NEW YORK—An editorial cartoon is like nothing else in a newspaper. Editorial cartoonists don't need any special degrees. Unlike reporters and editorial writers, they don't even have to pretend to be "fair." Moderation in what Jules Feiffer called "the art of ill will" is the ultimate vice: boring.
A great political cartoon can do things no news article or editorial can. It can expose hypocrisies and ideological contradictions with the stroke of a pen and the flash of an eye. It can connect seemingly unrelated events to point out a theretofore unnoticed trend. At its best, an editorial cartoon can prompt readers to rethink society's basic assumptions.
But American political cartoonists are an endangered species. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists estimates that there are fewer than 90 full-time staff cartoonists left in the United States, down from approximately 280 in 1980. A dozen have lost their jobs in the last year alone. Syndicated cartoonists have seen their income drop by 50 percent or more. Discouraged and broke, young cartoonists are abandoning the field.
Editorial cartoonists face the same enemy as the newspapers in which they appear: the more widely their work is disseminated on the Internet, the less they get paid. Particular to graphic journalism, however, is the seeming determination of editors and publishers to render editorial cartooning irrelevant—by promoting hack work over quality.
We Americans live in a golden age of editorial cartooning. Never has the profession been as ideologically, stylistically or demographically diverse. Never has the art been as daring or ambitious. Never have cartoons been as popular or, thanks to the Internet, as widely read. Yet American editorial cartooning is in danger of disappearing entirely—murdered by editors and publishers at the major magazines and newspapers.
The state of political cartooning in 2009 mirrors that of radio in the late '70s. Music was awesome, but the good stuff wasn't on the radio. Punk, new wave and postpunk took chances and redefined popular music, but the only way to get it was to buy LPs at a record store.
Similarly, editors of the big daily papers and the newsweekly magazines know what makes a good cartoon: They post them on their walls and in their cubicles. What they run in their publications, on the other hand, is what we cartoonists constantly refer to as the worst of the worst: dull cliches, hackneyed metaphors, idiotic gags about the news reminiscent of Jay Leno's middle-of-the-road comedy style. They're safe. They don't anger readers. But they don't matter.
Peruse the highest profile venues—USA Today, Newsweek, Time, The New York Times' "Week In Review" section—and you'd never guess that there were entire genres of cartooning going unrepresented. Draw in more than one or two panels, and you'd might as well chuck your scribbles down George Orwell's memory hole. And God forbid if you express an actual opinion.
Out of notice of the Pulitzer Prize committee, cartoonists at alternative weekly newspapers—a genre that came into its own during the 1980s—became the front line of criticism of the Bush administration after 9/11, when the mainstream media was still swallowing every White House press release hook, line and WMD. Staff cartoonists at family owned independent dailies change hearts and minds by skewering local and state politicians and their policies, yet languish in obscurity.
Even cartoonists whose work make the big roundups complain that their hardest-hitting cartoons are repeatedly passed over in favor of material so bland a reader would be hard-pressed to know whether its creator was liberal or conservative.
"Too much editorial cartooning today is opinion-free gag writing—uninformed, unenlightened, largely unconscious," says Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Newspapers, says Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News, encourage "bland, gag-oriented cartoons rather than hard-hitting ones." Pett and Wilkinson, both Pulitzer winners who served as AAEC president, have been rebuffed when they've drawn editorial attention to cartoonists' complaints. The Times even redesigned its cartoon section to appear next to quotes by such late-night comedians as ... Jay Leno.
Times editor Katy Roberts' snide 2007 response to these complaints was typical. "Most readers don't know this," she wrote, "but a whole subculture out there is permanently aflame over the syndicated cartoons chosen by us and other national publications like Newsweek ... The complaint is that we like cartoons to be funny and witty."
Not at all. The trouble with the Times' selections is that they are bad. They are not funny. They are not smart. They express no opinions, no thoughts, few insights. If these are the nation's best cartoons, readers conclude, cartoons aren't worth reading.
Oh, and "subculture"?
For a long time, cartoonists were happy just to have a shot at appearing in prominent outlets like the Times and Newsweek. In recent years, however, many have concluded that elevating lameness is self-perpetuating and destructive. It justifies decisions to lay off cartoonists, including those who do great work. Imagine if the Oscars were repeatedly awarded not just to films that weren't the best of the year, nor to films that weren't that great, but to total turkeys. Filmmakers would be up in arms, and rightly so.
Newspapers are under financial stress. But they won't survive by selling a diet of bland and boring to consumers who have more information options than ever before. Refusing to embrace what was cool and relevant in the '70s set the stage for the death of music radio in the '80s and '90s—supplanted by news talk and satellite. Whether it's cartoons or music reviews or political analysis, playing it safe is suicide.
Ted Rall, an editorial cartoonist for Universal Press Syndicate, is president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.