Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Ever-Hastening Decline of the American Editorial Cartoonist

Excerpted from panel by Rick Friday

By way of a sobering depressing bookend to National Cartoonists Day, there has been a lot of recent attention dedicated to the firing of Iowan editorial cartoonist (and farmer) Rick Friday.
“I did my research and only submitted the facts in my cartoon.”
At the end of April he drew a panel criticizing the obscene contrast between CEOs and the average farmer, which was published in Farm News, which prompted the withdrawal of one of the paper's advertisers in protest, which in turn resulted in the shitcanning of Friday.
“A freelance cartoonist says he was fired for drawing an editorial cartoon that bemoaned Iowa farmers' dwindling profits while CEOs at large agricultural corporations earn millions of dollars.” - Des Moines Register
This has attracted extensive media coverage, extending even to an article in the New York Times:
When he paused to talk, he revealed he was leaning against a fence, and the heifers were staring at him, hard. […] He agreed to talk after the cows were fed. - Christine Hauser
Largely the accounts hinge on the David vs Goliath theme of a rural champion slinging ink against the corporate giants, more of a novelty piece rather than a clarion call against any erosion of journalistic integrity and rights of the press. However here's one solid article: "Why the controversy over an Iowa cartoonist is no laughing matter” by Jack Murtha of Columbia Journalism Review:
The message will get out. This week, Friday began independently publishing cartoons for his newfound fans, drawing eyeballs he never would have if not for this debacle. The sketches still feature farmers and Big Ag. But Friday is also hammering a new target: the press. One drawing depicts an editor hunched over his desk, talking to a confused farmer who’s holding a newspaper: “We edited your opinion to please our masters.” 
*Note: Neither the Des Moines Register, New York Times or Columbia Journalism Review employs any staff cartoonists by the way.

This has direct bearing on current events right here in Alaska, as we have now lost our sole remaining editorial cartoonist officially associated with a state newspaper. At the start of May, Chuck Legge was let go from the Frontiersman, who recently hired a new publisher (imported from Colorado), even as they are themselves are, ironically enough, owned by Wick Communications, which is... wait for it... based in Arizona. All of which adds an Orwellian dimension to the doublespeak they offered in their defense:
“While this is sometimes interesting, it does not fit with the Frontiersman’s philosophy of delivering the best hyper-local content for our readers.”
Take a minute to let that staggeringly myopic statement settle in. The pure hypocrisy of it is simply baffling, but actually is on par with pretty much anything uttered by conservative leaders these days. Indeed, the key hallmarks of editorial cartoons are irony, parody and satire, and one of the limitations of conservative thinking is the fundamental inability to comprehend the subtle nuance of said characteristics (an example of which was taking Colbert’s persona on The Colbert Report seriously). Thus anything that even remotely causes cognitive dissonance will be summarily rejected. Trouble is, you just can't top the naked self-parody and unintended irony which passes for commentary and opinion from these folks, as in, this is a joke, right?
Here's a letter to the editor via Peter Dunlap-Shohl that sums up the resultant effect this gutless move will have:
Dear Editor,
   Many years ago I taught a journalism class to my high school students in Texas. I taught about independence, about the journalist's duty to follow a story where the facts lead--not where the writer wants them to lead. I taught them about the necessity of maintaining a strong wall between the business side and the editorial side. I lectured long and hard about the need to resist intimidation. Those ideas seem so quaint now, after seeing your May 3 editorial, "Cartoonist's departure will allow paper greater flexibility to provide local content." 
   In this editorial, you justified sacking an award-winning cartoonist because he upset some of your more vocal readers. You announced to the world that you will be intimidated. You announced to the world that if someone doesn't like the news you report, all they have to do is threaten to quit you, and you'll pull a story, or pull back on a story, no matter how legitimate, no matter how well-researched. Both Dan Grota and Chuck Legge will be missed. Even more so, what will be missed is the trust in the newspaper's integrity. – David Cheezem

Update: Here's "Another One Bites the Dust," a summary from Craig Medred on Legge being dropped:
The Fontiersman’s response to controversy differs signficantly from that of the Fairbanks New-Miner, which saw cartoonist Jamie Smith come under intense fire last fall for a cartoon questioning guns on university campuses. The editors of the News-Miner defended the cartoon, arguing that “We strive to provide readers a mix of views, including those the editorial board disagrees with. […] That is a noble, old media view. Whether it and Smith, who appears to be the last newspaper cartoonist standing in the 49th state, can survive the shifting media landscape of today – an virtual landscape sliding toward the political poles – remains to be seen.

In closing, and to put all of this in context, recall the survey reported on by the Herb Block Foundation titled “The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over” (PDF):
“At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States. Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink.”
That was six years ago. Last year, in “Editors, not terrorists, killed U.S. political cartoonists ” Ted Rall claimed there was less than thirty left. The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists claims “With nearly 300 members, it is the world's largest organization of political cartoonists” (Wikipedia), although there are only 148 currently listed on its Profiles page, and of those, only the barest fraction are professionally associated with a newspaper, let alone employed by one as staff with salary and benefits. Most tend to freelance, self-syndicate, or go with a syndicate like Cagle Cartoons above, which carries with it another equally dismaying, corresponding set of issues. Again, from the Herb Block survey:
“Fewer than half the respondents said they earned more than 50 percent of their income from their primary employer and 45 percent said they earned less than 25 percent of their income from their primary employer.
More than half of the people surveyed reported income from syndication, but more than a third of the respondents said they earned less than 20 percent of their income from syndication. And three quarters of the respondents reported earning income from other work.”
And as much as all politics is local, and it's also personal. Since my last infamous editorial panel published back in October, I've submitted one every month to the local paper, which rejected five of the six. While it's not an unreasonable assumption that, since they also happened to specifically target local politicians and vested interests in the status quo, it was safer to decline them than run the risk of arousing readership wrath, it's also quite possible that they simply sucked. More likely the case that they weren't effective enough in their message, which for today's informed populace has to exceptionally clear, and repeated often. In my humble opinion, afflicting the comfortable/comforting the afflicted and all.

Consider these two recent panels: the first (above) depicts the uncomfortable fact that the sociopathic candidate Trump only got one less delegate than Cruz from Alaskan Republicans after their primary back in March.
The second (below) illustrates the irony in how the very same politicians who constantly decry the intrusive and abusive overreach of the evil Federal Government all roll right over and sing a completely different tune about the incoming F-35s soon to be housed at Eielson Air Force base. Fifty-four problematic aircraft, each at an estimated cost of 162 million (to as high as $335 million) per plane (the helmets alone cost $400k each), means well over eight+ billion dollars of war toys in a state that is currently economically imploding. Priorities.

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