Readers to my little place here on the internet highway know I very much enjoy a pithy and well-drawn political cartoon–of the type which arrive each morning on the Op-Ed pages of many papers around the nation. I was displeased to learn that just a few weeks ago The New York Times ended political cartoons in their overseas version of the newspaper. It was a loss for readers, but also a statement regarding the role of these forms of information and emotional prodding which Americans have relied on to help frame the issues of the day.
There were some 2,000 working editorial cartoonists at the start of the 20th century. That world has changed and as a result the actions of the NYTs seems not to matter to a wider swath of the nation. But it should matter.
Make no mistake about it. Editorial cartoonists are facing their toughest times due to timid newspaper owners and publishers caving to the worst instincts from readers. If someone is offended by a political cartoon it seems time to yank the work of that cartoonist. Conservative and Trump-supporting newspapers have dropped cartoonists because there was a sharp edge created about the current occupant of the White House. When fragile readers contact newspapers we know what follows. Corporate bean-counters sweat and whimper and soon the cartoonist is dropped because it is argued, editorial cartoons aren’t seen as bringing in income. (Having a penchant for reading local newspapers as a I travel about, it is a concern of mine that many small papers do not even have an editorial page.)
The reason these cartoons matter is that they are vital to our culture as they stir the national conversation about topics and personalities that are at times gritty and hard to stomach. Visual metaphors are important as they often convey a truth that can not be easily summed up in an analysis news article, or even a long editorial.
I grew up with Herblock (Herbert Block) as he made Richard Nixon look criminal and Ronald Reagan look out of touch with day-to-day governing. In each case news stories underscored such editorial cartoons were correct. Cartoonists, in another fashion, just had their own way of presenting the news.
Some will look at political cartoons and see nothing but another layer of tension being added to the issues of the day. The other way to respond is to note such cartoons allow for difficult issues to be more easily discussed. I am sure, for some readers, cartoons lure them into reading more to further refine their knowledge about the news stories of the day.
There is nothing wrong with editorial cartoons courting controversy. That is a very real role for newspapers to participate in, and plays hand-in-hand with what democracy should look and feel like when opening a paper.
Editorial cartoons are an important part of journalism. We must not let editorial cartoons disappear! Our democracy counts on it.