Jack Shafer writes at Politico about our “entering the end times of the editorial cartoon,” highlighting the impact they’ve long had on democracy and connecting recent layoffs to a couple of factors. I’m not sure that we have the whole story here. From Shafer:
Cartoons were once so powerful they could bring down political dynasties, as Thomas Nast’s brought down Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall in 1870s New York. In the 1960s, Richard Nixon understood that a single cartoon of him by Herblock was powerful enough to block his political comeback. “I have to erase the Herblock image,” Nixon said. Just a generation ago, readers delighted in celebrating or damning the acerbic cartoons by Paul Conrad or Pat Oliphant. But somewhere along the line, editorial cartoons lost their cultural primacy. Who do we blame? And do we have a good reason to root for their return?
I don’t know about these being “end times” for editorial cartooning—for one, Shafer cites The Nib as having been a casualty of First Look Media’s re-organization, but as publisher Matt Bors writes, The Nib is far from finished publishing powerful critiques from the likes of Pia Guerra or important graphic journalism from Julia Gfrörer and Andy Warner.
That said, I’ll leave arguing editorial cartooning’s longevity to better-qualified voices. My gripe isn’t with that the header photo chosen for the column is of Politico’s cartoonist Matt Wuerker (reportedly the sole Pulitzer Prize-winner on staff) or with the argument that late-night television and memes do a better job of lampooning politicians.
Even as it isn’t happening across the board, some editorial cartoonists are losing clients or staff jobs after having criticized Trump. If you’re lamenting (or arguing for) the end of this craft, you should probably mention this in your eulogy.
Shafer’s news peg is that freelance editorial cartoonist Michael de Adder had his contract cancelled by The Brunswick Newspaper Group in Canada within hours of his cartoon depicting Trump, standing over migrants who drowned in the Rio Grande, golf club in hand, went viral. The publisher denies that this cartoon ended de Adder’s contract, and we don’t know for sure, but de Adder was explicitly told that Trump was off limits, and as Mike Peterson at The Daily Cartoonist points out, there’s a good chance that emails came pouring in when his drawing made the rounds. Here’s Peterson:
“The right has learned to weaponize feedback, and, when Breibart or Drudge unleash the hordes, the flood of fury—from readers or from golf partners—makes executives wet their silk boxers.”
Shafer writes: “Brunswick News denies it terminated de Adder over the Trump cartoon. They had been shopping for a replacement, and hired him.”
Isn’t it “Brunswick News denies it terminated de Adder over the Trump cartoon. The publisher claims they had been shopping for a replacement, and hired him”?
In any event, Rob Rodgers is included in Politico’s list of cartoonists who’ve recently been fired/had contracts canceled. I’d argue it’s worth noting that when the publisher came for Rodgers’ job at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—a casualty of these “end times” according to Politico—he was told that his “views should reflect the philosophy of the newspaper.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette already leaned toward endorsing Trump for President, ran a disgracefully anti-immigrant op-ed that supported the vile remarks Trump made about Haiti (I wouldn’t dare link to that), and supported a pro-Trump Republican who has billed taxpayers thousands for “flag-related accessories” in a heated Congressional race. The latter move earned a shout-out from Trump, which must have been incredibly validating for the Post-Gazette‘s publisher.
After 25 years at the Post-Gazette, Rodgers had 19 cartoons killed—six in a single week. When he was fired, the newspaper’s union reporters and non-unionized editors “took out ads in their own paper distancing themselves from their publisher,” wrote another recently fired cartoonist, Nick Anderson. Rodgers’ firing wasn’t tied to economics—he has since been replaced with a lapdog conservative cartoonist whose primary inspiration I can only assume is a terrible and sexist novelty joke book dating from the 1980s. None of the context about Rodgers being targeted by pro-Trump executives makes it into “The End Times of the Political Cartoon.”
If I worked at Politico and planned to argue that editorial cartooning is dead, I might turn to the cartoonist that I work with, the guy with the Pulitzer, and ask him what he thinks before my piece, which features his photo in the header, is published online.
Cartoonist Matt Wuerker would probably say what he tweeted yesterday: “The case of de Adder, like the case of Rob Rogers, shows that freedom of the press does ultimately only belong to those who own the presses.”