Out of toon

Cartoonists have struggled for generations to walk the tightrope between fair and foul play.

cartoon uf protest 88 29 (photo credit: AP [file])
cartoon uf protest 88 29
(photo credit: AP [file])
It was easy to spot as more hate mail, another anonymous letter in a plain white envelope. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Clay Bennet ripped open the flap and peeked inside. Fortunately he didn't stick his hand in: a cartoon he had published the previous week had been sent back to him - after having been used as toilet paper. There was no accompanying letter, but the sender had "left his brains all over it," jokes Bennet. That was a decade ago, and neither before nor since has he heard of a cartoonist receiving excrement as a form of intimidation or metaphor. But in his 25 years in the industry, he and colleagues in the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, which he heads, regularly face complaints, insults and threats. "Of course the gravest danger is to be ignored," he says, laughing. "But hostility towards editorial cartoonists is ever present. It ebbs and flows depending on the issue." This is true around the world. In the nation largely considered the most liberal on press freedom, American cartoonists have always faced pressure to censor from the public, editors, publishers, advertisers and occasionally government, even as their power to insult and provoke is enshrined and protected in law. In Europe, freedom of speech laws are loaded with hazy caveats that leave a lot of power on the side of the state rather than the press. And in non-democratic countries, cartoonists face much more serious censorship and risks, including harassment, fines, jail and violence. Scores of conflicting laws, morals, opinions and tastes in every nation and in every era means that political cartoonists around the world have always been getting in trouble, trying to straddle unclear lines between fair and foul play. This is especially exaggerated now, as globalization enables the work of cartoonists working with one set of laws and ethics to be transmitted in seconds to far away places with different systems. The dangers and limitations cartoonists face have rarely been of public note - until now, as angry and violent protests roar across the Muslim world against publication in Denmark of editorial drawings caricaturing their sacred prophet. Underlying cartoon controversies, then and now, is the question: Do limitations of free speech help, or harm? POLITICAL CARTOONS have their roots in the art of caricature, which exaggerates the natural form to make a point. Cartoons seem to be the natural conclusion of the debate started in approximately the 16th century, when western artists asked if it was appropriate to include elements in art not found in nature or "real life." Artists from Leonardo Da Vinci and the Caracci Brothers to Brueghel, Bosch, Daumier and others are credited with early exaggerations and caricatures. But the 19th-century historian James Parton argued that caricature has ancient roots. "As much as the ancients differed from ourselves in other particulars, they clearly laughed at one another just as we do, for precisely the same reasons, and employed every art, device and imp of ridicule which is known to us," he wrote in his 1877 book, Caricature and Other Comic Art. The first political cartoon published in a newspaper is widely credited to America's Benjamin Franklin and The Pennsylvania Gazette, a newspaper he had bought in 1729 and in which he regularly published his political essays. In 1754 he drew, carved and published a picture of a snake cut in sections, representing the colonies. The caption read "Join or Die," a call to the colonies for unity in the French and Indian War. With printing press advances, political cartooning soon became a major voice of dissent on the editorial pages of most newspapers. But it was different than the work of their wordsmith colleagues - with cartoonists summing up ideas through images instead of words, their work was much more immediately accessible. Essays require concentration, scrutiny and a time-intensive commitment to details. Obviously, the reader must also be literate. Conversely, a cartoon cannot get into the history and point of view of its characters. It has to pack its punch into just a few pen strokes, which is one reason why it often appears to take a harder stand than an article. "With a column you've got hundreds of words to dig in, play, change and explore nuances," says Bennet. "But an editorial cartoon is like a brick through the window; there is little leeway to edit." In one of the most famous series of political cartoons in the 19th century, New York artist Thomas Nast took a hard stab at government corruption, when millions of taxpayer dollars disappeared in the 1870s from public funds. Adding his voice to the slew of stories reporting on the scandal, his drawings of politician William "Boss" Tweed as a corrupt "money bag" is cited as one reason Tweed fell from power and was eventually indicted. According to folklore, Tweed said of the series: "Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see pictures.'" European cartoonists in the late 18th and 19th centuries got away with lampooning their leaders - drawing Louis XVI as a pig, King Louis-Philippe with a pear as a head, and Napoleon III as a blue-collar worker. By World War II, the power of the art had been realized. In the 1930s and 40s, state-controlled cartoonists in Germany were portraying Jews as immoral, inhuman, blood-suckers, helping convince locals of Nazi ideology. A group of Polish artists drawing cartoons critical of Nazis, though, were summarily executed in 1944. Such incidents were pivotal: today, Europe looks at what happened to the Jews to defend free speech limitations, while America looks at what happened to cartoonists to defend unfettered speech. BUT EVERYONE has their limits. In the United States a few weeks ago, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a precedent-setting letter to The Washington Post criticizing a Tom Toles cartoon as "tasteless" and insensitive to wounded American servicemen. The artist and the newspaper defended the drawing of a multiple amputee