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Cartoonist suspended for drawing campaign cartoons (UPDATED)

Argus-Courier freelance editorial cartoonist Steve Rustad has been suspended for allegedly drawing cartoons that appeared in campaign ads opposing Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt in the last election. The artwork was unsigned, but readers pointed out the similarities in drawing styles.

The Argus-Courier, like The Press Democrat, is owned by the New York Times Co. Both have ethics policies forbidding involvement in political or business activities that create a real or apparent conflict of interest for the newspaper. Those policies, which are included in standard contracts signed by freelancers, also prohibit freelancers from accepting assignments from current or potential news sources.

Burns said he was not aware of Rustad’s role in the artwork until a reader called his office a day or two after the election. Burns said he called Rustad on Monday and the cartoonist acknowledged he was paid to create the comic book-style drawings used in the mailers.

Rustad told Burns that he was unaware of the limits on freelancers, the publisher said.

The paper’s editor plans on having a “serious conversation” with Rustad and hopes to bring him back.

UPDATE: Apparently Steve can’t talk about the issue, but his wife, Colleen, can. She’s posted her response over on Drawn and Quartered:

And why was he suspended for drawing cartoons consistent with the position of the newspaper? Steve draws the editorial cartoons based on the subject and direction that the Argus editorial staff gives him. He is not drawing cartoons that promote his own agenda. The Argus endorsed Rabbitt, yet doing work on the independent expenditure committee supporting Rabbitt gets him suspended. It would make more sense if he got suspended for working at cross purposes to the newspaper.

Community Comments

#1 Jeremy Nell
November/15/2010
@ 9:29 am

This is bureaucratic nonsense.

Firstly, he didn’t sign it. That, in itself, should suggest that he isn’t looking for ownership / recognition.

Secondly, why can’t he be allowed to make money, despite the “cause”?

That said, if he signed a contract explicitly prohibiting such actions, then he is in the wrong and should face the consequences for signing such a terrible contract..

#2 Ted Rall
November/15/2010
@ 9:50 am

The Times’ ombudsman addressed the issue of freelancer ethics a while back. Some freelance writers had apparently accepted junkets.

Freelancing is to employment as a one-night stand is to marriage. If newspapers want to control what you do outside work, they ought to marry you–i.e., pay you a full-time salary and benefits. Otherwise, they ought not to stand in the way of “dating”–or making a living elsewhere.

#3 Rob Tracy
November/15/2010
@ 10:11 am

I agree with Ted.

#4 Ted Dawson
November/15/2010
@ 10:29 am

Petaluma?

http://genevaanderson.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/4-22-1968-small.jpg

#5 August J. Pollak
November/15/2010
@ 10:35 am

Is the New York Times Company seriously suggesting that they don’t have freelancers who also have direct political campaigning views? They publish editorials from active politicians every week.

#6 Derf Backderf
November/15/2010
@ 11:36 am

We’ll be seeing more and more of this as media companies install the new plantation-system, where everyone, except management, is freelance or work-for-hire. The bigshot contributors will still be able to do what they want. Everyone else… including cartoonists, of course… is screwed.

#7 Derf Backderf
November/15/2010
@ 11:36 am

We’ll be seeing more and more of this as media companies install the new plantation system, where everyone, except management, is freelance or work-for-hire. The bigshot contributors will still be able to do what they want. Everyone else… including cartoonists, of course… is screwed.

#8 Clay Jones
November/15/2010
@ 11:58 am

Does nobody stand up for ethics? You’re not supposed to be paid off by the people you’re covering. Do you not get that?

As a freelancer your credibility is a commodity so you shouldn’t sell it.
It’s not unfair for newspapers to expect freelancers to abide by their ethics policy. Whining about “having” to uphold ethics is unprofessional and a bit immature. If you practice good ethics then you’re not really going to have a problem with an employer’s policy.

Cartoonists want more respect among fellow journalists, then we cry how we have to abide by an ethics policy?

Ted, nice analogy about a one night stand. You’re good at putting your position into words. But maybe nobody wants a one night stand with a herpes laden ho’ bag.

#9 Ted Rall
November/15/2010
@ 1:14 pm

@Clay: Touché on the STD reference.

Personally, I shy away from doing paid political work for candidates. But I have a really hard time telling other artists that, because they get $200 from the New York Times every now and then, they ought to refuse to draw a political ad.

Besides, every publishing outlet has ethical problems. The New York Times, for example, is deep in the pockets of giant corporations. Its relationship with the CIA is unwholesome as well.

Why is it that tiny individuals always have to be held to higher standards than the rich and powerful?

