Paul Fell loses gig after flippant remark about newspaper’s ethical policy (UPDATED… again)

Paul Fell who has for years been the freelance cartoonist for the Lincoln Journal Star has been terminated as a contributing cartoonist over published remarks to MSNBC when they questioned him about a $450 contribution to a Democratic house candidate back in 2006. Paul was one of 144 journalists (or individuals working in the media industry) singled out for contributed money to a political party or individual while serving in the media.

Paul’s response to MSNBC was:

“For your information, I did contribute the amounts listed to the Maxine Moul for Congress campaign in 2006,” Fell said in an e-mail. “I am a freelance cartoonist, who contracts with the Lincoln Journal Star to draw three editorial cartoons a week.

“They don’t pay me enough money to be able to dictate how I conduct myself in political campaigns. I generally do not donate to political candidates, but Maxine Moul is a longtime friend and former newspaper publisher where I got my start as a cartoonist back in 1976.

“Frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass what the Lincoln Journal Star or their parent organization, Lee Enterprises, policies are on allowing newsroom staff to give to candidates and parties. I do not believe they did disclose my donations. That’s their problem, not mine.”

For his flippant remark, the newspaper ran a column written by Kathleen Rutledge, the paper’s editor, regarding their decision to sever their relationship with Paul.

We pay him to express his own opinion on matters of public interest through cartoons that appear on the editorial pages. He is not an employee but a freelancer who is covered by our ethics code. He did not see fit to tell us he had made a political contribution, either at the time he made it or when he was contacted by MSNBC.

The biggest difference, though, is the cavalier attitude about journalistic ethics Fell exhibited. He said he doesn’t give “a rat’s ass” about the policies of this paper. Read his complete comments to Dedman elsewhere on this page.

Fell’s comments make it clear he does not care about guarding this newspaper’s trust with readers. We don’t think he should treat our credibility with such disdain. His comments to MSNBC follow an earlier incident in which he did not disclose to us that he had posted cartoons of a sexual nature on his Web site. He removed them after we expressed concern.

We have lost trust in our professional relationship with Paul Fell. For that reason, he no longer draws editorial cartoons for us.

In an e-mail sent to me, Paul responds to some of the points Rutledge made in her column citing reasons to terminate the paper’s relationship with Paul.

The Journal Star is actually right in its argument that I did commit a breach of journalistic ethics in contributing to a political candidate. To be frank, last fall when I contributed to the Maxine Moul for Congress campaign, it never occurred to me that I was doing something I shouldnâ??t. Call it a brain fart or an early onset stroke, but I did what I did.

My comments in the interview were pretty angry and if I had been less truthful and snarky, pleaded ignorance and begged forgiveness from the Journal Star, Iâ??d probably still be freelancing for them. The fact is, I had backed them into a corner where they had no choice but to give me the axe.

Also mentioned in his email is a description of stressed relationship between the two over the pay rates Paul is paid for his contributions to the paper and he feels to some extent this action by the paper was a “perfect excuse for getting rid of me once and for all.”

Paul doesn’t appear to deflated about this latest turn of events as he is already in talks with other publishing outlets for his cartoons.

Update: I received an excerpt of an account between Paul and the editors at the Lincoln Journal Star from JP Trostle who is writing up his story on these events for the AAEC notebook. The exchange below has been confirmed by Paul as accurate.

“Interestingly, during my ‘you’re fired’ phone conversation with the editor and editorial page editor on Friday afternoon, they mentioned that the Journal Star code of ethics covered freelancers as well as full-time staffers. I responded that it would have been nice, then, if they had thought to share that policy with their freelancers.

“You could have cut the long and uncomfortable silence with a knife.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: The AAEC web site has now posted a story on this story, though nothing significantly new that hasn’t already been covered.

23 thoughts on “Paul Fell loses gig after flippant remark about newspaper’s ethical policy (UPDATED… again)

  1. I have a question about the relationship of a freelance artist to a client. How does the content of an artist’s individual work on his/her own website, which (I assume) has not been paid for by the client nor exhibited by said client, tie in to any moral code the client may have contrary to said material.

    Specifically, in this case, the cartoons “of a sexual nature” on Rutledge’s website. I am assuming that the cartoons in question did not refer to the paper in any way and were independent material.

    I absolutely understand all the other stances taken by the paper in this case – he insulted his client publicly and also did violate a campaign contrubution rule and they had a perfect right to sever the relationship – but I don’t get that tiny reference to his other cartoons.

    By the way, my use of the word “client” rather than “employer” is intentional. As a freelancer myself, I have many clients but no employers as I am self employed. (At least that’s what the IRS tells me)

  2. Here’s what Paul had to say about those cartoons in his e-mail to me:

    I’d also like to address Ms. Rutledge’s remarks about “cartoons of a sexual nature” on my web site. For the past few years I have been contributing cartoons to a men’s magazine. They were of the “Playboy” type, naughty, but far from most folks’ definition of obscene. The Journal Star had a problem with being on the same web site as those cartoon samples. Just by coincidence, I had terminated my relationship with that magazine a few weeks before she contacted me with her concerns. I happily removed the cartoons that concerned her from my web site. I thought the matter closed, but she appears to be using this incident as some sort of red herring to further justify my termination.

