Many thin-skinned dictators jail the newspaper cartoonists who mock them, but in the past few weeks some U.S. newspapers have done the next best thing and eliminated those pesky troublemakers from their pages.
After publishing an ill-advised cartoon in its international edition in May that was broadly decried as anti-Semitic, The New York Times panicked. After apologizing, it abandoned journalistic tradition last week when it announced that starting next month it will discontinue the use of syndicated editorial cartoons. Soon after, the editors informed cartoonists Patrick Chappate and Heng Kim Song that their contracted services were no longer required.
The Times was only a tepid supporter of the art of political cartooning, but at least it deigned to give the form a nod in its international edition. Its former Sunday Week in Review section phased out a wildly popular feature which was a roundup of the work of editorial cartoonists from around the nation, setting in motion an inexorable slide toward last week’s no-cartoons edict.
The commotion over the Times’ decision has overshadowed a similar recent blow to the craft. GateHouse Media cut loose political cartoonists from its chain of 156 daily newspapers in what appears to be a reflexive response to another controversial cartoon — which contained an insulting visual gag at the expense of transgender people. Terminated were staff cartoonists Nate Beeler at The Columbus Dispatch, Rick McKee of The Augusta Chronicle, and Mark Streeter of the Savannah Morning News. The chain’s freelance cartoonists were simultaneously dismissed as well, including Long Island Business News’ Matt Bodkin, who contributes a weekly cartoon Newsday publishes on Saturday.
There is a feeble dissonance about these newspapers — which would probably editorialize against the unfairness of collective punishment. Instead they deprive readers of a unique form of commentary because of just one bad drawing that caused a furor.
I’ve heard the argument that these dismissals are dull, revenue-based actions. I may be accused of being naive, but that’s an argument I find unconvincing. If money and audience eyeballs are the issue, then the outcry over a poorly considered cartoon beautifully illustrates the massive levels of attention cartoonists and their work generate. And attention in this business is good.
But I am biased. I like cartoons, even the ones with which I vehemently disagree. Readers don’t need to be protected. This removal of a raucous genre leads inevitably to the uncomfortable question: What else are we being protected from?
Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Davies is Newsday’s editorial cartoonist.