The Political Cartoon: An Endangered Line of Work
First, thanks for your e-mails of appreciation for the Political Caricature article in Sunday's Washington Post. Now, as promised, we continue the conversation about political cartooning ...
For many years we heard the mid-decibel buzz that newspaper political cartoonists were a diminishing breed. More recently, though, that sound has reached a loud thrum as inescapable as swarming cicadas, or Al Gore turned up to 11.
The inconvenient truth now is that the Newspaper Editorial Cartoonist is an alarmingly endangered species. For every flourishing Ink-Spotted Tom Toles or Sap-Sucking Mike Luckovich, there seems to be a less-fortunate Pink-Slipped Scribbler hitting the bricks.
Once, hundreds of full-time political cartoonists populated the landscape. And when we covered the GOP Convention as a San Diego cartoonist in 1996, we were told the ranks still numbered in the triple-digits. Now, some industry folk put that figure at roughly 80.
"Doonesbury's" Garry Trudeau put it succinctly this year when he told us that many newspapers have limited interest in retaining political cartoonists, who can be lightning rods for controversy -- especially given the much cheaper alternative of running syndicated cartoons. And two days after we reported that, the Los Angeles Times wrote that "cartoonists are disappearing like brunet anchors at Fox News."
Political cartoonists have long gone into this line of work accepting a vital fact: Few staff jobs open up. Still, once you landed somewhere and established yourself, you might count on a career that if not Herblockian in tenure -- the Post cartoonist's legendary reign seemed nearly to span the entire 20th century -- at least could let you enjoy a half-dozen presidential administrations before retiring your inkpot.
Now, as newspapers stagger and seek options, many staff cartoonists are trying to figure out how to adapt. Some have begun animating their work for the Web. It was notable a couple of years ago when -- for the first time -- all the Pulitzer finalists for editorial cartooning included animation as part of their portfolios. And speaking of awards, a Pulitzer certainly guarantees you no job security. Michael Ramirez of Investors Business Daily, for example, won his second this year after being let go by the turbulent Los Angeles Times.
As the media landscape shifts like tectonic plates, a related question surfaces: Do political cartoonists wield much influence in 2008? Thomas Nast's 19th-century cartoons famously helped bring down Tammany Hall's corrupt Boss Tweed (who said that though a large number of New York citizens were illiterate, they certainly could comprehend a pointed Nast picture). And during Watergate, President Nixon felt the sting of such cartoonists as Trudeau, Herblock and the LA Times's Paul Conrad. Conrad told me some years ago that he'd delighted in making Nixon's infamous Enemies List. (The recent New Yorker cover of Obama created a firestorm, of course, but whether it has changed opinions is still open to debate.)
In today's climate, by contrast, some "political" cartoonists are doing "the full Leno," pulling punches and going for the toothless punchline -- all the safer for entertaining the unoffended masses, getting reprinted by more publications and, perhaps, keeping their jobs. They are more comedians than honest commentators.
So where does that leave the American Political Cartoon, which for so long stoked the national conversation? It's worth noting that the political cartoon has long had an edge over opinion-page editorials in at least several ways: visual immediacy, relative simplicity and unfettered hyperbole. The late, great cartoonist Doug Marlette said that effective editorial cartoons are like visual rock 'n' roll: They deliver the power of a primal beat that resonates deep in the reptilian brain, bypassing all filters for logic.
Maintaining that apt metaphor, we note that some critics keep writing rock 'n' roll's epitaph, yet the patient -- ever evolving -- refuses to die. Let's hope that in some form, the American political cartoon proves as resilient and that, to para-quote the cartoon-loving Mark Twain, the reports of its eminent death are greatly exaggerated.
| August 4, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: The Political Cartoon
Save & Share: Previous: The Morning Line: The Eternal Search for "Calvin's" Kin
Next: The Morning Line: "Judge Parker" & the Lemon Law
Posted by: Jack | August 4, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Arlington, VA | August 4, 2008 12:21 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Andrew | August 4, 2008 1:10 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Christopher H. Hancock | August 4, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Dennis | August 4, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Michel | August 5, 2008 4:06 AM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.