Ethics Hero: Cartoonist Ted Rall


It is always courageous and exemplary when someone calls out his own profession for deficient ethical standards, and this is what political cartoonist Ted Rall has done on his blog. The topic: plagiarism in editorial cartoons, which is bad enough. Rall, however, makes strong case that the unethical practice flourishes because syndicates, editors, publications, honors committees and the professional associations tolerate it, and journalists don’t seem to care. He also blows the whistle on the practice known as self-plagiarism, where a cartoonist recycles his previous work as new. Rall writes,

At this writing, there is not only no consensus within the field that plagiarism should be a fatal offense, one that ends your career as an editorial cartoonist forever, but widespread agreement that self-plagiarism…is fine. One cartoonist, who has won the Pulitzer Prize twice and holds a tasty sinecure at a national newspaper, is so famous for repurposing thing the same cartoons – in this case, he usually redraws them rather than cutting and pasting them in Photoshop, but the effect is exactly the same – that we have learned to predict the sort of events that will prompt his reuse of the same old metaphoric images.

“…It isn’t as though some of us haven’t been trying to draw attention to these terrible practices. Every time the leading journalists who cover newspaper syndication and editorial cartooning have been contacted in the past about plagiarism and self-plagiarism, however, there has been little to no interest whatsoever in covering the story. Some of the excuses have absolutely been laughable, like the idea that they were cartoons that had been stolen years earlier, and therefore the story was no longer relevant, or that there is absolutely nothing wrong with self plagiarism because no one really expects original content anymore.

“It’s hard to know who to hate more: the cartoonists who put out this kind of hackwork, the old boys network of their colleagues who think it’s perfectly fine, or the editors who hire them and the prize committees who rewards them at the expense of people who do original work. It’s a lot like the Lance Armstrong scandal:  if you’re a cycler who doesn’t cheat, you really hate losing to people who do.”

An indispensable initiative, though certainly not the only one, in addressing the phenomenon that Rall rightly condemns is establishing a consensus within the profession that plagiarism is wrong and that it requires strong sanctions. The next step is a clear code of ethics, which editorial cartoonists do not currently have. The over-all objective is to change the culture of cartooning. For that to happen, strong, credible voices within the culture need to be heard, and those with credibility and respect must have the courage to take the lead. Rall has begun the process, and though there is long road to travel, he has performed a great service to his profession by taking the first step.


Pointer: Barry Deutsch

Facts: Rall

Graphic: Toonpool

34 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Cartoonist Ted Rall

  1. Mr. Marshall, with respect, this might be an ACT of ethical heroism, because plagiarism and self-plagiarism are in fact bad practices and should be called out, but I hesitate to call Ted Rall, who wrote an editorial cartoon mocking the death of Pat Tillman and then gave a half-hearted apology, mocked the mentally disabled in another, and depicted Condoleeza Rice in a third as being sent to “racial re-education camp,” a straight-up ethics hero. Not that the war in Afghanistan and the conduct of the soldiers there were perfect, and not that Dr.Rice is above criticism, but Ted used some pretty low tactics in all three of those examples, and they are typical for him. In other posts here you have placed the detestable Bill Maher in the “Ethics Hero: Even a Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day Division,” and I wonder if that might be appropriate here, given the context of Mr. Rall’s previous behavior. We none of us do what we do in a vacuum, and the messenger can affect the message. Thanks for listening.

    • You misunderstand the Hero distinction. It’s not a lifetime designation—I have “Ethics Hero Emeritus” for that. The Hero designation is for one particular ethical act, and Rall’s post qualifies. Richard Nixon was an Ethics Hero in 1960, when he refused to cause a constitutional crisis by demanding recounts in Illinois and Texas, where the voting was suspect. Bill Clinton, a miscreant if I ever saw one, has had his heroic moments. Sydney Charton was a selfish wretch until he let himself be executed to save an better man’s life. Are you saying he wasn’t a hero?

      Rall is a far left warrior in a field that deals in excess and exaggeration. I don’t know him well enough to bestow the ultimate denigration of comparing him to Maher. All I know is that in this case, he did a brave, ethical and important thing, and deserves to be praised.

      • Copying other writers, cartoonists, artists, and even your earlier self is such a widespread problem. I don’t think the specific art copied matters as much as that it should not be presented as new and your own. One site just calls it a plague. Being pro-Narn or pro-Klingon doesn’t matter in the issue of plagarism.

      • Jack,

        Thank you so much for mentioning me here and for helping to bring attention to the problem of plagiarism in cartooning, and for highlighting the importance of ethics and integrity in everyday life. I was just reading some comments about the Bill Day affair elsewhere online and was struck by people who excused his thievery by noting that it is harder than it used to be to make a living as a cartoonist.

