- corporatization of the news media
- political correctness
- decline of interest in news
- the fear of litigation for libel
- the fear of physical attack by religious fanatics, ideologues and pyschologically or emotionally disturbed individuals
- editors who are satirically illiterate, visually illiterate and humor-impaired
- cartoonists who are not really cartoonists, but opportunistic illustrators who invaded the field and made cartoons so boring and irrelevant readers abandoned them in droves
Corporatization of news media is something I began decrying in 1974, long before it was commonly accepted to be a problem. I attacked the effects of corporatism on political cartooning in detail in my first book, BUY THIS BOOK (1980). "Alternative Media" magazine in New York excerpted segments of the book relating to this threat. Newspapers shifted from a semi-public service ethic (or at least the pretense of it) to unabashed, shameless profit motive during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years. As papers disappeared through mergers and acquisitions, cartoonists who posed the slightest threat to the status quo (and therefore, the editors wrongly reasoned, offending and losing readers, thus reducing circulation/subscriptions, and losing income) were the first to go as more and more were fired off. As openings occurred for new cartoonists, only the most innocuous, vapid "wrists" were taken on. The ability to generate cute, clever sight gags and/or elaborate technical drafting skills replaced the ability to think or analyze the news. Fear of controversy led to boring cartoons that no longer attracted any attention or followings. To the idiot editors who were afraid to hire me or publish my cartoons back then because I criticized this trend and insisted on continuing to adhere to the principles of classical political cartooning that placed making a bold statement in a risk-taking way above kissing your asses: I TOLD YOU SO.
Political correctness has resulted in near-universal satirical illiteracy and a total breakdown of the trust that is needed between the artist and the audience in order for satire to work. Readers, especially younger readers, are on continuous 24-hour hair-trigger alert just waiting to find something to be offended by so they can bitch about their group being victimized. I recommend Camille Paglia for readings on this subject--any of her books are great. To get a clue about what clear, genuine, hard-hitting satire looks and sounds like, find Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles"--an uncensored version--and study it. "The Daily Show" and Colbert are not so much satire as they are sarcasm--a dumbed-down substitute for actual satire. All the risk is removed. (Wink, wink, know-what-I-mean, say-no-more, say-no-more?) Double entendre is key to satire. The fear of being called a sexist or a racist or a homophobe has obliterated satire and in the process has, ironically, rendered one of the most powerful weapons against those maladies and others completely impotent. The bully tactics or Stalinism of the believers in political correctness (many of whom, like my worst editor ever, Steve Perry of City Pages, pretend to disapprove of but hypocritically adhere to) invariably call for the firing of anyone who deploys satire that obviously intends to attack sexism, racism or homophobia but does so by depicting the sexists, racists or homophobes using the kinds of language, symbols or actions they actually do use. There is no room for discussion. The chilling effect on open, honest discourse by political correctness today is even worse than it was from McCarthyism in the 1950s, because it has become so "hip" to buy into it and because nobody has had the gonads to stand up to it like someone did to McCarthy.
The decline of interest in the news is related to the rise of New Media. Once we went from three large television networks and the dominance of daily newspapers to cable TV, people who wanted something to watch or read switched en masse from watching the evening news and reading papers to "amusing ourselves to death," as Neil Postman put it, watching nothing but dumbass shows like sports and entertainment. But it was largely the fault of the same reactionary editors and publishers mentioned above, whose sensibilities remained in the Dark Ages while other media moved along with the dominant culture. Shock jocks like Howard Stern and shows like Michael Moore's "TV Nation" were more in touch with the changes that were happening in mass culture. Editors kept insisting on enforcing a tone that was so outdated, the cartoons they selected for publication and the cartoonists they hired were positively quaint and the readership of cartoons died off with the rest of the paper.
