By Rob Rogers
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
“Stop them damn pictures! I don’t care what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures!”
That’s a quote from William M. Tweed from around 1875 and it speaks to the importance of the role of editorial cartoons.
Tweed, referred to as “Boss” Tweed, controlled Tammany Hall, the Democratic seat of political power in New York City at the time. Corruption and crime were a way of life for Tweed and his cronies. Thomas Nast was working as a political cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly and constantly targeted Tweed and his ring.
Eventually, Tweed was arrested and went to prison. He escaped and fled to Spain where he worked as a common seaman on a Spanish ship. Tweed was recognized because of Nast’s famous caricature of the politician. Tweed was extradited and returned to prison where he later died. The “damn pictures” quote illustrates the power of an editorial cartoon and reminds us of the importance of satire in holding the powerful to account.
That was nearly 150 years ago. In 2019, stories are being written about how we are witnessing the final throes of editorial cartooning. I say the reports of the death of editorial cartooning have been greatly exaggerated!
Granted, it isn’t hard to understand why some are characterizing the art form in this way. It has been a tough year for editorial cartoonists. In Mark Twain’s case, intentionally misquoted above, it was his cousin that was gravely ill, not him. In the case of editorial cartooning, it is our newsprint cousins that are on their deathbeds.
Today marks my one-year anniversary as a freelancer. On June 14th, 2018, after 25 years as the editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I was fired for drawing unflattering cartoons about President Trump. Since that time several news organizations have made significant staff cuts. Media giant Gannett laid off Steve Benson, the Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist for the Arizona Republic, and Gatehouse Media laid off three cartoonists: Nate Beeler at the Columbus Dispatch, Rick McKee at the Augusta Chronicle, and Mark Streeter at the Savannah Morning News. Last week we heard the jarring news that the New York Times international edition would no longer be using editorial cartoons. They laid off two talented freelancers, Patrick Chappatte and Heng Kim Song.
This latest insult was an overreaction to a controversial cartoon that was printed in the international editions of the New York Times in April 2019. A Netanyahu caricature by António MoreiraAntunes of Portugal, triggered widespread outrage. The Times apologized and then closed down their cartoon syndication operation. Whether you think the cartoon was anti-Semitic or not, it doesn’t warrant a ban on all cartoons! How Many times has the newspaper had to retract a story or make a correction? Did they ban all stories because of that? No. So why did they do it with editorial cartoons? It speaks to the power of editorial cartoons and illustrates that corporate types don’t understand the important role of satire in a democracy. The other tragedy here is that two great cartoonists lost a valuable platform over a cartoon that neither one of them was responsible for drawing. That is outrageous.
Newspapers were, and to a lesser extent still are, the place where readers turned to get their fix of editorial cartoons. But newspapers have been shrinking. That is a well-documented trend. So it is not a surprise that the number of staff jobs for cartoonists has also been shrinking. When I began my career in 1984 at the Pittsburgh Press (a Scripps Howard paper), there were well over 200 editorial cartoonists working at newspapers in this country. These were not freelancers. I’m talking about staff jobs with health care and a 401k. Today, by my very unscientific calculation, there are fewer than 25 full-time staff cartoonists working at newspapers in the U.S.
It would be easy for fans of editorial cartooning to grow despondent. I would encourage them to cheer up. It is an exciting time to be a cartoonist. The outpouring of support that followed my firing last year was overwhelming and it continues today. Many freelance cartoonists have their own Patreon page, which I like to describe as the Public Radio model for cartoonists.
It isn’t all about newspapers anymore. There are online outlets like The Nib, offering some of the best political cartoons and long-form comics journalism on the planet! There is a brand new cartoon initiative called Counterpoint, which is a free e-newsletter that features editorial cartoons from conservative and liberal viewpoints. Both of these sites pay cartoonists for original content. That is rare in the internet age.
Plus, there are still small presses fighting the big fight. This twice-monthly tabloid, the Pittsburgh Current, not only buys my syndicated editorial cartoons, they also started a comics page featuring paid content from local talent. In an industry where comics pages are shrinking at an alarming rate, that is no small thing.
Maybe I am just an “ink bottle half-full” kinda guy, but I think there is no better time than right now to be a political cartoonist. Satire is the ultimate expression of free speech. It reminds us that we live in a healthy democracy. But we are living in time like no other in our country’s history, a time when the media is under attack, a time of extreme partisanship. We need “them damn pictures” now more than ever.