ON WEDNESDAY evening at the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium, Ward Sutton spoke both as a cartoonist specifically and a Fourth Estate representative generally, seeking to summon the kind of battling journalistic spirit embodied by Herblock — the late legend for whom Sutton’s newly acquired trophy was named.
Herblock was committed to “a lifelong fight against abuses by the powerful,” Sutton said during the opening of his acceptance speech. “I share that passion.”
The sense of shared purpose was palpable. Many in the audience were members of the media, including the evening’s Herblock Lecture speaker, NPR reporter Scott Simon, as well as this year’s Herblock Prize finalist, freelance cartoonist Steve Brodner, and past Herblock Prize winner Matt Wuerker of Politico.
“I don’t think any mission could be more relevant or crucial,” Sutton said of journalism, “in an era we find ourselves now.”
In introducing Sutton, Marcela Brane of the Herblock Foundation said that the annual Herblock Prize reflects the organization’s efforts to continue “the courageous fight on behalf of Herblock.”
Sutton, a Boston Globe contributor who won this year for his Trump-skewering portfolio, salutes Herblock’s cartoon assaults on Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Yet if there’s one ever-present difference between then and now, Sutton said, it’s the pace of the breaking headlines and push notifications.
“The quaint old notion of a news cycle has now become a constant barrage,” said the artist, adding that “it’s like a fire hose some days.” And given that pace, “it’s more important than ever to have a voice of reason to help digest and understand what’s going on.”
To illustrate even the most benign challenges to press freedoms, Sutton — long based in New York — spoke of adapting to life in his new home of Fort Collins, Colo.
“I don’t own a printer,” the artist said, “so when it came time to enter the Herblock [contest], I had to email my cartoon files to the local OfficeMax.” Bear in mind, Sutton’s portfolio included full-color salvos against the White House, white nationalists, defenders of Confederate monuments, and men facing sexual-harassment allegations in the #MeToo era.
Sutton soon got a call from the retail printer. An employee had a few questions about the content of his cartoons. “Was I part of some organization with an agenda?” the artist was asked, explaining: “He wasn’t sure if company policy would allow him to print my cartoons.”
“I reassured him I was a professional cartoonist,” Sutton recalled. By the time Sutton got to the store, the employee told him store management had approved the print job citing just three words: “Freedom of speech.”
It’s reassuring, Sutton said slyly, “to know that OfficeMax stands for something.”
Sutton deployed that example, though, to set up the audience for what he views as serious threats to his industry and his nation.
The biggest story of 2017, Sutton said, was “fake news.” “Our country is so divided that we can’t even agree on which ‘fake news’ is actually fake,” he says.
In case Sutton’s rhetorical metaphors can prove too subtle, the cartoonist then spelled out what drives his editorial work these days.
“Today we’re living with a president who recklessly manipulates people and stokes mob mentality,” Sutton said. “He lies habitually and refuses to apologize for his words or actions. He would have us believe that this never admitting fault is some kind of strength.”
Then, Sutton brought everything back around to the role of a political cartoonist — be it Herblock in the 20th century or himself in the 21st century. With artwork and provocative humor, he said, “I want to be that voice that says: ‘Stop and think about what you’re doing.’
“I want to believe that spells that people fall under can be broken.”