When did Alzheimer’s start stealing my mom away? I keep trying to figure out the exact moment that marked the beginning of the beginning of the end.
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.)
Journalism is in trouble. Writers of articles pointing this out typically argue that this is really bad for democracy or America or whatever. Anyone who disagrees is too stupid to read this so I won’t bother to repeat this obviousness. Such writers also point out contemporaneous evidence of the media apocalypse; here are the three I came across this week.
1. 1,800 local newspapers have gone out of business in the last 15 years. Since print newspapers generate nine out of ten stories that appear on radio, TV and online, that’s a big loss.
2. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has closed. This is notable because it’s the first time in memory that a major city’s single major daily (OK, thrice weekly in recent years) has vanished. Its smaller Baton Rouge-based competitor remains but now it’s easy to imagine a real city having no daily paper whatsoever.
3. The influential and notably right-before-anyone-else investor Warren Buffett used to believe in newspapers enough that he bought some. No more. Now he says the only viable print papers are the national megapapers The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. (Disclosure: I write op-eds for the Journal.)
At the same time, the Mueller Report was a bestselling book.
A print book.
Note: you can read it for free online.
Why would anyone pay for the Mueller Report? For the same reason they paid to read the 9/11 Commission Report and the Starr Report about Bill Clinton, two other public documents freely available on the Internet that became bestsellers in print form. Which happens to be the same reason magazines like The New Yorker and The Economist make a profit while many others are tanking. It’s also why the Sunday edition of The New York Times does well.
Long stuff is easier to read in print.
Many readers read the Mueller Report on their electronic devices. As evidenced by the success of the book version, however, a lot of people are willing to pay money to avoid the eye and neck strain of peering and craning at a comparatively low-resolution screen—while retaining less of what they read—for more than 400 pages. And that is the future of print journalism.
In the 1970s the weekly news magazines Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report ran long-form analysis of the stories that had been reported the previous week by daily newspapers. Reporters at the newsweeklies dug deep, unearthed new details and told you what it all meant and why it mattered. They were giants, read by tens of millions of Americans.
Beginning with the rise of the Web in the 1990s, the newsweeklies lost their way. Editors thought the Internet proved that our attention spans were shortening so they slashed word counts. Stories got shorter. There were fewer of them too. So people stopped reading them. Why pay for the same content they could get free online, and sooner? Newsweek basically went out of business. U.S. News is online only. Once the cornerstone of Henry Luce’s empire, Time subsists.
The New Yorker and The Economist are prospering because they doubled down on their commitment to detailed long-form journalism about ongoing issues. Graphically they contain no evidence that the Web ever existed. They carry words, lots and lots of them, occasionally punctuated by hand-drawn illustrations. Some articles weigh in at 5,000, even 10,000 words. These publications don’t break news—they can’t. They deep dive.
You already know what happened. Long-form analysis tells you what it means.
Long form, long form, long form. Long form is the future!
Old formats endure because new ones can’t replace desirable functions. Despite expert predictions TV didn’t kill radio because you can’t watch TV while you drive or clean the house. Print is perfect for long-form publishing because many people prefer flipping pages to scrolling. And it’s easier on your eyes.
The future of print—which, digihype aside, is still where the money is to be made—is analogous to the 1970s, when people read daily papers for breaking news and news magazines for long-form analysis. When news breaks we’ll read about it online, on our devices. A new generation of print outlets will supply after-the-fact analysis that go on for thousands of words, along with comix journalism and complicated charts that require days (rather than minutes or hours) to research, compile and edit.
Newspapers, Buffett said, “haven’t figured out a way to make the digital model complement the print model.” It would be nice to suggest that he is mistaken, that beleaguered newspapers will finally pivot to long form, perhaps replacing their current seven-day runs with a single beefy weekend edition. Unfortunately, he’s right.
Newspapers have never been managed by people with less vision. They’ve fired the experienced out-of-the-box thinkers on their staffs in favor of underpaid Millennials who think they can guilt readers into subscribing the way NPR does during their pledge drives. Listeners support NPR because it offers unique content, not because listeners would feel guilty if it went under. Newspapers ought to have figured out long ago that no one will pay for the same exact news that they read yesterday, for free, on their phones.
“Creative destruction” will erase the dinosaurs. In their place will arise a new generation of print outlets dedicated to long-form analysis and commentary.