#10 dan reynolds
November/15/2010
@ 1:18 pm

I agree with Ted. Cats and dogs are now living with each other. The apocalyse is nigh.

Moreover, whatever happened to newspapers reporting the news and not being in bed with anyone? I guess that ended with the Boston News-Letter.

#11 dan reynolds
November/15/2010
@ 1:20 pm

My agreement with Ted is in reference to his statement

Freelancing is to employment as a one-night stand is to marriage. If newspapers want to control what you do outside work, they ought to marry you?i.e., pay you a full-time salary and benefits. Otherwise, they ought not to stand in the way of ?dating??or making a living elsewhere.

#12 Derf Backderf
November/15/2010
@ 1:34 pm

Ethics are fine and dandy when you’re making $75,000 a year to be ethical.

I’ve never done any work like this here, and probably wouldn’t, but I’m not going to fault the guy for doing an unsigned freelance job.
The old standards no longer apply. FoxNews and Huffpo and, yes, NYTimes Inc. have seen to that.

How many editorial page editors have slid into high-paying jobs as political operatives or corporate flaks and then slid right back into newsrooms a few years later? No one seems to have a problem with that.

#13 Matt Bors
November/15/2010
@ 2:21 pm

“Freelancing is to employment as a one-night stand is to marriage.”

One is fun. The other ends with being kicked to the curb years after you’ve grown to hate it. Employment and marriage often provide health insurance though.

#14 Mike Peterson
November/15/2010
@ 2:54 pm

This is not an ethics problem. It’s a combination of math and geography.

The geography part is this: My main client, the one who pays the rent and buys the groceries, is 2,000 miles away. Thanks to a cell phone and a laptop, my personal geography is largely irrelevant these days.

And the math part is this: I look at what the client is paying, and see if it’s worth doing what the client wants me to do. I evaluate EVERY job that way. That’s how freelancing works, and that’s how freelancing has always worked.

If the client wants me to paint my butt blue, stand on one leg and wave a chicken over my head, well, let me have another look at the size of that check. Because, thanks to laptops and cell phones, there is even less reason these days to take a load of cr@p from a client — In fact, there’s only one: money.

And that’s a simple math problem.

#15 Rich Diesslin
November/15/2010
@ 2:57 pm

A thread with what appears to be … wait for it … a consensus! Wow. Who’d a thunk it!

#16 Mike Lester
November/15/2010
@ 4:12 pm

“Steve draws the editorial cartoons based on the subject and direction that the Argus editorial staff gives him. He is not drawing cartoons that promote his own agenda.”

Then, sadly, he’s not an editorial cartoonist. He’s an editorial “illustrator”.

#17 Paul Fell
November/15/2010
@ 8:21 pm

Mike’s right, and is correct to point that out, but I gave up on pointing fingers on those things long ago.

As a lot of you remember, I got my butt fired from my longtime freelance editorial cartooning gig with the Lincoln Journal Star, not for making political campaign contributions (even though I was a freelancer, not a regular staffer at the Lincoln Journal Star), but for making intemperate online remarks about how I felt about their presuming to own and control everything I did outside of my work for them.

The whole situation on these campaign cartoons is pretty unclear as of this writing. Let’s see what additional info. comes along before we all pass judgement.

I do political stuff on occasion as a freelancer, but it has to be for a client whose cause I agree with. If that hurts the “ethical sensibilities” of the local paper, I guess that I won’t be asked to work for them again any time soon.

Finally, someone commented that Rustad left his signature off those offending cartoons, as though that makes everything all right. Steve has been drawing for the Petaluma paper for so long that his work is easily recognizable with or without the signature. Myself, I couldn’t work for someone who insisted on telling me what to draw for the editorial page, but if it works for him in this economy, who are we to be critical?

#18 Dave Stephens
November/16/2010
@ 12:15 am

Oh My God, I actually agree with Ted Rall!

Wow. I live in a world where anything can happen.

#19 John Cole
November/16/2010
@ 8:11 am

The thumbs-up/down feature isn’t working this morning for some reason. So, two big thumbs-up for Ted.

@August: Pols generally receive no compensation for their op-ed pieces, so the analogy doesn’t quite work.

#20 Mike Lester
November/16/2010
@ 9:08 am

I don’t want to kick Steve while he’s down, but this is pretty basic stuff for the younger cartoonist(s) tuning it: Common business practice would have dictated he run it by his paper first. Then we could get back to discussing where to buy graphix paper.

#21 Ted Rall
November/16/2010
@ 9:24 am

But that’s the point, Mike: it isn’t “his” paper. Since they don’t provide him with a full-time income, his paper is merely one of his freelance clients.

