling us that pedophiles in the priesthood are molesting kids? Duh.
    The left is appallingly inept at coordinating its outrage and the output of that outrage. Proof of assertion? Some Canadian was dismissed after drawing a Trump-hostile cartoon. Thousands on twittter are outraged. How’s the attempt to get ANYONE to listen to your LATimes case? You had to do the equivalent of a 13-year-old Thai hooker in a reverse cowgirl just to get a literally-the-last-minute review.
    That’s why the profession’s doomed, Ted. Not because of you. Not because of the no-talent hacks who know no better and think their hokey cartoons are rip-roaring hi-lar-i-ous when they’re tame pabulum. But because the public–the idiot public–cannot pay attention and think for five goddamned minutes.
    That’s why.
    Ted, you’ve been agonizing the past few weeks about your mother’s decline. I put it to you that her decline is identical to the profession you love so much. If you want to meet up in Brooklyn and have a few drinks over this, I have been sorely desperate these past few years for a drinking buddy who understands the agony and can tie one on over a couple of days. If you want, we can pace it out over a three-day weekend. …
    P.S. I finished “The Year of Loving Dangerously.” Jesus Aitch Gordon Q. Christ and all the sinners and saints, what a fan-fucking-tastic book.

    • Hey Alex, as usual, I don’t disagree. Attacking the left from the left has become almost impossible in the current media environment. We’re in a declining empire with everything that goes along with that culturally.

      In terms of drinks: Rall.com/contact

  4. Pingback: Political Cartooning Was Murdered: Here’s the Autopsy - LA Progressive

  5. Perhaps the column could be itself drawn as an “editorial cartoon”?

    Let’s begin by (re-)drawing a run-of-the-mill Dodo from stock clipart and helpfully label him “political cartooning”. (Let’s also attach the label “Dodo” onto the Dodo for good measure, better yet “Dodo (extinct)” as it is always best to explain a joke lest it goes over our esteemed readers’ pretty little heads).

    Next have him stick his head in the sand – complete with label “head stuck in sand” so as to subtly reference its obliviousness into his own extinction. Not to be outdone, affix a label “NYT” to the sand; the imagery may not quite work, but people do expect references to recent events rather than basic logic.

    Quietly lose the rest of Ted’s points – they’re too complicated to embody in stock images without having to think about them and in turn making the reader think (not sure what’s worse). Also some of them are self-critical – fat chance to see that in print. In this economy only the most mediocre work survives – until even that doesn’t. QED.

  6. It’s not just the political cartoons, the comics page is likewise disappearing. Over the years it’s gotten smaller and less colorful, many papers have dropped them entirely.

    I suspect that part of the problem is that comics are seen as ‘fluff’ rather than ‘real news’ and some of that bleeds over to political cartoons.

    OTOH, authoritarians purely hate to be laughed at. Whereas a ‘serious editorial’ may simply point out their faults, a cartoon *mocks* them. It is absolutely intolerable. (yay!)

  7. After 67 years MAD magazine, is going into semi-retirement

    Mad poked politics, Hollywood, business and our way of life; at its height it even lent it name to TV show
    Sometime this year the last news stand issue will be printed and distribution will be limited to comic bookstores and subscriptions, new content will be limit to annual specials the rest the issues will recycled content from the past. It clear to see where the trajectory points to….after several years Mad will be down to online memory shop that gray hairs that remembered the heyday visits.

    I my option the content has slipped a little bit in the last few years but changing demographics and our online lifestyle are to blame. In its prime MAD took no advertising and always felt like such a great buy but then came cost increases and ads, on plus side the ads allowed some the comic content to printed in color.

    No more Anti Trump covers, no more spoofs the next Star Wars sequel, no more poking at our out of balance lifestyles …well maybe a little more before the well runs completely dry.

    • I saw that, and my heart broke. They’ve always recycled content – but put it up alongside new stuff as well. Some of my favorite funnies came from MAD.

      “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”
      “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for”
      “Gee Obi-Wan, how did you do that?”
      “The Force has a strong power over the weak mind”
      “The Force has a strong power over the weak mind”
      “Don’t do that, Luke”
      “Don’t do that, Luke”

      Still cracks me up. But gee, Crazy H – you haven’t picked up a MAD mag for ages. It’s not your fault- OTHER people neglected to keep the magazine afloat.

      :: sigh ::

      • It’s a sign of the times: I don’t have the money to pay for the things that deserve to survive.

      • MAD, coming across one when going through a box of old things makes me stop for several minutes and just suck in the humor.