        No one ever said doing the right thing was easy. The right thing is the right thing because it’s right.

    • This is a strange comment to read on a website about ethical behavior. Ethics require telling the truth, no?

      1. I never apologized for the Tillman cartoon, half-heartedly or otherwise. I have explained it. And I stand by it.

      2. I have apologized, sincerely and repeatedly, for the cartoon discussing Bush’s reelection that made a cloddish, inept and wrongheaded swipe at the mentally disabled. (It may be worth noting that leading advocates for the disabled not only accepted my apology, but encouraged media outlets not to punish me in any way.)

      3. The Condi Rice reference was one of a dozen frames in a long and involved cartoon, one that happens to still be friggin’ hilarious, and anyone who actually reads it – including the civil rights groups that right-wing bloggers contacted about it – will find no racism there.

      Ethics also require disclosing when one has an axe to grind. Steve-O, I am guessing, is a Republican/right-winger/conservative. How do I know? Because the sentence referencing those three cartoons is plucked essentially verbatim – dare I say plagiarized? – from zillions of right-wing blogs that have singled me out over the years – and which repeatedly plagiarize each other.

      I can be a jerk sometimes, and I would appreciate being criticized for my actual acts of jerkiness rather than falsely accused of, say, racism, by people who pretend to be disinterested but actually just dislike my politics.

  2. I had a student recently get in a lot of trouble for this. She took a short essay that was written in high school and turned it into a much larger report in college. Her best option is to transfer to a different school at this point, her GPA and her scholarship are gone. She didn’t understand that it is wrong because she knows journalists do this, she knows people turn their papers and dissertations into books, and she didn’t see how this was any different. Is it any different? Behavior that will destroy your college career can help you win a Pulitzer. Way to have standards, journalism.

  3. Complexity often makes ethical consistency difficult. My own opinion is that an artist has every right to republish his/her work, but it makes sense to include a note fully disclosing the original date and context if different.

    • If the audience and or employer has a reason to expect new and original material, self-plagiarism is a lie unless it is made clear that the material was used before. In employment or sponsorship situations, consent is required.

            • Whatever you might have been REFERRING to, your ethical logic, or more appropriately, unethical lack of it, would apply to other plagiarism as well. If I’ve never heard “Sweet Little Sixteen”, “Surfing USA” seems strikingly original. Which means what I wrote isn’t “BS” at all. It’s 100% true.

              • hey, it’s your blog. rationalize all you want. you’re still wrong. you allege a lack of logic on my part then judge it to be unethical then claim it applies elsewhere without knowing anything about any of my other opinions on the subject of plagiarism. if you’re going to keep forming harsh judgments of people you don’t know without concrete evidence, i’ll begin to wonder if you think you’re caesar’s wife — but i prefer not to be so self-righteous.

                • Well, that was incoherent! I can only judge your ethical reasoning based on what you write to me, my friend. And I repeat, “if i haven’t seen a particular piece before, what do i care if it’s a rerun?” is an alibi for all plagiarism. You had a chance to tell me how you distinguish your application of it—to self-plagiarism, you say—is distinguished from the application of it to any plagiarism. You posited a standards based solely on the appreciation of the audience. Rather than actual attempt a rebuttal, all you can do is issue this kind of “So’s your old man” response and start name-calling. Lame.

                  • now you add denial to rationalization. ‘rerun’ by definition does not include stealing someone else’s work. as for lame name-calling, what do you call judging my argument to be ‘unethical’?

                    • That wasn’t what I said. I was pointing out, correctly, that your rationalization of “what do I care” if it has been published before would also apply to plagiarism as well as self-plagiarism. It’s an unethical argument, because it makes the determining factor the consumer, rather than the one being harmed—the publication that is paying for original content and getting a “rerun”, and in the case of typical plagiarism, the original author whose work is being misappropriated. A misallocation of ethical considerations is unethical.

                      And if you want me to engage you regarding posts, you need to respond before a month has passed.

                    • MY rationalization? you omitted a key qualifying term when you quoted me, apparently to justify your invalid inference from the remark, then judged it unethical. and you continue to apply my statement to cases of misuse of other people’s work, which i stressed were not what i was talking about. further, i spoke only from my own point of view, not for or against a publication, and never claimed otherwise.

                      sorry i couldn’t respond sooner, but it’s not a whole month since your comment of 1/28.

                    • Your full quote was “that’s why i mentioned complexity. but if i haven’t seen a particular piece before, what do i care if it’s a rerun?” Exactly what “key qualifying term” did I omit?

