ONE OF MY FAVORITE STATEMENTS I ever coined was: “Cheating on a quiz show — it’s like plagiarizing a comic strip.”
What’s that you say? That declaration rings eerily familiar. You heard it someplace else first? Well, that can’t be. And even if you did, why surely it’s just a coinci--
Okay, all right, I acknowledge. That line is uttered by the inimitable late, great actor Paul Scofield in Robert Redford’s highly watchable ‘90s film “Quiz Show” (based on the real-life ‘50s scandal over TV games that weren’t exactly on the up-and-up). But I could argue that I wrote the line independently — as separate “original content” — based on one consistently successful out clause:
I’m “just” a cartoonist.
And believe me: That’s a protection born of public apathy that I wish weren’t so near bulletproof.
Comic Riffs wrote of the plight of visual plagiarism six weeks ago, in the wake of Oklahoma cartoonist David Simpson’s serial “lightbox” theft of classic Jeff MacNelly cartoons. For Simpson — who soon announced he was “retiring from the editorial cartooning business” — it was the second time in six years that he lost a newspaper job after being accused of plagiarism.
The debate over cartoon plagiarism reared its head-lines again this week, when Comic Riffs and other outlets reported on the striking similarity between Monday’s Jeff Stahler editorial cartoon in the Columbus Dispatch and a 2009 New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress. (Both cartoonists told Comic Riffs they had no comment on the matter.) It was the second time in seven months that Stahler had been accused of plagiarism.
[Update: On Saturday, Poynter’s Steve Myers reported that Stahler has resigned.]
As the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists reportedly weighs whether it needs to respond to visual plagiarism with new ethics guidelines, Comic Riffs is consistently struck by one gaping disparity: Why is plagiarism treated so much less seriously within journalistic circles if the case has a word balloon or inked caption attached to it?
There is, all too often, a yawning chasm between how the public responds to plagiarism involving a reported story of text and theft of text or image with a cartoon. When it comes to the latter, “yawning” is too frequently the operative word for reader reaction.
As commenter “tkavanag” wrote beneath Comic Riffs’s Stahler blogpost: “So he stole a punch line. Tell that to Henny Youngman. All comedians/comics do it. It’s whether the delivery -- the art -- is orioginal [SIC]: that’s what should matter.”
The commenter, especially within the context of the “Quiz Show” line, gets precisely at the rub. Is an editorial cartoonist foremost a journalist — or a comedian?
I would hope that’s a rhetorical question, but for many readers, apparently, it is not. Which prompts the question: If you are a comedic journalist, then, are you absolved if you blatantly steal jokes? What if, hypothetically, Gene Weingarten were to lift two or three paragraphs from his ol’ Tropic hire, Dave Barry — without attribution or other acknowledgment, passing the text off as his own? (Or vice versa, if you prefer a Barry-on-Weingarten crime, to play fair even in a hypothetical.) Would that not be plagiarism because it’s all in the name of comedy?
Or what if instead, again hypothetically (can’t be too careful in an era of shoddy bloggers), those paragraphs were rendered inside a cartoon balloon by Weingarten illustrator Eric Shansby — again without proper attribution or acknowledgment? Do we all just laugh it off because it’s in the service of laughter?
Those might seem like absurd examples, but they are to highlight a larger point: When it comes to cartoon plagiarism, where do we draw the line? Especially when some readers practically refuse to draw it at all.
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All this is said, of course, with acknowledgment to the specific and curious realities of “joke-driven” journalism. What we’re talking about here is not many creators arriving at the same ideas naturally. (I’ve seen late-night comics seemingly quote my topical jokes within a day or three of them appearing in national newspapers or in online syndication; when it’s just a spoken joke, you learn to chock it up to coincidence, if not ot inadvertent filching, and move along.)
As Amy Lago, the Washington Post Writers Group’s comic editor, says: “Over the 20-plus years I’ve been editing comics, I’ve uttered the saying ‘Great minds think alike’ more times than I can count.”
And as Politico cartoonist and AAEC President-elect Matt Wuerker tells Comic Riffs; “There’s a different question that gets mixed into this whole mess that’s about ideas that are similar because they’re so obvious that a number of cartoonists do them. That’s very different than plagiarism.”
This is also not to suggest that bands of political cartoonists are committing plagiarism with reckless abandon and feckless frequency. “You’d think the way some people are taking these recent incidents that political cartoonists are a bunch of pickpockets and counterfeits,” Wuerker tells us. “We’re not that bad a bunch — really.”
“I’ve been at this for 30-plus years and have only heard of a half-dozen cases of naked plagiarism.”
Pulitzer-winning political animator Mark Fiore thinks that some cartoons — rather than “naked plagiarism” — are cases tinted with shades of gray.
“I think plagiarism is overly tolerated,” Fiore tells Comic Riffs, “but it is also harder to prove than in other forms of journalism since cartoons so often veer into the ‘homage’ and ‘tip-of-the-pen’ territory.”
But when such cases do arise, Portland-based syndicated editorial cartoonist Matt Bors believes they need to be dealt with seriously among cartoonists and within journalism.
“That a few artists ... have regularly swiped from people has been open knowledge in the cartooning world for years, says Bors, who emphasizes to Comic Riffs: “But at some point, you have to admit that some artists have far too many ‘coincidences ‘ to write off.”
“Many of my peers think these matters should be handled behind the scenes, as it apparently embarrassing to have them aired in public,” Bors tells Comic Riffs. “I guess you could say they take the Penn State approach to plagiarism.”
And what of the public’s reaction to plagiarism? There are umbrage and outrage when a news reporter commits plagiarism — as well as that other cardinal sin of journalism: fabrication). Reporting must be original or attributed, and sourcing must strive to be transparent. Most of us learn that in high school and college journalism classes. (Of course, in my other editorial realm, these are lessons I never heard in an art class. Nor would I expect to — you are taught about shading the scene, not shading the truth.)
But do many readers too readily take a Penn State approach to visual plagiarism? It’s intriguing to think: If Jayson Blair, say, had been a political cartoonist instead of a plagiarizing and fabricating reporter, might he still be happily toiling away from an entrenched newsroom perch in a fog of public apathy?
And as for stated ethics guidelines, sometimes you scratch your head and think: Come on, when it comes to theft, we all know right from wrong.
“This seems clear enough to everyone already, “ Wuerker tells Comic Riffs. ”I think this falls clearly in the category of common sense. It’s not complicated.
“Most of us learned this in the first grade. I learned it from Mrs. Johnson in elementary school. When my eyes drifted over to Wade Reynolds’s desk, she rapped me on the back of my head and pointed two fingers at her stern eyeballs and said: ‘Stick to your own work!’
Copying the work of others is a no-no.”