  3. Losing the client isn’t what makes it newsworthy. It’s how it all shook down.

  4. Come on, Cagle – Paul was part of an MSNBC investigative report on journalists giving campaign contributions to politicians. Of course it’s newsworthy.

  5. I find it astonishing that an editorial cartoonist who has an editorial cartoon syndicate and presumably cares about the declining state of the industry and what it’s doing to his peers is trying to stop the conversation about a fellow editorial cartoonist getting canned from a paper he worked with for many years because he was angry that they hadn’t and wouldn’t increase the price they paid and mouthed off publicly, in response to a big news story.

    Must be some sort of politics in play here, because the “this isn’t newsworthy” comment makes no sense at all on it’s face.

  6. I liken the difference between “client” and “employer” to the difference between a crocodile and an alligator. I agree with Neal, what makes this news worthy isn’t the fact that a cartoonist lost a client, it’s the investigation into campaign contributions.

    But look at it this way, with all the attention this got, I doubt Paul will be in short supply of clients.

  7. Paul himself admits that if he handled it a bit more diplomaticly( avoiding slamming the client publicly and the rat’s ass quote) he’d still have his client. I think this has less to do with Paul’s political affiliations and more to do with his business acumen.

  8. LOL Rick, you’re too predictable. Even I, who have nothing to do with the NCS, know at least some of those who are on your enemies list from your never-miss-an-opportunity delight in publicly jabbing them. 🙂

    As for “ethics in cartooning”…hmmm…maybe that could start with the NCS selecting leaders who aren’t so unprofessionally spiteful and polarizing that their internal politics spills over into unseemly public display.

  9. Wow, Dawn. Where did that come from? I saw nothing in Rick’s comment that was a jab or polarizing or spiteful. Certainly nothing I haven’t said myself on other boards.

    Let’s keep it civil here. 🙂

  10. Oh, come on, Alan. Rick denigrated Paul’s business acumen. And to answer your question, it comes from years of my own observations and experiences.

    Plus, you can’t talk to as many cartoonists and syndicate folks as I have over as many years as I have without hearing all the stories from different sources, like it or not. Bad behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, esp. when it comes in the form of “innocent comments” that are really just kicking somebody when he’s down because of old grudges, true or imagined. Who cares? Let it go, for goodness sakes.

    Stop all the infighting and backbiting in cartooning and it would be a lot healthier industry, if you ask me.

  11. I merely made the point that Paul himself admits that he handled this less professionally than he should have. I probably would have reacted as Paul did against a client that felt it could dictate what can be on my website or who I could support politically. But then I would have lost a client.

    As for Dawn’s comments regarding mine and others’ motives, well I’ll just have to leave those out in left field where they belong.

  12. I take no offense at what Rick said. As he accurately observed, what I did is not really recommended behavior for keeping and/or attracting clients. As he said in his last post, he would probably have reacted in the same way. If you read my perspective on the whole situation that’s posted at the beginning of this exchange, you can see that they just pushed me once too often and a bit too far.

    Frankly, I’m happy and relieved to be though with that outfit. It was bound to happen in one form or another, sooner or later. I threw myself a 2-minute pity party on Saturday morning and now it’s on to bigger and better things.

  13. What follows is a copy of a letter and a web page address I sent to the JournalStar Op/Ed page as well as Gordon Winters and Kathleen Rutledge.
    They have apparently choosen not to share this info with their readers….
    Richard Sullivan


    Re the â??ethics codeâ? of Lee Enterprises Inc. (owners of the Lincoln Journal Star) and the firing of political cartoonist and commentator Paul Fell.
    Just a scant five minutes of Googled research turns up some interesting information: The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, non-advocacy, independent journalism organization has a list of the individual and soft money political contributions by Lee Enterprises(70% of which have benefited Republicans).
    Recipients of contributions include, The National Republican Congressional Committee, The Republican National Committee, George W. Bush, The Republican Party of Iowa, Both Jim Leach(R) and Chuck Grassley(R) of Iowa, even Tom Osborne (Iâ??d be remiss if I didnâ??t point out that they did also give $200 to John Kerry in 2004 and a whopping $400 to Al Goreâ??s ill-fated 2000 campaign).
    Yes, the ethically-challenged ownersof the Lincoln Journal Star apparently have their own Cheneyesque set of rules they can choose to follow or disregard.
    Gee, I wonder if the Republican Party â??Slantâ? of the Lee Enterprises ownership influences news coverage at any of their 56 newspapers spanning 23 states. Nah. Unless those owners of the Lincoln Journal Star could give a ratâ??s ass about the ethical policies they expect of their employees.

    Richard Dale Sullivan
    Lincoln Nebraska

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