On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Jake Tapper stood on a Library of Congress stage and delivered an ode to the potency of political cartooning — especially in the face of cutbacks and blowback.
The CNN anchor described himself as a “failed cartoonist,” yet as this year’s Herblock Lecturer, he drew historical comparisons between the decades of Nixon and now to illustrate how visual commentary can deliver a gut punch. Tapper also said the greatest threat to the art and industry of political cartooning is not animus but indifference.
The event was the annual Herblock Prize ceremony, which celebrates excellence in editorial cartooning, and on hand to be saluted were Matt Davies of Newsday — the first two-time winner of the award — and runner-up Clay Jones. The Herblock Foundation presents a $15,000 cash prize to the winner and $5,000 to the finalist.
In his lecture, Tapper cited how Herblock — the legendary Washington Post cartoonist who coined “McCarthyism” and memorably skewered Watergate — once went unpublished in The Post. It was the 1952 presidential election, and the newspaper had endorsed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, while Herblock, an Adlai Stevenson supporter, had editorially gone hard after Ike. So the Herblock spot in The Post went dark for a few days — until the paper changed course after receiving criticism.
Tapper also cited how Herblock, whose career at The Post spanned more than a half-century, won four Pulitzer Prizes among his array of honors, yet the anchor speculated that it must have irked Herblock that he never made President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”
Tapper said we are in yet another era in which a president paints the media as an enemy of the people. “Again we’re in a sphere,” he said, “where the White House is helping a foreign dictator cover up for a nation, Saudi Arabia, that literally murdered a Washington Post journalist,” Jamal Khashoggi.
But, Tapper said, one group President Trump does not attack today — in contrast to Nixon — is that of political cartoonists.
Tapper then turned to Davies on the stage and said in sardonic apology: “I’m sorry.”
The anchor, who draws “State of the Cartoon” animations for his own CNN show, ticked off a handful of times that cartoonists have been courageous or undercut. He cited how cartoonists, in the early 1950s, combated McCarthyism when “too many people in this town were hiding underneath their desks, and people were losing their jobs.”
He mentioned how Rob Rogers lost his job last year — when the 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist was fired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after many of his anti-Trump cartoons were killed.
Tapper also digressed into a criticism of how the New York Times has internally handled controversy this week over an internationally syndicated cartoon by Portuguese artist António Moreira Antunes about Israel and the United States.
A crucial lesson in all this, Tapper said, was for civilians to maintain the same sense of engaged outrage that top political cartoonists unfailingly do — including, he said, Davies, Jones and Politico’s Matt Wuerker, who introduced Tapper on Thursday.
Davies, for his part, said he knows what it’s like to feel both supported and undervalued as a prominent visual commentator. He recounted how he won the Pulitzer Prize and the first Herblock Prize 15 years ago, while at the Journal News in New York. Six years later, though, Davies was laid off by the Gannett paper before Newsday editors eventually sought him out to offer a supportive perch, he said.
Davies spoke of the challenges of creating satire in news cycles driven by Trump’s Twitter feed. Cycles that once lasted days or weeks “have now been reduced to hours,” he said.
Davies, a London-born cartoonist who trained at the Savannah College of Art & Design, also thanked his parents for not insisting he get a “real job” after his family moved to the United States in the 1980s.
The audience laughed, celebrating a cartoonist whose job evolved into a three-decade commitment to daily ink-and-watercolor outrage.