Political cartoons are powerful things. Back in the 19th century, Thomas Nast blasted public corruption of Tammany Hall, and skewered official hypocrisy (check out this pair of images showing pleading by Confederate leaders for pardons while wounded Black Union veterans could not even vote) where ever he found it. Cartoonists today often do the same, as Bob Geiger reminds us each Saturday, like this.
But it's not as simple as drawing and publishing.
In Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, David Wallis took up the subject of Cartoon Censorship. Not censorship by the government, mind you, but by the newspapers that print them and syndicates that distribute them.
Sometimes, this is called "editing" which can be a good thing. Not every drawing that springs forth from a cartoonist's pen is good, and some ought not to be used. On the other hand . . . corporate fear can be a powerful thing.
As Wallis points out, newspapers are businesses, and skewering the idols of those who buy the paper is not often appreciated:
J.D. Crowe of the Mobile Register, a conservative paper in Alabama — or what Crowe calls "the Bush Belt" — admits he treads carefully when taking on the White House and its cronies. "Any time I do a cartoon that questions the administration … it's almost (viewed) like blasphemy," said Crowe. In 2003, amid the BALCO revelations, Crowe pitched a cartoon representing Halliburton as a bulked up baseball player shooting up from a syringe labeled "no-bid government contracts." Crowe's jab at Dick Cheney's former employer proved too sharp for the Register.
And there's access. As the Libby Trial demonstrated, "access" journalism requires access, and if a cartoon will cost you that access, well . . . cut the cartoon, as the St. Paul Pioneer Press did with a 2002 Kirk Anderson cartoon on priestly child abuse. Fear of "giving offense" is another form of this self-censorship, as when the Atlanta Journal Constitution kept a 2003 Mike Luckovich masterpiece out of circulation – "W LIED" spelled out with flag draped coffins. Even Joseph Pulitzer's paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, comes in for criticism by Wallis.
(Click on the Wallis link above to see all these cartoons in the sidebar to the Chronicle story.)
One person whom I'm sure is not surprised by these drivers of corporate censorship is Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. He left the comic business because he discovered he was spending so much time arguing with his syndicate about not getting into the merchandising business. In a 1990 commencement address at Kenyon College, he described the situation like this:
As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you're really buying into someone else's system of values, rules and rewards.
In the Wallis piece, Doug Marlette calls political cartoonists the newspaper's "canary in a coal mine." Once they die, you know you've got a real problem. Access matters more than the truth. Money matters more than the facts. Being "nice" matters more than calling attention to things on the uglier side of life. One set of values has been traded for another.
Kudos to the editors who remember their own values, and why they got into the news business. It wasn't for access, or money, or some kind of pseudo-niceness found by putting on blinders. The news business, at its core, is about telling the truth, even when it isn't pleasant; it's about exposing corruption and hypocrisy, even when it hits close to home; it's about being vocal, when the facts are being silenced.
And brickbats to those editors who have bought into some other set of values, rules, and rewards. You editors like this can call it whatever you want, but please don't call it the news business.