(Ted Rall, the 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.)
There they go again.
In 2002 and 2003 corporate media idiots speculated that secular socialist Saddam Hussein might give nukes that he didn’t and couldn’t have to radical Islamists who wanted to kill him. That story wasn’t true. Worse than that, it couldn’t have been true. I said it over and over and over. So did others.
But we skeptics were outsiders. Corporate media’s strict idiots-only hiring policy keeps journalists-as-stenographers, propagandists and broken-brain logic-haters employed by censoring those of us who are always right. The idiots’ idiotic lies about WMDs justified a war that left more than a million Iraqis dead.
Corporate media didn’t fire their idiots after the WMD fiasco. Why would they? They were in the war business and the suck-up-to-government business. Had they been in the truth business, losing their credibility might have mattered.
Idiots gonna idiot. So it’s no surprise that in 2016 the same corporate media morons fabricated another conspiracy theory so outlandish that not only was it obviously untrue, it could not possibly have been true—and that it would again have devastating real-world consequences.
Russiagate was a propaganda campaign waged by the Democratic Party and its media allies with a daily blizzard of overheated speculation that Russia installed Donald Trump as its stooge by hacking the 2016 presidential election. Several years and millions of dollars later, special counsel Robert Mueller has concluded that it didn’t happen.
Of course it didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened.
As I wrote last year: “You’re asking us to believe that Trump’s people met with Putin’s people, not to discuss Trump’s sleazy real estate developments in the former Soviet Union, but to encourage Russian hackers to break into the DNC, steal Hillary’s emails and funnel them to WikiLeaks with a view toward angering enough voters to change the outcome of the election in Trump’s favor. Trump doesn’t even read one-page memos. Yet we’re being asked to believe that he supervised a ridiculously complex Machiavellian conspiracy?
“WikiLeaks didn’t get the DNC documents from Russia or any other state actor. They got them from a disgruntled pro-Bernie Sanders staffer at the DNC. Anyway, the intelligence community — you know, the friendly folks at the CIA, FBI and NSA whom Democrats worship the way Republicans revered firefighters after 9/11 — says whatever Russian hacking occurred did not affect the outcome of the election.
“Then there’s this: Trump didn’t actually want to win. Why would he go to such lengths to steal something he didn’t want?”
As Chris Christie pointed out January 28th, how the hell could a shoestring operation like the Trump campaign, which was “just trying to figure out how to get field people hired in places like Pennsylvania” be so internationally sophisticated as to “run some sort of Tom Clancy operation”?
My colleague Matt Taibbi writes, and he’s right: “Nobody wants to hear this, but news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.” Whatever credibility U.S. media still had after pimping those imaginary Iraqi WMDs, The Los Angeles Times allowing its stock to be sold to the LAPD and then taking orders from the police, and “experts” repeatedly reporting that Donald Trump had no chance of winning, lies in tatters.
The media idiots’ WMD BS cost a million-plus Iraqis their lives. Their Russiagate crap has vastly increased the chances that Trump will win reelection. Russiagate will make it all but impossible to impeach the bastard as he deserves and as the country desperately needs.
As I said on the radio after the Mueller news broke: “Business corruption would have been, should have been the focus of Democrats looking for legal means to remove this president. That’s the low-hanging fruit; that’s where something actually happened. Instead, they went after the president for something he didn’t actually do, and so they look really foolish, and Trump is going to beat the Mueller report over the heads of the Democrats all through next year, and it’s going to be hard for the Democrats to put this behind them.”
Trump is a corrupt real estate magnate with ties to the mafia and sleazy autocrats around the world. Anyone out to get him should have started by following his misbegotten money. Instead Democrats tried to do three things at once: get Trump, destroy U.S.-Russia relations to provoke a new Cold War that would profit the military-industrial complex and explain away the bankruptcy of Hillary Clinton’s brand of centrist corporatism.
Democrats are now turning their attention to the New York-based investigations of Trump and his business affairs by U.S. Attorneys. The president faces significant legal jeopardy on several fronts, including abusing a charitable organization to evade taxes and the likelihood that his hush-money payoffs to Stormy Daniels violated federal campaign finance laws. When he leaves office, Trump might even face jail time.