with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the attending doctor telling the patient, "I am listing your condition as battle hardened." At the bottom of the caricature is a prescription that the patient be "stretched thin [because] we don't define that as torture." The cartoon is an attack on military policy and not on servicemen or amputees, they said, and is based on comments Rumsfeld made in January. He dismissed a Pentagon-sponsored study that the Iraq War risks "breaking" the army, saying soldiers were "battle hardened" and capable. Toles's right to criticize the secretary of defense is not in dispute, nor is the response of government officials to protest his work. But the exchange does raise topical questions, like whether peaceful protest can be intimidation and what, if any, responsibilities of gentility come with telling the truth as you see it. Within certain boundaries, American law allows the public to burn the American flag, the cross or the Jewish star - in other words, to attack its sacred symbols and those of its citizens. In a 1929 court case, US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes explained that this concept of free expression is not for those in agreement, but to protect "even the thought we hate." Still, Americans react with outrage when opinions in cartoons offend or disagree with them. And though peaceful protest is also a protected right, it can be used to pressure newspapers. Editorial page editors are said to love hate mail, as it serves as a badge of honor that their section is being read and successfully provoking debate on important issues. But now in difficult economic times, even as political cartoonists have showed their ability to garner world attention recently, many newspapers worry that readers might cancel their subscriptions or that advertisers will cancel their high-cost ads if cartoonists provoke rage. "Self censorship is huge," says prize-winning cartoonist Joel Pett. "Most of us who work for news organizations have very clear parameters of what they want us to do. We voluntarily work within them without pushing the envelope too hard because of self preservation." Indeed, the difficult situation facing newspapers in recent years has fueled a string of layoffs nationwide and dozens of leading dailies now use freelancers and syndicated work instead. According to estimates, the number of staff cartoonists in the US is about 85 today - less than half what it was 25 years ago. Since September 11th, there is also more pressure on cartoonists to tone down criticism of the government. "I was working for a Journal Registry Company-owned paper in 2005; I was told they didn't like cartoons against the Republican Party," said cartoonist and publisher Joe Szabo. "Publishers at papers that have staff cartoonists are not eager to rattle their readers," Pett added. "I work in the Bible Belt and I'm lucky I have a publisher that backs me up [when I take unpopular positions]. We cartoonists are a tribe of fairly insensitive people not averse to insulting someone's feelings, because if we were, we'd be paralyzed because someone is offended every day." "It is noble to address moral issues, understandable to be afraid of losing readers, but it is less defensible to cave in to advertisers," says Columbia journalism Prof. Victor Navasky, chair of Columbia Journalism Review, and editor emeritus of The Nation. "It's [the newspaper's] job to lead, not follow readers. We don't want to be bullied by government or corporate advertisers or boycotts. In the best possible situation, debate should lead to further debate." Most cartoonists are more liberal than their conservative publishers, writes Reason's on-line editor, Tim Cavanaugh: "Ultimately, freedom of the press belongs to the guy who owns the press." STILL, RELIGIOUS communities try to suppress cartoons they disagree with, usually with little luck. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette once wrote a column defending a drawing by Rob Rogers, who showed the Pope saying to Fidel Castro, "You're an aging leader of a beleaguered belief system who tolerates no dissent - what do you want from me?" Castro replied, "Pointers." The editor explained that the cartoon did not equate communism with Catholicism, and complained about an angry stream of protest letters. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights annual anti-Catholicism report is replete with lists of mocking imagery of the cross, Jesus, the Pope and priests found in editorial cartoons over the years, over such topical issues as rape, abortion and birth-control. The Muslim community has sent scores of letters to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in recent years protesting the nationally syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant for "portraying Arabs as hook-nosed, obese, beady eyed, greedy sheikhs residing in tents or palaces." After a cartoon published in 2005 showed wealthy Arab sheikhs feasting in a tent while ignoring the suffering of tsunami victims, the ADC complained of racism to the The San Francisco Chronicle where it was published and to Universal Press Syndicate. ADC wrote that the false and racist stereotypes were fueling further mistrust and bitterness towards the Muslim and Arab worlds. According to ADC, the response they received from UPS did not relate to racism charges, instead explaining that the cartoonist "frequently utilizes caricatures to make his points, as do most editorial cartoonists, who wish their opinion to be grasped quickly and, often, viscerally." The Jewish community also feels perennially attacked by cartoonists. In 2000, The Los Angeles Times was flooded by letters and canceled subscriptions after a Michael Ramirez drawing showed a Jew and Muslim praying side by side at a wall, presumably the Kotel, its stones spelling out the word "hate." The caption read: "Praying to their God." The reaction it caused underscores the critical ongoing debate between cartoonists and Jewish community members about the line between criticism of Israeli policy and Israelis and between being anti-Jewish, and the right to criticize Israel. In one instance the debate had a positive outcome. Commenting on Israel's separation fence in a 2003 cartoon in The