#22 Shane Davis
November/16/2010
@ 10:22 am

Rich, I disagree with you!
Only a bourgeoisie pig would say that!

#23 Mike Lester
November/16/2010
@ 10:45 am

They were his client. This is tantamount to dropping the first girl who asked you to the prom for a later, better looking one. You might get laid but you also might get fired if you work for the first girls Dad. -or your ass beat by her brother. (this metaphor is best imagined in b/w)

(Yet another tip for the young aspiring w/ an eye towards cartooning as a commercial venture and livelihood: don’t take advice from anti-capitalists who give capitalist advice -especially if they’ve just written a book on overthrowing capitalism.)

#24 Rich Diesslin
November/16/2010
@ 11:52 am

Shane – you’re right. What was I thinking! ;)

#25 JP Trostle
November/16/2010
@ 1:46 pm

> Rustad told Burns that he was unaware of the limits on freelancers, the publisher said.

Screw the ethics ? or at least remove them from this equation ? the key questions then become 1) Did Rustad have a contract that he signed, spelling this out, and, lacking that 2) did he ever receive written guidelines from the client?

If the answer to both of those is no, than the Argus-Courier and the NYT failed in communicating their policy, and the cartoonist shouldn’t be punished for that failure. Saying ‘he should have known better’ is neither a law nor a clear protocol.

As Don Draper says, “I don’t have a contract.”

#26 JP Trostle
November/16/2010
@ 2:19 pm

P.S. Rather timely ? Live Chat Now: How Do I Balance My Political Involvement With My Journalism Career?

http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=77&aid=194474

#27 Dave Stephens
November/16/2010
@ 2:30 pm

The publishers want to have their cake and eat it too…

They are bribing with pennies and claiming the kingdom – that’s an impressively arrogant game plan here in America even in the midst of this massive recession.

#28 Ted Rall
November/16/2010
@ 7:05 pm

I hope the economy improves enough for this to become a recession.

#29 Mike Peterson
November/17/2010
@ 5:35 am

Is being a freelance cartoonist really so different from being a freelance writer?

In writing, freelance means you belong to nobody. If you like a gig, you take it. If you don’t want to work for somebody, you move on down the road. It’s “Then Came Bronson” with a laptop instead of a motorcycle. Freedom, baby, can you dig it?

It also means that sometimes Bronson sleeps out in the rain and eats cold beans out of the can. Editors you’ve worked with move on and the new ones don’t want your stuff. Clients who can’t afford regular staff can’t always be bothered to cut checks on time either. And sometimes a client puts conditions on your work that makes you decide if it’s worth working with them or not.

Look, I’ve been an employee and I loved the health coverage and the fact that the checks arrived every payday bingo right on schedule. And if I wasn’t so close to retirement anyway, I’d be tempted to sign up with somebody and take the slow, comfortable ride again.

So what does “freelancing” mean in cartooning that is do different that it inspires all these complaints? Is there some kind of comfort and security involved in freelance cartooning that we writers are missing out on? ‘Cause if a freelance writer went on like this, I’d think he just didn’t understand how it works.

So, how does it work?

#30 Clay Jones
November/17/2010
@ 1:24 pm

Mike Peterson, It’s not any different. Cartoonists want to be treated differently yet they want to receive the same amount of respect.

You really can’t work commercially and editorially. It just doesn’t work out.
You can’t complain that you didn’t see their ethics policy. Saying you’re ignorant of ethics is not an excuse (nobody wants to hire an ignorant freelancer) and do you really need a sheet of paper that says “DO NOT GIVE OR TAKE MONEY FROM PEOPLE YOU’RE COVERING”?

If you disagree with this then don’t do editorial work. Go draw a comic strip about cats.

#31 Beth Cravens
November/18/2010
@ 12:13 pm

Personally I would shy away from that sort of work. My first question to anyone wanting art from me is “How will it be used?” To me that is pretty important. If I wasn’t an editorial cartoonist, I wouldn’t care as much because selling a picture is selling a picture.

#32 Joe Rank ( KRANKY )
November/18/2010
@ 6:00 pm

Two thoughts on this. I have done independent work for political candidates in the past, but not often. It can affect objectivity. Makes it tough to then later be critical of that individual ( though I do ).
I find more than a smidge of a double standard, as publishers and some editors seem to have no difficulty in taking ADS from candidates and issues groups, and taking money from them. They also make contributions, so it works both ways for them.
I make clear before any working relationship that I am a completely free agent if I’m not “on staff”, and that I retain all my rights as a citizen at all times.

Now, what may have been a mistake for Rustad was to have become involved locally. That drew attention. I kind of avoid those situations.

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