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