But none of that matters. Trump is so old and fat he’ll probably die before facing prosecution. The real threat to Trump from New York is current and political. Thanks to Mueller’s exoneration on Russiagate, Trump is largely politically inoculated from the New York stuff even if the Department of Justice files major charges. “Just another witch hunt,” he’ll say—and voters—not just his base—will nod their heads. The media will go on and on about wrongdoing that under normal circumstances would amount to one hell of a scandal—but who will listen other than partisan Democrats?
The second Trump Administration that just became likelier will hasten the destruction of the planet by pollution and climate change, widen income and wealth disparity and gut the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. system may never recover. All because the corporate media idiots went after a serial criminal for the one crime he didn’t commit.
Wanna know the richest irony? Trump knew how this would turn out. He knew what the Mueller Report would say. For two years he’s been watching DNC mouthpieces like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow rant about Russiagate. He knew he’d use those clips for one attack ad after another.
Actual collusion! Democrats and their media outlets conspired to install Donald Trump as president in 2020.
(Ted Rall, the 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.)
There’s a scene in the movie “Idiocracy” in which a character cheers as cops blow a car to smithereens. “That’s your car!” another, less dumb, character points out. The idiot, a lawyer named Frito, keeps cheering.
I felt kind of like the less-dumb guy in Los Angeles Superior Court a week ago, when I watched a lawyer for the Los Angeles Times defame me and twist the facts to a level rarely seen outside a White House press briefing.
I was Kelli Sager’s victim. Sager, a partner at the pro-business law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, is a shark. She argued before a judge that the Times was right to knowingly lie about me in its pages, that the First Amendment meant the Times was immune from defamation and libel law, and that I should pay the Times hundreds of thousands of dollars for their legal fees for having had the temerity to sue them.
And, she was successful (for the time being). It was strangely thrilling to watch a professional — granted, a professional dissembler for a newspaper corrupted beyond belief — at the top of her game.
To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson: when the lying gets weird, the liars turn pro.
For decades, the Los Angeles Times was one of the best newspapers in the United States. It was arguably the best full-service paper — like the New York Times, LA had all the foreign bureaus and deep national and local coverage required of a great news organization, along with the features New York doesn’t carry but readers like me enjoy: comics, horoscopes and advice columns.
Every newspaper has struggled to adapt to the Internet. But the LA Times has had more trouble than most. If I were in charge, I’d rebrand it. The New York Times is the national paper of news and culture, the Washington Post is the national paper of politics, the Wall Street Journal is the national paper of business, and the Los Angeles Times ought to be the national paper of entertainment — movies, music and gaming. Instead, the LA Times is doing things the same way they did in 1997, but less so.
Things turned from bad to worse in 2000, when the Tribune Company (as in the Chicago Tribune) acquired the Times. Flailing ensued. The Times’ idiocy culminated in 2005 with “Wikitorial,” a bizarre experiment that allowed readers to add to editorial content. In 2007 Tribune sold itself to real estate mogul Sam Zell, who ran up debt, sucked money out of the company and “busted” it, declaring bankruptcy a year later. It was the beginning of the end.
I began working for the Times in 2009.
Desperate for cash, the Times turned to a sketchy Los Angeles financier and billionaire with no journalistic experience, Austin Beutner, naming him as publisher in 2014. Beutner, a political ally of the LAPD who received an award for “support [to] the LAPD in all that they do” from the LAPD union months after taking over the Times, appears to have midwifed the first known acquisition of a major American newspaper by a government agency: the LAPD union moved its $16.4 billion pension fund to a Beverly Hills investment firm called Oaktree Capital, which then became the #1 shareholder of Tribune, the Times’ parent company.
Like cats and mice, cops and newspapers shouldn’t go into business together. In 2015, billionaire Beutner fired me as a favor to his friend, the allegedly corrupt $300,000-a-year LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, whom I had criticized in my cartoons. They used evidence that turned out to have been trumped-up, and which boomeranged because it supported me, to smear me as a liar and fabulist. So, I sued them for defamation and wrongful termination. The Times then fired Beutner.
On June 21, the court heard the Times’ first of three anti-SLAPP motions against me. Anti-SLAPP motions are supposed to protect free speech, but in this case the Times — part of a $420 million media conglomerate — is asking the court to dismiss my case and charge me at least $300,000 in their legal fees.
The Times has been busy in court. They’re also fighting a pair of age discrimination lawsuits filed by a sports columnist and a Pulitzer-winning reporter who say the Times tried to save money by harassing them into quitting their jobs.
