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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/ 4/2008

The Political Cartoon: An Endangered Line of Work

By Michael Cavna

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.

By Michael Cavna  | August 4, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Political Cartoon  
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One of the last claims my hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, had to excellence was when it had the great Kal as its resident editorial cartoonist. Alas, he went as part of a buyout several years ago. You can still see his work in the Economist--his draughtsmanship is superior to anyone else now drawing--but he has no daily paper.

Posted by: Jack | August 4, 2008 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Great posting - I'm really enjoying this blog.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | August 4, 2008 12:21 PM | Report abuse

It's odd that in a media environment that's more and more visual (bigger pictures, headlines, short articles etc.) that editorial cartoons -- perhaps the most visual medium of them all -- is dying.

Posted by: Andrew | August 4, 2008 1:10 PM | Report abuse

The once-great Louisville, KY The Courier-Journal had the Pulitzer Prize-winning Nick Anderson, but he left for the Houston Chronicle a few years ago. He is carried daily in the online version of The Washington Post. I never knew if he got a better offer he couldn't refuse or was about to get the ax, as so many others have. Thanks to the Post for carrying him so I can keep up with his cartoons, which are obviously some of the very best.

Posted by: Christopher H. Hancock | August 4, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

One reason political cartoons are "dying out" is because anyone new "need not apply"---It appears to be a closed shop,at least with the syndicates. You may get some published with some local papers in your hometown but the syndicates obviously don't want fresh talent--Especially a cartoonist who comes down hard on all sides of the political spectrum--

Posted by: Dennis | August 4, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

Throughout this most political of years, I have been questioning the fitness of political cartoonists to continue doing what they do. Throughout the Democratic Primary season, Barack Obama was an untouchable as far as the cartoonists were concerned. I searched high and low for a single nagative cartoon about Obama. Hillary got daily hits, McCain was a favorite target, but Obama seemed to be strictly off limits.

Now, that Obama is assured the Democratic nomination, the cartoonists are swiping at his lack of experience, his movement toward the right in recent weeks and the many unknown quantities in his portfolio. Why are all these questions surfacing now? Now, that it is essentially too late.

Something is fishy in the current pool of political cartoonists and, frankly, I wouldn't see it as a bad thing if they were to be shaken out of their stupors and made to be more astute.

Posted by: Michel | August 5, 2008 4:06 AM | Report abuse

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