HOW SOON is it “acceptable” to politicize a national tragedy?
That question applies across the board to commentators of all stripes, whether it involves a deadly protest, domestic terror or a natural disaster. In the case of Hurricane Harvey’s toll in Texas before moving east, there was a distinct shift in editorial patterns by midweek.
From cable anchors to elected officials, this still-worsening tragedy rapidly became a staging area for making political points. Among editorial cartoonists, the first wave of “unity” cartoons — depicting Texans coming together despite any and all ideological differences — soon gave way to the truly “political” cartoons.
One of those was by Matt Wuerker, Politico’s Pulitzer-winning cartoonist, whose commentary upon what he views as the hypocrisy of Texas secessionists receiving federal rescue incurred a quick firestorm Wednesday. The backlash prompted Politico to remove a tweet of the cartoon, which remains on the outlet’s site.
On Wednesday afternoon, by way of explanation, Wuerker replied to Comic Riffs via statement:
“As a political cartoonist, I try to get people to think — to consider the ironies and subtleties of the world we live in. This cartoon went with an extreme example of anti-government types — Texas Secessionists — benefiting from the heroism of federal government rescuers,” Wuerker wrote via email, while noting mischaracterization of his artwork. “It of course was not aimed at Texans in general, any more than a cartoon about extremists marching in Charlottesville could be construed as a poke at all Virginians.
“My heart is with all the victims of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction,” he added, “and those risking their lives to save others.”
Wuerker was hardly alone in steering hard toward the political by Wednesday; that morning, I noted how such cartoonists as Nate Beeler, Rick McKee, Rob Rogers were framing Hurricane Harvey within the actions of, and effects upon, President Trump.
Rogers, of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, used hurricane rescue as visual metaphor to satirize Trump’s pardoning last week of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. He followed that up with a cartoon about Trump’s actions to ban transgender people from the military.
“Naturally, every tragedy has a different feel and deserves a different response. It becomes a personal choice,” Rogers said Wednesday. “I have no hard and fast rules … but normally I give a day or two of grace before turning to politics.”
After that “grace” period — in which Rogers draws cartoons reflecting a nation in mourning or highlighting heroic first responders — he will often then create what he calls “an actual political cartoon.”
“There are plenty of newspapers and cable TV stations doing … emotional coverage — the kind that pulls on the heart strings and makes you feel good about your fellow man,” Rogers said. “That is not the job of a political cartoonist.”
The editorial cartoonist’s true role, he emphasized, is to ask the “tough questions and point out the hypocrisy, even if it risks offending people.”
“That is especially true if the issue is politicized by our nation’s leaders,” the left-leaning Rogers says. “In the case of the tragic events in Houston, Trump decided to pardon a racist sheriff in the midst of the coming hurricane. … The second cartoon I drew was a reference to the transgender military ban that he also pushed while the storm was hitting Texas. When that happens, the grace period disappears.”
Similarly, Beeler, of the Columbus Dispatch, combined two news stories to make his point. He depicted Trump reassuring Hurricane Harvey victims that he had banned transgender disaster relief workers.
“Your gut should tell you the proper timing,” the right-leaning Beeler said Wednesday. “Editorial cartoonists can be rabble-rousers. We naturally tend to challenge convention and tiptoe along the edge of bad taste.
“Also, working in journalism can desensitize you to tragedy a bit, and that can lead to gut issues, so to speak,” he continued. “The type of tragedy goes a long way in determining the proper response.”
Beeler’s first Hurricane Harvey cartoon illustrated the heroism in Texas — a “heartstrings” cartoon, if you will — before he went political. It’s a reminder than the first wave of disaster cartoons might reflect the feel-good response of a service dog, but that true political cartoonists are trained “attack dogs.”
“The follow-up cartoons are drawn more with the head than the heart, and unfortunately, some readers might see that cartoon first instead of the one that emanates empathy,” Beeler said. “There are circumstances that can elicit an initial political response, such as when a politician swoops in to politicize the tragedy themselves, or when it’s on its face the misbegotten result of politics.
“Overall, we have to really cultivate our instincts and weigh all of the factors before putting pen to paper.”
McKee, of the Augusta Chronicle, often allows a “grace period” before politicizing a disaster — but that is no hard and fast policy.
“I did violate my own rule and drew this time pegged on a Washington Post analysis speculating on how Hurricane Harvey would affect Trump’s reelection chances in Texas,” the right-leaning McKee said Wednesday. “I thought that was way too soon, so I commented on how others in the media are already politicizing it.”
Beeler reiterates his role, which centers on creating work powerful enough to provoke.
“As the story evolves and we get more time to chew things over, new opinions will form,” the Ohio cartoonist said. “After all, it is our job to come up with opinions to draw.”