Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Fixable Decline of Editorial Cartooning: Editorial Page Editors and Business Decisions Combine to Weaken What Is the Strength of Editorial Cartoons

Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Fixable Decline of Editorial Cartooning: Editorial Page Editors and Business Decisions Combine to Weaken What Is the Strength of Editorial Cartoons

Article excerpt

The terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001 profoundly changed the rules of engagement for America's editorial cartoonists, who directed their sense of outrage at a world that was shifting uneasily under their drawing boards, leaving them struggling to convey their reactions in a single image. In the days and weeks that followed, editorial pages were strewn with images of fiery twin towers, weeping Statues of Liberty, snarling bald eagles, and resolute Uncle Sams rolling up their sleeves to march into hell for a heavenly cause.

Amid the chaos of the first great crisis of the 21st century, most Americans, including cartoonists, believed it was inappropriate, even unpatriotic, to criticize President George W. Bush. Garry Trudeau, who draws "Doonesbury," canceled a series of strips critical of the President. Syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant, who has a well-deserved reputation for merciless satire, said cartoonists had to support the administration--at least for the time being.

Soon after the terrorist attacks, however, a few cartoonists returned to social satire, believing--contrary to many of their colleagues and readers--that giving our leaders a free pass during times of crisis undermines our democracy. Trudeau ended his armistice with a strip pointing out that President Bush and his administration were using the tragedy to move their conservative agenda forward. One drawing shows Bush's chief political aide Karl Rove telling the President that several of the controversial items on his political agenda were "justified by the war against terrorism!" Bush replies: "Wow ... what a coincidence ... thanks evildoers!"

The Bush administration insisted it needed to increase its authority to win the war on terrorism. Congress quickly passed the USA Patriot Act, which provided the Justice Department and other agencies wide latitude to disregard the Bill of Rights for purposes of surveillance and law enforcement.

Still, most editorial cartoonists condemned America's enemies but refrained from questioning the Bush administration, either willingly supporting the President or fearful of incurring the wrath of their editors or readers. Editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes scolded those in her profession for being government cheerleaders. [See Telnaes' article on page 28.] She's right. Cartoonists should not be government propagandists. As social critics, cartoonists should keep a vigilant eye on the democracy and those threatening it, whether the threats come from outside or inside the country.

Cartoonists and Patriotism

But what happens when First Amendment theory clashes with more than 3,000 people dying in acts of atrocious inhumanity followed by the reality of a war against an unseen enemy? In this fog of war, those cartoonists who criticized the administration had their patriotism questioned, their lives threatened, and their livelihoods jeopardized.

Using shameless nationalistic blather, then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer condemned a cartoon critical of Bush that appeared in a small New Hampshire newspaper, resulting in the firing of the newspaper's editor and the vilification of the cartoonist. The New York Times dropped Ted Rail from its Web site because of his harsh criticism of the Bush administration. Scott Stantis, then the president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, said that cartoonists found themselves "under particular scrutiny" after September 11th. "A number of cartoonists have heard 'You're a traitor' anytime they question the President,'" Stantis said. [See the article by Stantis on page 37.]

But nothing is more patriotic than social criticism. Editorial cartoons are as irreverent as the Boston Tea Party and as American as the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment doesn't exist so we can praise our public officials; it exists so we can criticize them. Newspapers who give their cartoonists the freedom to express their views, as free as possible from editorial restraint, reinforce the message that an uninhibited exchange of opinions not only strengthens but also maintains our democracy; in fact, it is necessary for a democracy. …

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