JACK OHMAN wasn’t just surprised by his satirical target’s response. He was stunned.
“Not just by the massive response,” Ohman tells Comic Riffs, “but to the willful misinterpretation of the cartoon.”
That willful misinterpretation, the Sacramento Bee journalist says, was by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who in the cartoon (published last Thursday) is depicted as saying ”...Business is booming in Texas!” before a banner that reads: “Low Tax! Low Regs!” In the cartoon’s second “payoff” panel, Ohman renders the recent explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Tex., that killed at least 15 people.
“Gov. Perry was being criticized in Texas and elsewhere for the Texas regulatory climate,” Ohman tells us Monday, “and he found a way to change the conversation in the media cycle.”
“I have never seen anything like this in my 35-year career,” Ohman notes. “Not just in reaction to my work, but to anyone else’s.
A day after the cartoon ran in the Bee, the paper published a Letter to the Editor from Perry, who demanded an apology. The letter read:
“It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon. While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.
“Additionally, publishing this on the very day our state and nation paused to honor and mourn those who died only compounds the pain and suffering of the many Texans who lost family and friends in this disaster. The Bee owes the community of West, Texas, an immediate apology for your detestable attempt at satire.”
“They wanted to divert attention from policies that may have helped the explosion to occur,” Ohman, a 2012 Pulitzer finalist and 2013 Herblock Prize finalist, tells Comic Riffs. “That’s what the cartoon was about, and they know it. This wasn’t about my cartoon.”
In replying to Perry’s letter shortly after, the Bee’s editorial page editor, Stuart Leavenworth, echoed Ohman’s sentiment, publishing this response:
“It is unfortunate that Gov. Perry, and some on the blogosphere, [has] attempted to interpret the cartoon as being disrespectful of the victims of this tragedy. As Ohman has made clear on his blog, he has complete empathy for the victims and people living by the plant. What he finds offensive is a governor who would gamble with the lives of families by not pushing for the strongest safety regulations. Perry’s letter is an attempt to distract people from that message.”
Ohman tells Comic Riffs: “My editors and the publisher of The Bee could not be stronger in their support.”
In defending his cartoon on his Bee blog, Ohman pointed out, in part:
“The Texas chemical plant had not been inspected by the state of Texas since 2006. That’s seven years ago. You may have read in the news that Gov. Perry, during his business recruiting trips to California and Illinois, generally described his state as free from high taxes and burdensome regulation. One of the burdensome regulations he neglected to mention was the fact that his state hadn’t really gotten around to checking out that fertilizer plant. ...
“Gov. Perry’s name and the explosion have been linked for several news cycles. I didn’t just make this all up. It’s out there. There is a rather stunning report about all this on ProPublica, the investigative news website. I invite you to read it.”
Texas’s lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, reportedly urged that the Bee fire Ohman. According to Fox News, Dewhurst said: “I think it’s reprehensible for a member of the media to sit in safety and mock such a profound tragedy regardless of any `point’ he is trying to make.”
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists — of which Ohman is a member — supported Ohman’s “powerful cartoon” and decried Perry’s and Dewhurst’s actions as “intimidation.” The industry group’s statement said, in part:
“The Ohman cartoon represents the finest traditions of both American political cartooning and our freedom of the press. On the other hand the Texas governor’s response demanding a retraction and an apology, represents the worst impulses of those who have no respect for our most basic and fundamental right to free speech. ...
“The attempt to intimidate a journalist for being critical of the government ... is what should be condemned. This sort of intimidation of journalists is, at its root, just plain un-American.”
Ohman appreciated the support of his colleagues. “I was very moved by the AAEC statement,” he says.
The AAEC’s president, Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker, shared the group’s opinion personally, as well.
“The attempt to intimidate a journalist for being critical of the government, particularly the call on the part of the Texas lieutenant governor to have [Ohman] lose his job, is the sort of thing you see in banana republics, and has no place in the United States,” says the Pulitzer-winning Wuerker, who is also a board member of the Cartoon Rights Network, which deals with rights’ issues overseas.
“We’re lucky that 25 years ago, the Hustler v. Falwell decision by the U.S. Supreme Court closed the door to the sort of onerous lawsuits [that] leaders in places like South Africa and Ecuador use to intimidate cartoonists they’d like to shut up,” Wuerker tells Comic Riffs. “That legal precedent is a very thin line between our own remarkable blessings of an unfettered and free press, and those countries where journalists get regularly bullied by their governments.”
Wuerker noted that in China, he believes, a cartoonist expressing Ohman’s opinion on this issue would be hailed as a hero.
“It’s the job of political cartoonists to be provocative and take on tough issues,” Wuerker adds. “It’s not the job of governors and others to try and shut them up.”
Here’s Comic Riffs’s full Q&A with Ohman:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Did you anticipate the strong reaction from Perry’s camp?
JACK OHMAN: Absolutely not. I was stunned. Not just by the massive response, but to the willful misinterpretation of the cartoon. Gov. Perry was being criticized in Texas and elsewhere for the Texas regulatory climate, and he found a way to change the conversation in the media cycle.
Cartoonists frequently juxtapose a tragic situation with a politician’s own words and policies. We live in a communications culture where a meme can be manufactured, exponentially amplified by social media, and then picked up by the mainstream media. This is what happened here. They wanted to divert attention from policies that may have helped the explosion to occur. That’s what the cartoon was about, and they know it. This wasn’t about my cartoon.
MC: What sort of reaction are getting from readers — be they in Sacramento, Texas or all points in between?
JO: After the initial blow-up from the conservative blogosphere, the reactions I’ve read have been more way more positive than negative.
[Update: Here’s one Letter to the Editor that the Bee published Monday: “Cartoon went too far...”]
MC: Does this crack your top-10 over the years as the Strongest Reaction From A Public Official?
JO: Not only does it crack my top-10, I have never seen anything like this in my 35-year career. Not just in reaction to my work, but to anyone else’s. I would exclude the Danish cartoonist. I think the fact that there is currently a very strong California/Texas feud going on, instigated by Gov. Perry, has a lot to do with it. It’s just politics.
[Note: Perry reportedly has traveled to California as part of an effort to lure jobs to Texas.]
MC: Perry demanded an apology from The Bee. ... Do you know [whether] the paper plans to [apologize]?
JO: The Bee responded on Saturday. There was no apology in that statement.
MC: Do you feel supported by your colleagues at The Bee, and in the industry?
JO: Absolutely. I was very moved by the AAEC statement, and my editors and the publisher of The Bee could not be stronger in their support.