“In my mind, editorial cartoons are expendable,” Dabney, the regional publisher of the Morning News in Florence, S.C., and its affiliated publications, wrote in a column last week. “None of them are produced by our staff, and rarely do they depict a local issue.”
“For the foreseeable future,” he wrote, the paper will fill that opinion page space “with other content, better content.”
The stoppage was announced after the outlet apologized for running a syndicated Gary McCoy cartoon this month about Black Lives Matter protests and abortion that was decried as racist, sparking a “firestorm of emotion” among its insulted and angered audience, Dabney added. It was the latest in a series of controversies in recent weeks in which small papers apologized for publishing cartoons some readers called racist.
But what is lost when political cartoons are sacrificed completely to avoid conflict?
To be sure, these are challenging times for the publications. Cartoonists and other journalists contacted by The Washington Post paint the picture: Smaller papers generally have thinner staffs and fewer resources, which means they rely largely on relatively inexpensive syndicated cartoons, which are sometimes selected by a single editor. When they choose an inflammatory cartoon, they can especially feel the heat because they are closely tethered to tight communities.
Pandemic fallout has devastated the advertising revenue at already struggling outlets, while the Black Lives Matter protests and sense of cultural reckoning mean newspapers must respond as much as ever with tuned-in sensitivity to their readerships.
Into this environment come pointed cartoons that, because of their visual immediacy, can stir up passions more readily than long editorials.
This month, blowback to a Tom Stiglich cartoon mocking the “defund the police” movement — in which a darker-skinned assailant is robbing a lighter-skinned woman — resulted in executive resignations at small papers in Roxboro, N.C., and Washington, Mo., that ran the self-syndicated work. On June 10, the Seneca (S.C.) Journal apologized for a self-syndicated Al Goodwyn cartoon that satirized the “black community” as being in an unhealthy relationship with the Democratic Party.
Last month, some readers were inflamed by a self-syndicated Clay Jones cartoon that ran in the Daily Times in Maryville, Tenn., after the slaying of Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery. The cartoon depicted a jogging former president Barack Obama being trailed by President Trump and a car flying the Confederate flag. Jones told the Daily Times: “Basically, I’m saying that to some people, Obama’s crime is that he’s black.”
“Our intent was to provoke outrage that an innocent black jogger could be murdered in today’s America,” the Daily Times wrote, “and that our nation’s only African American president could be accused of a crime when so far no evidence has been presented.”
The Daily Times, unlike the Morning News, has not ceased publishing such political art. "We discussed this issue Thursday with our dozen-member readers advisory board. They all wanted us to keep our syndicated editorial cartoons but to show sensitivity,” the paper’s editor, J. Todd Foster, tells The Post.
Dabney, however, says it is a fraught part of the job, particularly in the current political climate. “My editor told me [last] week the biggest chore in his life the last two years has been picking the cartoon,” the publisher says. “He said there are rarely any he feels are worthy of publication in a paper that loves all of its readers.”
Dabney wrote in his column that he finds “very few” cartoons funny among his syndicated choices and that they are “more often divisive and heartless.”
“It seems like these days, every comic either hates Trump or hates someone else,” Dabney tells The Post. “If editorial cartoonists get in the habit of lifting people up instead of tearing people apart, then everyone will want them.”
Mike Peterson, who writes about comics for the Daily Cartoonist blog, is seeing a rise in Dabney’s sentiment.
“I think the idea that there should be a cartoon on the editorial page is well set,” says Peterson, who is the former editor of a small biweekly, the Franklin Journal in Farmington, Maine. “But the idea that you should never [tick] off anybody is gaining ground.”
Political cartoons have a long and storied history in journalism, but they still require steady editors willing and able to withstand inevitable controversy — and to understand how they misstepped after publishing a bad cartoon.
Without potent cartoons, some artists say, opinion pages become something less robust.
Matt Wuerker, the Politico cartoonist and past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, says some editors fear having “freewheeling opinions” on their editorial pages.
“Opinion pages in a diverse country shouldn’t be safe spaces,” Wuerker says. “I miss the ‘70s and ‘80s when opinion pages were exciting and full of raucous cartoons and caricatures.”
Jen Sorensen, creator of a weekly political strip, calls the use of cartoons employing racist tropes “editing failures," urging papers to learn from controversy rather than "eliminate an entire genre that’s still appreciated by many.”
Keith Knight, author of “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They? 20 Years of Police Brutality Cartoons,” says rather than apologize, editors “should stand by” their cartoon selections and, if necessary, “go down with the ship.”
Some cartoon selections also “may point to the fact that the newspaper could use some diversity on the staff and in the cartoons they choose from,” says Knight, a North Carolina-based creator whose Hulu series based on his cartooning life, titled “Woke,” is set for this fall. “Editors who do not look at the big picture are just as expendable as editorial cartoons.”
Small papers, cartoonists say, must not shrink from pointed opinions if they are to remain essential within their communities. Controversy is a cost of engagement.
Dabney, on the other hand, says he recently bristled when he read of a cartoonist taking pride in work that is prime social media fodder because of its divisiveness.
“As long as cartoonists have that mission,” Dabney says, “folks like me will be reluctant to divide our communities with their work.”