        When my bike was stolen around 2010 I remembered a mad carton of a New York City bike, 12 locks and still taken from the light post…with all the locks undamaged

        Bored of the Rings
        Star Wars Parodies
        Feelings turned into drawing of monsters
        Spy vs. Spy
        The marginals
        The fold in back cover
        Poking the Proud

        We are all getting older the teens of the 60,70’s and 80’s can’t keep a magazine floating forever, MAD needed more new readers and they where on-line texting, Facebooking or watching a video or downloading music.
        Another factor in MAD’s decline, the fragmentation of TV and movies. During MAD’s peak was the 70’s, we all watched the same network T.V. shows and Hollywood put out fewer movies so the parodies could find a larger mass audiences. We all saw the Ads MAD cut down to size

        On the other hand the content slipped a bit but how can you replace the underpaid usual gang of idiots, they where legendary. With everything that happened since 2008 I was on getting one or two magazines year based on a on a anti- Trump cover or movie parody.

        They magazine should have tried to go to quarterly (more pages, toss in more recycled content to justify one last price increase) before giving up the newsstand but the the movie parodies that sucked in buyers would go stale.

      • Cracked is still doing fairly well in its online incarnation.

        Some good humor & commentary mostly from Millennials – which may give a few insights to old fogies. Doubt they’re making much money, but they are having fun.

      • CrazyH, That’s good to hear but I have to say as a child of the 1970s I will always think of that magazine as the cheap knock off of the real thing.

  8. Re: ” If I can’t tell it like it is, I don’t want to do this job anyway. I used to be in banking and I was pretty good at it. I could go back.”

    Ted, back in the day, the phone company had a very simple system for keeping the “wrong” people out. They’d invite you in for the interview, and then they’d draw a small smiley face on the front of the manila envelope.

    I suspect that your metaphorical manila folder has so many smiley faces on it by now that it looks like it came out of a 1960s San Francisco head shop. And I suspect the banking people are even more brutal than the phone company. And that takes some doing …

    • Alex, it’s not like I would actually be interested in going back into finance. Just saying, theoretically, if I can’t really dance as a cartoonist, I’ll pick another revolution — or something.

      • Ted as a Bankster, I li-i-i-ike it. 😉

        Been here, done this. After a 25+ year run as a successful engineer, my job went to a youngster I hired, and I was laid off soon thereafter.

        Strangely enough, it’s hard to get an engineering job when you’re approaching retirement. You’d think experience would count for something. After two years of banging my head against the wall, I quit looking. Now I’m “reinventing” myself. Trying to put together a home gig. Something that doesn’t involve “would you like fries with that?”

      • Ted have you thought about graphic novels, things are such a mess escapist super hero stories could pay the bills even if it is not your passion.

        Crazy H all the best to and I hope you find something or start you own project.
        My neighbor was engineer, when company my neighbor worked at when from father to the son, the son fired everyone over fifty he cut expenses moved into our older rent apt complex. He took a studio apartment downstairs and started a catering service, things where looking up then a…..stroke took him.
        My own fight against age discrimination
        After being turned down for countless potions after 2008, I use my GI bill and VA benefits to go back to class. I earned a B.A. in science with 3.6 GPA but the teaching collage won’t let me in, I though the shortage of science teachers would make it easy. On my third application I thought I had all my papers in order and they turned down in two or three days, 2-3 weeks is the normal wait time. I was told by email that I have very little chance to ever get into the certificate program. I took the matter up to US Department of Education, they found a error in application, my printer cut off one signature box so my application was to blame not State U teaching collage. My VA counselor hooked me up with another vet that got the same run around, he had to go to private collage to get certified. My counselor found me a position with USGS, it is better than teaching a class of high schoolers.

    • In high tech they ask for things that are impossible or nearly imposable in a interview

      Do you have five years experience with software that has only been on the market three years

      Are you recent graduate (thinly veiled age requirement) with a boatload of experience ready to write code and mentor employees (I herd that one in a radio ad)

      One person on the radio said they meet all the requirements and the interviewer was floored, said he wasn’t ready for anyone that meet the requirements.

      High tech often wants interviewees to fail so they can justify bringing a worker from overseas who is locked into one company, is paid less than the going rate and won’t go job hopping for higher wages.

      When anyone one in higher office say learn coding is “is giving great advice” it drive me a nuts. (I earned an AS in computers but the job market was tough so I went to the Air Force) We need unions and real labor friendly legislation, that covers blue color and middle class office workers but we will just get words.

      • AAARRRRGHHHHH!

        100% Oldvet. I’ve been through each & every one of those interviews in the last three years. Multiple times. (although I have nailed a couple of the impossible problems, thank you very much.)

        I watched my entire division of ‘seasoned’ engineers at [well known company] get moved from [well known product] to tech support. No change in salary or title – just a big step down career-wise with no explanation.

        Coincidentally, they all started interviewing elsewhere. Many of them made it, although some didn’t. Said company publicly complains that they can’t find good talent, so of course they have to hire from overseas.

        But I’m not bitter.