WHO POLICES POLITICAL CARTOONING?

Ted Rall

An Art Form in Crisis Ignores the Rot Within

"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, a unique art form whose modern version originated in 18th century France and has become more pointed, sophisticated and effective in the United States than any other country, was in big trouble back then. Newspapers, the main employers of political cartoonists, were closing and slashing budgets. Those that survived were timid; cowardly editors rarely hire, much less retain, the controversial artists who produce the best cartoons, those that stimulate discussion.

Things are worse now.

Much worse.

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 for their woes. Many decry news syndicates for charging low rates for reprinted material. "If an editor can get Walt Handelsman and Steve Kelley for ten 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 cited above.

There's also the Internet. As happened across the world of print media, the Web created more disruption than opportunity. Dozens of cartoonists tried to sell animated editorial cartoons to websites. Two succeeded.

Digitalization decimated the music business, savaged movies and is washing away book publishing. If the titans of multinational media conglomerates can't figure out how to stem the tide, individual cartoonists who make fun of the president 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 be to give us too much credit.

We suck.

Day after day, year after year, editorial cartoonists have been churning out a blizzard of hackwork. Generic pabulum relying on outdated metaphors--Democratic donkeys, Republican elephants, tortured labels, ships of state labeled "U.S." sinking in oceans marked "debt," cars driving off cliffs, one hurricane after another, each labeled after some crisis new or imagined. Cut-and-paste art styles slavishly lifted from older cartoonists down to the last crosshatch. Work so bland and devoid of insight or opinion that readers can't tell if the artist is liberal or conservative. Cartoons that make no point whatsoever, such as those that mark anniversaries of news events, the deaths of corporate executives like Steve Jobs, and even holidays (for Veterans Day: "freedom isn't free").

To be sure, editors and publishers have hired and promoted the very worst of the worst. Prize committees snub brilliance and innovation in favor of safe and cheesy.

In the end, however, it's up to the members of any profession to police themselves individually and collectively. I often say, 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. Rather than rise to the challenge, their work is becoming even safer and blander.

Moreover, we cartoonists are failing to hold one another to basic journalistic standards. This year political cartooning has been hit by two plagiarism scandals. David Simpson, a long-time Tulsa political cartoonist with a history of this sort of thing, was fired by the weekly paper there after he got caught tracing old cartoons by the late Jeff MacNelly on a lightbox. Jeff Stahler, a cartoonist familiar to readers of USA Today, was recently forced to resign by The Columbus Dispatch after long-standing 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.

There are plagiarists who have Pulitzer Prizes sitting on their shelves. There are even more "self-plagiarists"--people who shamelessly recycle the same exact cartoon, changing labels on the same image in order to meet a deadline. They shortchange their readers and their clients--and collect the biggest salaries in the business.

Meanwhile, it is impossible for the "young" generation of talented cartoonists who came out of the alt weekly newspapers--those under 50--to find work at all.

Within the mainstream of the profession the general consensus is that we should keep quiet and wait for the storm to pass. They make excuses for serial plagiarists, self-plagiarists, and hacks. At this writing the professional association for political cartoonists, which in 2009 imposed its first penalty for plagiarism in its 50-year history under my presidency, has still failed to act to enforce that rule or issue a code of ethics.

"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 and publishers to respect us unless we respect ourselves?

(Ted Rall is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." His website is tedrall.com.)