Time To Retire Editorial Cartoons, With Gratitude

The nuanced subtlety of Pulitzer Prize winning Herb Block. Translation: "Nixon's a crook." Brilliant!!!

All right, hear me out. I love cartoons. I used to aspire to being a cartoonist. I have good friends who are cartoonists, and I know there are cartoonists who are strong contributors to Ethics Alarms. But for many years it has appeared to me that editorial cartoons have become an increasingly archaic form of commentary, one that misinforms the public and contributes to the venom and lack of nuance in public discourse.

Cartoons, by their very nature, deal in caricature, exaggeration and extremes for metaphorical and humorous effect. The practical effect of this, however, is that the opinions expressed through cartoons are also “supported” in a manner that would be outrageous in a written opinion piece. I know: you can’t hold a cartoon to the same standard as an op-ed. Fine—then don’t put it on the editorial pages.

I began developing a healthy dislike of editorial cartoons when I moved to Washington, D.C., and had to read the daily, simple-minded biases of the “great” Herb Block, or Herblock, as he signed his work, in the Washington Post.  I couldn’t understand why his simple-minded and predictable hatred could keep winning awards. Every millionaire and business executive was a hugely obese man, smoking a cigar and trampling on regular Joes, who were invariably nice-looking, thin, harmless, and desperate. Republicans were drawn as Neanderthals or slack-jawed hicks; Richard Nixon was always portrayed as a fair approximation of Mr. Hyde. What wisdom did this contribute to public discourse? Herblock’s cartoons had all the fairness and insight of a student’s drawing of his teacher with horns and a tail.

Then Block died, and his replacement, Tom Toles, made me start appreciating Herblock, or at least recognizing that things could have been worse, because they now were. Toles has the political sophistication of a 7th grader. And based on the cartoons the Post gathers from around the nation every Saturday on its “Drawing Board” as the “best” of editorial cartooning, he is pretty much the norm, or perhaps even a cut above average. Toles too has won a Pulitzer Prize. President Obama’s Peace Prize was more deserved.

Today, I am looking at a typical Toles cartoon. The mild DC winter has climaxed in March coming in like the cutest lion cub you ever saw, with the result that the famous cherry trees are already blooming a month early. So Toles has drawn a chopped down cherry tree by a sign reading “Cherry Blossoms 2012”, while the tree itself is labelled, “More climate change evidence.” And there stands a Republican Elephant hiding an axe behind his back, looking at George Washington and saying “I cannot tell the truth.”

Har har. That’s unfair and misleading. One early spring proves nothing whatsoever; it isn’t “evidence” of  climate change. Lots of ignorant people think it is, though, so confirmation on the pages of the Washington Post is just what they are looking for, since they can’t possibly understand the actual science involved. Does Toles really believe this? Well, is he a liar or an idiot? Either way, his half-baked, junior high-level opinions don’t belong on prestigious newspaper pages that are supposed to be dedicated to provocative and responsible opinion.

Of course, Toles and the defenders of his art, particularly those who believe that any insult, exaggeration or misrepresentation at the expense of conservatives or Republicans is a patriotic act, will make the predictable, Jon Stewart/Rush Limbaugh argument. “This isn’t punditry! You can’t hold a cartoon to journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy, civility and responsibility! This is entertainment!

I have a two word rebuttal to that: comic pages.

Lewis Black, Chris Rock, and Stephen Colbert make funny and often perceptive political commentary—partisan, biased, but also miles and miles above the likes of Toles in wit and sophistication. They don’t pretend deserve the status of a stage on the editorial pages of the nation’s most influential newspapers. How can the Post justify giving a low-wattage hack like Toles that kind of exposure?

It’s irresponsible. Political cartooning peaked as a form of commentary about half a century ago, and has been declining ever since. Now it is dominated by hateful, unfunny and witless culture warriors who have as much in common with Jules Feiffer and Bill Mauldin as Mario Mendoza had in common with Hank Aaron. Are there exceptions? There are always exceptions. Pat Oliphant, Exhibit A, is brilliant, nuanced and clever; he’s also 77 years old, the last of the greats. If there are Oliphants out there, legitimate commentators who can make fair and honest observations with humor and a pen, great: what a wonderful alternative to the typical pundit rants. Put them on the editorial pages. The standard, however, should be content, not form. Political cartoons were once an efficient means of aiming a thousand words at non-readers and members of the public without the skills or education to grasp complex issues. They have become a vehicle for the unqualified and trivial-minded to acquire a platform they don’t deserve, to the detriment of the public and journalism.

[Reader and cartoonist Barry Deutsch does a good job rebutting my argument in this Comment of the Day.]

8 thoughts on “Time To Retire Editorial Cartoons, With Gratitude

  1. Is it editorial cartoons in general or just the Washington Post’s cartoons you don’t like? I know you have compared them to the 10 “best” cartoons of the week, but given that the Washington Post is choosing them, it is not surprising that they are of the same calibre as the Post’s own editorial cartoons.

    • I used to love editorial cartoons, and there are many that are brilliant; some have changed minds, hearts and souls. I think the art form has declined into cheap gags and simple-minded insults with clarification, wit and humor being so rare now that I hardly bother looking any more. But I think Barry’s rebuttal to my post—the Comment of the Day…is persuasive.

  2. I read the Cagle cartoon pages for a while, but I stopped after the 2008 election because it just got so acrid- every time I go back I stop before even making it through ten cartoons because there’s so much crap- my middle-school brother could be more insightful if I really prodded him.

  3. Oh, how could I possibly resist this thread?

    1) At his best, Tom Toles is a wonderful cartoonist, elegant and with an incredibly distinctive style. But he hasn’t been at his best for years. The particular cartoon you’re talking about — which can be seen here, if anyone’s curious — is an embarrassment.

    The problem with that Toles cartoon isn’t that it takes a side, or that it paints with a broad brush; many good cartoons do both those things. The problem is, it’s painfully stupid.

    2) There are good political cartoonists doing interesting work, but they’re mostly not found in mainstream newspapers.

    3) Even the best political cartoonists tend to produce more mediocre than great cartoons.

    4) It’s a very, very rare reader who can recognize the artistic merit of a political cartoon that they strongly disagree with politically.

    5) The economic base has fallen out from under political cartooning; every year, fewer and fewer newspapers support a staff cartoonist, and those that remain are seeing their incomes and outlets shrinking. And no one’s yet found a business model for political cartooning to thrive on the web.

    As a result, the most talented new cartoonists usually aren’t going into political cartooning, because they want to be able to eat and pay rent.

    6) Some of the most interesting political cartoonists have gone so far away from traditional political cartooning that no one even recognizes what they’re doing as political cartooning. See, for instance, Joe Sacco, who does journalism in comics form; his second book on Palestine, “Footnotes In Gaza,” is one of the best books about life in Gaza anyone’s done, in prose or comics.

  4. I kinda liked Herblock… I read his autobiography when I got it for a Christmas present

    I drew cartoons while I was in school, up till college, and I tried to avoid embodying the terrible cartoons I was already seeing. I hope that I did well, but there is ONE cartoon I am still proud of to this day, because it was exactly what I was trying to get across. I’ll post it here, and I hope it’s an example of a perfectly fair political cartoon.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly about Toles. Not once has one of his cartoons seemed funny or apropos. Our local unfunny hack is Englehart in the Hartford Courant. His sense of humor is about as sophisticated as Toles, and his artistic talent is like a 4th grader.

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