Fear of litigation was not really that huge of an influence on the decline of the political cartoon, but it did contribute to a "chilling effect." Even after my former boss and First Amendment hero Larry Flynt specifically won the battle to allow satire to be published with little reason to fear lawsuits, editors and publishers were scared of their own shadows. Whether events like Gen. William Westmoreland's famous $120 million libel lawsuit against CBS television in the early-to-mid-1980s, which was settled out of court before it went to the jury, really frightened editors away from publishing biting satire as much as it seemed or was merely another excuse to avoid risking alienating advertisers and subscribers by publishing biting satire, it became a variable in the demise of political cartooning.
Another factor now contributing to the death of the political cartoon is the fear of the death of the cartoonists themselves--jihads and death threats by intolerant ideologues and those who would shoot doctors who perform abortions, as well as emotionally or psychologically unstable individuals who just happen to pick out public figures of any kind to target for assassination. (Some would argue that anyone who would commit murder is unstable.) Victor Navasky's book, Art of Controversy (2012), documents a number of attacks and assassinations of political cartoonists that were provoked by their cartoons. In the past decade, Danish cartoonists who depicted Mohammed in their cartoons have been receiving some protection from their government in the wake of threats that they will be killed because of their cartoons. After I drew a cartoon about the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s a bullet missed my head only because I happened to bend my neck forward to rub it when I was riding my regular bus home a few nights after the cartoon was published. When I did a cartoon of Andrea Dworkin dreaming she was head of the "Female Supremacist State" and ushering a line of naked, emaciated men and boys with shaved heads and numbers tattooed on their foreheads into the gas chambers, I received numerous death threats. Unlike the cartoonists who are willing to take risks like these to oppose intolerant targets, most of the contemporary practitioners of cartooning at large daily newspapers are basically cowards and opportunists who were hired in the first place because they had nothing to say and were very bland and mushy in the way that they said it, so are in little danger of being threatened physically or even verbally. However, as my late friend Mel Jass--a local television personality who hosted afternoon movies so never took any kind of a controversial stand on anything and was almost universally beloved--could attest from his own experiences, even they are still at some risk of being stalked or shot at by deranged people who would never have noticed them had they not been in the public eye because of the nature of their work.
Editors who are satirically illiterate, visually illiterate and humor-impaired have been holding back potentially great or at least good political cartoonists since time immemorium. Those who become editors, by nature, by neurophysiology, are generally the least capable of anyone to judge whether a cartoon is good or not. In order to become editors, they have to be too left-brained to have the sense of humor or visuality to recognize what will work best in a cartoon. Hustler magazine, when they hired me to do political cartoons, had a cartoon editor who was himself a cartoonist. This is the only sensible way to oversee or edit cartoons. Writers are simply not qualified. The best editors I worked with were the ones who exercised an absolute minimum of control, the ones who knew that they did not know. This factor was nothing new, but in combination with the others, hastened the demise of the art form.
Cartoonists who are not really cartoonists, but opportunistic illustrators who invaded the field and made cartoons so boring and irrelevant readers abandoned them in droves from the late 1970s on really put the nails in the coffin. After the super-stars of cartooning drove up the salaries and syndication made cartoonists like Charles Schulz among the richest people in the country, artists with great drawing skills but absolutely nothing to say flooded newspapers with applications to become editorial cartoonists. They were perfect for the editors who wanted nothing but inoffensive eye candy that did nothing more than reiterated the headlines with mildly creative visual metaphors. The legions of "wrists" dumbed down, Disneyfied and dealt the final death knell to political cartooning.
I will discuss each of these topics in more detail if there is interest expressed and especially if a lively debate ensues.... However, if this blog attracts as little attention as the political cartoons themselves, I may devote precious little time or effort to it despite my great concern and regard for the art form.
Meanwhile, I invite you to take a look at my political cartoon website, http://www.wagtoons.com/, which at the moment this is being written is badly in need of being updated. (It was last updated in about November of 2004!) Frankly, much as I want to do my part to help improve the status and practice of political cartooning, I don't want to spin my wheels doing so in a climate where it is totally futile. But I invite anyone who shares my interest to initiate some efforts here.
Text and Images Copyright 2010 by Minne HA! HA! Magazine, Inc. / http://www.kartoons.com/