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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"And now they draw cartoons about you."

Why Cartoons Still Matter - A Lot
By Scott Stantis

While rioting packs of Muslim men in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran shout 'death to cartoonists,' newspapers in the United States have been doing exactly that for years with lay-offs, buyouts, firings and dropping cartoons from the editorial pages.

Altogether, the ranks of American full-time staff editorial cartoonists has shrunk from a high of over 200 in the 1980's to under 80 today.

Newspapers with a long and storied history of cartoonists have seen fit to cut loose this valuable resource. Papers like the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun are now without a staff cartoonist. The Chicago Tribune recently dedicated a room honoring the late, great cartoonist Jeff MacNelly while at the same time mocking his legacy by leaving the editorial cartoonist position open since his death in June of 2000.

These same newspapers now go days without running any cartoon on its opinion sections. Presumably because the editors believe that nothing attracts and engages readers better than massive stretches of gray type.

And the cartoons that do find their way into print are more often jokes then commentary. Guy Cooper, former editor of the popular Perspective section in Newsweek magazine, told a gathering of editorial cartoonists that he would never run a hard hitting, substantive editorial cartoon on his page. He viewed them strictly as entertainment. The New York Times, which runs a small number of editorial cartoons in its Sunday Week-In-Review section, has recently renamed the collection "Laugh lines".

Cartoons can show an issue in high definition clarity better than any ten thousand words. It's interesting to note that when the editors of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten decided to deride Europe for not confronting the issue of growing radical Islamism it choose to do so with cartoons.

I won't pass judgment on the decision whether or not to run the Muhammad cartoons other than to say they were drawn solely to provoke. And provocation for its own sake is immature and a waste of the valuable real estate given to cartoonists' work by newspapers.

Having said that, it's important to note great cartoons provoke thoughtful and passionate debate. The good ones, any way. If we're doing our job right we engage the readers. In an age when publishers are terrified of losing a single of their remaining subscribers, the angry call from a reader canceling his subscription because of today's editorial page cartoon is not a welcome reader response.

Editors may think cartoons are irrelevant but people don't. A good cartoon can get you in your gut and make you double over in pain or laughter.

Happily, there are still a handful of newspapers, (The Birmingham News being chief among them), that believe in the mission of engaging cartoons.

From the beginning of our republic cartoons have challenged and provoked. From Benjamin Franklin's dismembered snake with each individual colony's name on each piece and the caption " join or die." To Thomas Nast's dismembering of the corrupt Tweed Ring in 19th century New York City. Cartoons also define an issue and even make caricatures of real flesh and blood politicians. Herblock and Pogo diminishing Joseph McCarthy. Or Herblock's rendering of Richard Nixon emerging from under a sewer cap. Jeff MacNelly drawing a hapless Jimmy Carter buying the Brooklyn Bridge from the Soviet Union. These cartoons left an indelible mark on history.

Talk of relevance or lack thereof, has been grinding on the editorial cartoon profession for years. In fact, in 2002, the year I served as president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, I had a panel address the issue, "Do we matter?"

To answer this question, editors might ask themselves: Do you think the streets of the Arab world would be ablaze if that Danish newspaper had run a series of editorials on the same subject as those cartoons?

Scott Stantis is the editorial cartoonist for The Birmingham (Ala.) News. He is the past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. He is also the creator of the political comic strip, "Prickly City. He contributes an editorial cartoon to USA Today, which runs on Tuesday. See Scott's cartoons at http://cagle.msnbc.com/politicalcartoons/ online. Email is scottstantis@gmail.com for comments.

The possibility that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.
– Abraham Lincoln


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