Philadelphia Inquirer, cartoonist Tony Auth drew a Jewish star dividing up Palestinian families. The artist and his paper defended the right to criticize the fence as hurting Palestinians, but angry protests continued to build. Eventually, in an unusual precedent, the newspaper invited in community members to discuss the issue with the artist and editors, who listened to historical references and images that have hurt the Jews. The artist told the local Jewish press at the time that he had not changed his political opinions as a result, but was moved to be more sensitive to the Jewish star as a religious and not only a national symbol, and to be more careful about certain images, such as cross-hatching marks to draw fences, which Jews perceive as Holocaust references to barbed wire. The editors, too, were affected, and decided to run a series of related articles: "In the wake of the controversy and discussions, The Inquirer thought it worthwhile to offer a fuller airing of the issues of anti-Semitism, the distressing evidence of its revival, and the difficulties of distinguishing between legitimate criticism of Israel's policies and anti-Semitic rhetoric," they wrote in a follow-up editorial. IN OTHER democracies, political cartoonists, under local and international laws and covenants, are legally obliged to be more politically correct than Americans on most issues. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights grants the right to free expression, but specifically allows this right to be curtailed for the protection of the reputation of the individual. The United Nations Covenant of Civil and Human Rights, signed by many European (and other) nations, also guarantees freedom of expression in its article 19, and then in article 20 lists restrictions to this guarantee, "for respect of the rights or reputation of others; for the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals." Many citizens have been prosecuted for promoting racist or xenophobic ideas, including posting such ideas or images on the Internet. There are also local laws that vary widely from place to place, such as in Ireland, where criticizing drug laws constitutes a punishable public health threat. In New Zealand in 2003, following protests from the Jewish community, cartoonist Malcolm Evans was fired from the country's largest daily, The New Zealand Herald, shortly after being named cartoonist of the year. Though the newspaper has maintained it can't speak about the case for legal reasons, Evans says he was let go only after refusing to avoid cartoons critical of Israeli policies. The final cartoon that probably did it, he says, depicted a rundown neighborhood with the word "Apartheid" written on the wall, with a Jewish star in place of the second letter "a." Evans told The Jerusalem Post that he has long admired the contributions of world Jewry to humanity, and that disliking Israeli policies does not make him anti-Semitic. "I have never claimed to have any greater awareness of the truth, but have always tried, within the parameters of my understanding of an issue, to present a reasonable view in the hope that it might be the catalyst for further discussion and debate," he says. "I have always accepted that the editor had the right to reject a cartoon, but never the right to direct it." If one issue is even steamier than politics, it is sex. Though the US is considered more liberal on freedom of expression of ideas, cartoonists say the nation is more conservative than neighboring Europe when it comes to depicting the human body. During the sex scandals of former president Bill Clinton, for example, many of the mocking cartoons ended up in the garbage - and not for worry about how the president would take it, but how the readers would. "European cartoonists have greater liberty with imagery," says Bennet. The St. Petersburg Times, where Bennet worked before The Christian Science Monitor, rejected a drawing he did of Clinton in a t-shirt reading "I'm with stupid," and an arrow pointing down to his pants. Without commenting on that particular cartoon, fellow artist Szabo sees room for restraint. "I am not defending prudishness, but the media have to be a reflection of society," he says. "Their job is a public service and as such, they have a responsibility to adhere to the rules of decency." On the other hand, he says, the objects of cartoonists' ridicule are often interested less in preserving high ideals than in preserving their own pride. "And with this," he says, "we have arrived at what real censorship is. It's about the reaction to fear that political personages and establishments feel through the manifestation of powerful visual commentary by artistic poison pen men." Sometimes, though, knowing how far to push on political or religious issues is a matter of life and death. In 1992, a cartoon published in Tokyo humiliated a Japanese politician so much that he committed suicide. Shusuke Nomura was running for a seat in Parliament with his Wind Party, when the magazine Asahi published a cartoon with a single stroke missing from the word "wind," changing the meaning of the character to "lice." Nomura went to Asahi's headquarters, stood up in the middle of a meeting with executives, said the traditional Japanese pre-suicide words for honor, bowed in the direction of the Imperial Palace, and shot himself. Artists have also died: Over the years, controversial cartoonists in Turkey, Rangoon, Bosnia, India, Argentina and the West Bank have turned up dead. Sri Lanka cartoonist Sara Seneviratne told the Post that drawing political cartoons in his country "is so deadly that you might get killed any time. I was in exile many times, as many terrorist groups and even past governments have tried to kill me." As the world debates the role of government and self censorship, cartoonists living under authoritarian regimes try to avoid jail time, beatings, fines, and death, as they put their ideas into cartoons. "The biggest problem is that government culture tries to impose political correctness," says Szabo, who is writing a book on efforts to silence political cartoonists around the world. "This is a dicey situation. Once you start chipping away at freedom of expression, you don't know where to stop."