Nothing is sure in life or in court, but I feel confident than a jury would agree with me that what the Times did to me was wrong. I think Kelli Sager, the Times’ lawyer agrees. Which is why she’s been working hard to keep my case away from a jury.
On June 21, Sager fed the judge a bunch of nonsense, but two things she said during oral arguments especially blew me away.
Referencing the first of two articles which falsely accused me of being a fabulist, Sager told the judge that the Times had included links to LAPD records (they’re not really from the LAPD but that’s another story) so Times readers could judge for themselves. No, actually, they didn’t. No one objected.
Sager even brought up race. She accused me, as a white man, of falsely accusing the African-American cop who arrested me for jaywalking in 2001 of misconduct —because he was black.
The mind boggles.
As we walked down the escalator, my lawyer remarked that I had never told her the cop was black. “Because I never mentioned it,” I told her. “Because it wasn’t important.”
I’m in awe.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Originally published by ANewDomain.net:
Legacy news organizations are failing for a lot of reasons, mostly brought upon by themselves, but there’s one that rarely if ever gets remarked upon: the fact that they have forgotten the definition of “news.”
As you and I know, news is stuff that happened that a significant number of people would like to know about. By definition, news is surprising.
All too often in recent decades, however, corporate media conglomerates have conflated news with press releases – in other words, informing us not about what we need or want to know, but about what they would like us to know.
A major driver of this trend is the misguided belief by press and broadcast organizations that the powers that be – politicians, government agencies and businesses – create news and thus must be coddled, and have all their official pronouncements disseminated in the form of news, lest they be denied access, which would of course put an end to their ability to do their jobs.
One symptom of this too close for comfort relationship between the fourth estate and those it is supposed to cover is the willingness of outlets like the New York Times to suppress or delay stories at the request of intelligence agencies due to so-called “national security concerns.”
The idea that reporters need access to PR flacks is nonsense. The opposite is true: publicists need journalists. A press conference is a news-free zone, a place where spin and propaganda rules. Unfortunately for them and for us — since the vast majority of reporting still originates in corporate-owned newspapers — the trend is accelerating.
Check out, for example, this excuse for a news story: “Obama condemns ‘brutal and outrageous murders.’”
According to Google, this story – about the president’s reaction to the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – was reproduced over 78,000 times in American and foreign media outlets.
There is nothing wrong with what Obama said. To the contrary: I agree with him 100%. Most likely, so do you. So do 100% of sane Americans, which means perhaps 90% of all Americans. His reaction was the exact reaction that you would expect from anyone and, to my point, specifically from him.
In other words, a news “story” about President Obama saying that mass murder is bad (outside the context of, say, wars of choice and drone assassinations) is no story at all. It is “dog bites man.” And not a particularly interesting dog or a particularly interesting man.
You really have to question the judgment of those thousands of editors and producers who put that story out yesterday. Who, exactly, did they think that story served? Certainly not the readers or viewers or listeners. Not one of them was surprised; not one of them cared.
Every newsroom receives hundreds if not thousands of emails a day from people who want their story or product or person covered. Publishers want their books reviewed. Manufacturers want a free plug for their products. Agents want their pet musician profiled. The vast majority of them are, of course, ignored. Pertinent story: a friend who works at a major American newspaper tells me about the fax machine that no one ever checks, that runs 24 hours a day, endless press releases dumping straight into the recycled paper bin, totally pointless for all concerned. Yet I know for a fact that that same paper ran the story about Obama taking the bold risk of coming out against random mass murder. Why that story and not the others?
I’m not arguing that traditional media outlets ought to descend to Huffington Post’s SEO-optimized clickbait or BuzzFeed’s “18 ridiculously cute photos of insipid pets” listicles. But the Internet is certainly a lot better at knowing what people might actually want to read or see. Stories like the one above make that painfully obvious.
As an editor at the New York Times told me once, “the President of the United States controls the world’s largest armies and presides over the world’s largest economy. By definition, anything he says and does is news.”
They live by that attitude. They are also dying by it.
Newspaper circulation has been plummeting for the last 50 years. Media executives have tried to reverse the trend by cutting their newsrooms, shrinking their page counts and giving away their content for free online. As the circulation of Charlie Hebdo shot from 60,000 to 5,000,000 after the massacre of their staff, there may be a way forward after all.
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.
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.
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.)
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