The Diminishing Editorial Cartoon

Almost a year ago, Europe was plunged into a religious firestorm by running editorial cartoons that enraged followers of Islam. The newspapers were criticized over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, who was never to be seen by those followers. Protests, riots and fire bombings occurred on most continents by those protesting such desecration and disrespect for their beliefs.

In an effort to afford his own editorial cartoonists equal time; Iran’s nutjob-in-chief Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held a contest. Cartoonists were encouraged to submit their best material that poked at the Holocaust. The best cartoon was to be awarded $12,000. The competition and exhibition resulted in 1,193 entries from 61 countries, with 204 displayed at the Palestine Contemporary Art Museum through this week.

While American newspapers agonized loudly in print whether or not to show the cartoons that caused such furor last year, none that I have seen have even bothered to sample the current controversy.

May also I point out that the contest not only elicited a large number of entries but a particular lack of protests and destruction in the name of Yahweh? Sure, editorial writers and private individuals were outraged but no reports of riots.

Could it be that, apart from the Middle East, people are more tolerant of editorial cartoons? Or that differing points of view are expected outside of Islam? I’m not entirely sure.

While attention has been focused over there, stories also emerged this week about a Chinese cartoonist who dared to draw an image of a weeping President Hu Jintao while making a comment about the overworked labor class. It’s somewhat of a taboo to include political leaders in China’s newspaper cartoons and there was quite the hubbub over Hu’s inclusion by artist Kuang Biao. No one disputed the point of his cartoon, much as few challenged the point of the European cartoons last year.

I find all of this interesting given the current erosion of editorial cartoonists’ influence and presence in newspapers around the country. As more and more newspapers look at the bottom line, they’re making deep cuts, including the staff editorial cartoonist. In many cases, newspapers aren’t replacing his space with something from a syndicate, it’s just gone. The editorial cartoon, like the comic strips, is one of the few things that makes a newspaper unique and a reason for people to buy a copy instead of getting their news on line, or worse, on television.

Ahmadinejad wasn’t really interested in viewpoints of the Holocaust; he’s made up his mind. Instead, he was testing the limits of free speech around the world. There’s no word if the lack of outrage and fire bombings disappointed him or changed his mind.

Cartoonist Steve Greenberg wrote in Hogan’s Alley, “The purpose of editorial cartooning is to provoke thought. To provoke a deeper examination of current events. To provoke readers to become angry at social injustices or political misdeeds. But these caricatures existed only to provoke a furious reaction for its own sake. Few U.S. cartoonists would embrace this goal any more than they would embrace the whole Danish Mohammed exercise — or the Iranian counter-exercise, for that matter. We want people to be upset with us because we gored their sacred cows or showed the emperors to have no clothes, not because we deliberately tried to infuriate them.

“Editors are thinking about editorial cartoons now. But if it’s for the purpose of confirming their views that controversy is a bad thing, that can’t be good for the already damaged field of editorial cartooning.”

2 comments

  • As a past part-time Op-Ed cartoonist myself, I do worry about the potential for overeaction from assorted newspaper editors on this point, Bob. I might want to return to that work some day, as it served to help me vent more than a few frustrations about the shenanigans of the day.

    Remind me to tell you, for example, about a certain Ontario premier who once stated a belief that there was such a thing as having too much education, and whose budget cuts thereby forced public libraries across the province into making some very unwelcome deicisions…

  • Rex Hondo

    The editorial cartoon, like the comic strips, is one of the few things that makes a newspaper unique and a reason for people to buy a copy instead of getting their news on line, or worse, on television.

    Don’t the online versions of most large newspapers have the comics and editorial toons included? Or is this just the rare instance of Indianapolis being ahead of the curve on something?

    -Rex Hondo-