"Ted Rall, mop-headed antiestablishment political cartoonist, has abundant talent, a 1,400-drawing portfolio, seven years' experience, the acclaim of peers and the approval of newspaper editors who, every so often, print his work. What he lacks is someone who will hire him full-time."
That's from The New York Times. In 1995.
Editorial cartooning was in big trouble then. Newspapers were closing and slashing budgets. Those who survived were timid--cowardly editors rarely hire, much less retain, the controversial artists.
Things are worse now. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but the number of full-time professional political cartoonists now hovers around 30. In 1980, there were about 300. A century ago, there were thousands.
Cartoonists blame tightfisted publishers and shortsighted editors. Many decry news syndicates for charging low rates for reprints.
"If an editor can get Walt Handelsman and Steve Kelley for 10 bucks a week, why would he pay $70,000 a year for a guy in his hometown?" asked Handelsman, then the cartoonist for The New Orleans Times-Pacayune, in the 1995 Times piece.
There's also the Internet. The Web created more disruption than opportunity as dozens of cartoonists tried to sell animated editorial cartoons to websites. Two succeeded.
Digitalization decimated the music business, savaged movies and is washing away publishing. If multinational media conglomerates can't figure out how to stem the tide, individual cartoonists don't stand a chance.
We can only control one thing: the quality of our work. It pains me to admit it, but to say we've fallen down on the job would give us too much credit.
Editorial cartoonists have been churning out a blizzard of hackwork. Generic pabulum relying on outdated metaphors--Democratic donkeys, Republican elephants, tortured labels. Cut-and-paste art lifted from older cartoonists. The work is so bland that readers can't tell if the artist is liberal or conservative.
In the end, it's up to the members of any profession to police themselves. No one can publish your crappy cartoon if you don't draw it in the first place. Amazingly, my colleagues have chosen to ignore the existential crisis that faces American political cartooning.
Moreover, we cartoonists are failing to hold one another to basic journalistic standards. This year, political cartooning has been hit by two scandals. David Simpson, a longtime Tulsa, Okla., political cartoonist, was fired after he got caught tracing old cartoons by the late Jeff MacNelly. Jeff Stahler, a cartoonist familiar to readers of USA Today, was forced to resign by The Columbus Dispatch after rumors of stealing ideas exploded into a series of too-close-for-comfort pairings of his work and classic material from The New Yorker.
They're only the tip of the iceberg.
Within the mainstream of the profession, the general consensus is that we should keep quiet and wait for the storm to pass. Cartoonists make excuses.
"This is bad for the profession," I heard from more than one colleague after the Stahler story broke. "Let's be quiet."
No. What's bad for the profession is bad work. How can we expect editors to respect us unless we respect ourselves?