                      You make no sense whatsoever. I have better things to do than argue with you—like, say, virtually anything.

  4. Wasn’t Matt Bors the one who actually did the work here, with Todd riding on the coattails like he did with the OWS movement?

    • What’s your problem? I haven’t monitored every communique from this quarter, nor could I. It’s an ethics issue, Rall raised it eloquently and prominently, and as far as this ethicist is concerned, he made me aware of the problem. He didn’t claim to be the first one in the profession to mention it, but he had no obligation to write about the issue either, just as I have no obligation to trace every blown whistle to the first breath.

      • You kind of do when highlighting someone for an award. Maybe when you had to go dig through microfiche newspaper records you could get away with accidentally missing who actually did what first, but as the content of this webpage available to any of the billions of people on Earth with internet access prove, it should have been a pretty easy task to find out who was actually responsible for bringing up the Bill Day plagiarism.

        • No, I really don’t. Highlighting one individual who takes an ethical stand does not in any way suggest that the stand is original, unique or the first. I didn’t say he was the first, I said he blew the whistle—true—and that he took the first step—also true. Other also may have taken that step. I don’t care if he was the first, third, or fifth. It doesn’t change the ethical nature of the act.

          You and your colleagues appear to be particularly childish, petty and weird. Talk about living up to stereotypes. How about getting on board for a Code of Ethics, rather than arguing over who was the first to point out how unethical your profession is?

          • Accusing other people of being childish as you get all huffy after people point out how wrong you are is pretty hilarious.
            Ted Rall had nothing to do with exposing Bill Day’s plagiarism (not that I have anything against Ted Rall personally, from what I’ve heard he’s actually a really nice guy), and only took his heroic stance AFTER several others had already done so. By giving HIM the award, you are appearing to credit him for taking the initiative instead of the others who actually did (which is why people are giving you flak, not that you are giving him credit for helping to spread the news). You should have given the award to whoever it was that broke the story (I think it was Bors?) or given the award to several people who were particularly instrumental in breaking the story and spreading awareness of it/taking constructive action to remedy the situation (if you think Rall was instrumental in this, fine).

            • No, I’m giving him the award because it was a good piece, it flagged the issue, it was obviously courageous (look at the crap he is taking for doing it) and when people who “break” such stories want to send me time-dated links to their writings, maybe they can then complain that I wrongly gave credit to someone they think is a Johnny-come-lately.

              Rall was instrumental in this matter because he informed ME, and I carried the message to a broader ethics audience. This was because another cartoonist sent me the link. I had barely heard of Ted Rall; I never heard of Day, or Bors. There are 49 categories and 12,163 tags on this blog, which accurately represents the range of issues I cover—and cartoon ethics came in at around 12,104. I was not “wrong,” I recognized a sincere effort for what it was, I had no obligation to do otherwise and could not have done so even if I wanted to, and yes, the sniping at Rall and the “why didn’t he get credit too?” in unprecedented here after literally 8 years of ethics heroes, probably over 200…yes, it’s childish and no, it’s not “huffy” for me to say so.

              A member of a profession that blows a whistle is admirable whether he is the first, 10th, or 100th to do it. Sorry I can’t give little prizes to everyone, but, you know, editorial cartoons are not the only things that matter here, unlike in Toon Town.

  5. A cartoonist board is having a field day ridiculing Ted Rall for accepting the Ethics Hero award from, they say, “some guy with a weird blog.” Based on what I’ve read from some of the visiting cartoonists what they write on their board, as well as Ted’s post, I guess the idea of “ethics” is weird to a lot of them. Even alien. What a scorpions nest. Barry, Ted—you have my sympathies. And I thought the scambloggers were nasty.

  6. Pingback: Do APPS encourage plagiarism? | A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation

  7. [NOTE: Mr. Nova is banned. He has continued to press the same silly point after being shown that it is both non-substantive and poor ethical logic, and in the deleted comment he resorted to the standard accusation that I am unqualified to pursue my profession. I occasionally choose, depending on my mood, to tolerate that cheap shot if the coorespondant is sufficiently clever, erudite, provocative, and constructive. This guy wasn’t and isn’t, and he picked the wrong day for it. ]

    On the contrary, you used flawed logic ( a plagiarized piece is just as much a “rerun” as a self-plagiarized piece ) and have tried to spin your way out of it. And I am not the arbiter of anyone’s ethics, nor a philosopher, but a commentator, a facilitator, a trainer, and blogger who is overly tolerant of people like you. But not endlessly.

    Questioning my qualifications to practice my profession is an obnoxious tactic that I endure or not, depending on my mood and how constructive and provocative the individual is doing it. You flunk on all counts. Bye. Don’t come back.


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