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Editing cartoons: Good or bad for the industry

I was sent an email pointing me to an op-ed piece in The Herald (Rock Hill, SC) that apologized for an editorial cartoon that ran in their paper “depicting domestic auto companies’ logos on a turkey.” The publisher felt that it made light of a serious topic. Furthermore he announced that cartoons appearing in the paper would be screened by more than one individual. The cartoonist was not named.

Few of the issues we address on the editorial page are clear-cut. Our editorial board meets to hash through topics of the day and come to consensus, or at least compromise, before stating The Herald’s position in its written editorials. We have not had the same kind of scrutiny in place with regard to cartoons, although a cartoon’s message can evoke quite different reactions from one person to another. That was evidenced yesterday. In the eyes of the person choosing the cartoon, it was simply putting a major topic in the news under the editorial microscope. To others, including myself, it should not have appeared in our paper.

Beginning today, we have a process in place to ensure cartoons are viewed by more than one person prior to publication. Will our cartoons still be thought-provoking and controversial? Absolutely. I’m sure we’ll continue to hear from readers who will disagree with what we print. The role of the editorial page, in written word or illustration, is to challenge and spawn debate. But by having several pairs of eyes previewing cartoons, we’ll be in a better position to determine what is appropriate caricature and humor, and what crosses a very fine line.

Recently, after accidently running a K Chronicles cartoon that wasn’t supposed to have run, The Montclair State University (NJ) college newspaper also created a policy that dictated that all cartoons are to be screened by two people. Before the controversy that ensued after the cartoon ran, the attitude was that cartoons coming from a syndicate would be safe and not need editing.

Is there such a thing as too much oversight or editing when it comes to cartoons in newspapers?

Community Comments

#1 Barry T. Smith
November/26/2008
@ 4:13 pm

I think oversight is good, but editorializing or being apologetic is not. Car company logos on a turkey? Over the line? Seriously?

We are in very tumultuous times and there are some very unpleasant things going on out there. All of which is fodder for editorial cartoons. 90% of whatâ??s going on in the world is a â??serious topicâ?.

Check for language, for spelling, and for anything that truly crosses the line (overt racism, nudity, etc.). But when you start pulling punches on things like car makers because it might hurt their feelings? That crosses a completely different line.

#2 Mike Peterson
November/26/2008
@ 5:26 pm

I’m glad I’m not the junior editor with the tire tracks down my back. At my paper, we screw up as a team, even if only one of us made the actual error.

“We should have paid more attention. We should have discussed the cartoon at greater length. We’ll do better in the future.”

But blaming it on one person? Shows me that the guy in charge is incompetent and utterly classless.

What a lousy manager. What a lousy human being.

#3 Ben Gordon
November/26/2008
@ 6:47 pm

I thought the way we handle these things is that immediately, we all reprint the cartoon in question, along with some boilerplate hand-wringing about whether it should have been published.

#4 Howard Tayler
November/26/2008
@ 7:12 pm

If a political cartoon isn’t offending half the audience, it’s probably not being done right.

Freedom of the press was not constitutionally guaranteed so that milquetoast middle-managers pretending to be editors could coddle the public with happy stories and all-is-well bell-tolling.

Up next, new pandas at the zoo! And a page full of LOLcats!

#5 Brian Fairrington
November/26/2008
@ 11:21 pm

This is a case of the publisher getting calls from friends in high places who are mad at what he publishes. Several auto makers assemble cars in South Carolina and they subsequently contribute to the ad revenue.

His friends at the country club called and chewed him out and he told them he wouldn’t run things that offend them anymore, despite the validity or merits that the cartoon made.

This is the knocking down of the wall between the business side and the editorial side of journalism and indicative of the times we live in. The minute that the business side starts dictating what the editorial side can do the journalistic integrity of that publication goes out the window.

#6 Mike Peterson
November/27/2008
@ 5:35 am

“If a political cartoon isnâ??t offending half the audience, itâ??s probably not being done right. ”

Like saying a hockey player who doesn’t spend half his time in the penalty box isn’t playing the game right. Not hard to find people who agree, but it really isn’t how the game is supposed to be played.

#7 KRANKY (JOE RANK)
November/27/2008
@ 7:17 am

Key phrase: “The publisher felt”. Of course, the editors caved like the sniveling little cowards most of them are.
The “very fine line” is not journalistic integrity, but the arbitrary feelings of a corporate conditioned owner.

#8 Ted Dawson
November/27/2008
@ 10:33 am

Perhaps the true reason for all the firings of editorial cartoonists is coming to light. Part of the cartoonists job is to point out unflattering things about powerful people. In this era of media conglomerates where the focus is not on good journalism, too many publishers’ golf buddies are being offended.

This paper wasn’t apologizing to its readers. It was apologizing to the auto executives and politicians. The editor probably got bawled out and has to suck it up.

The Herald is also owned by The McClatchy Company, which has laid off at least two cartoonists this fall. I hope The Herald is not setting the stage for the same thing.

We need to realize that it is not newspaper publishers who are firing scores of editorial cartoonists. It is media conglomerate board members who have little interest in journalism. They’re destroying the industry, thanks to our lawmakers who have allowed it. How does media ownership by a handful of conglomerates promote a free press and healthy competition?

#9 Ted Rall
November/28/2008
@ 1:34 am

At first glance, it’s hard to see anything wrong with having more sets of eyes look at cartoons before being printed. In practice, however, newspapers that choose their cartoons by committee tend to have lamer, less daring, more boring cartoons. It’s the nature of committee decision-making–only the lowest common denominator pap passes muster with the dumbest person in a group.

In general, the best cartoons appear in publications where one person picks the cartoons.

#10 Mike Peterson
November/28/2008
@ 4:54 am

“In general, the best cartoons appear in publications where one person picks the cartoons.”

That’s likely true, though I’ve been at papers where the editorial page was utterly tone-deaf and the person heading it would pick a gag panel, even if the point of view was non-existent or completely muddled. Bill and Hillary in a canoe on a raging river labeled “Whitewater” or Cheney’s shotgun got a lot of play with cloth-eared editors who don’t understand cartoons.

But, in general, editorial pages do best when the publisher follows the rule of “Hire the right people and get out of their way.” As do more businesses.

#11 Mike Witmer
December/1/2008
@ 7:53 am

“But, in general, editorial pages do best when the publisher follows the rule of â??Hire the right people and get out of their way.â? As do more businesses.”

You nailed it, Mike.

#12 bill jones
December/1/2008
@ 5:42 pm

since the description says the logos were on A turkey rather than on turkeys, i am assuming this sherffius cartoon is the offender:

http://editorialcartoonists.com/cartoon/display.cfm/63040/

#13 Brad Guigar
December/1/2008
@ 7:26 pm

“The role of the editorial page, in written word or illustration, is to challenge and spawn debate. But by having several pairs of eyes previewing cartoons, weâ??ll be in a better position to determine what is appropriate caricature and humor, and what crosses a very fine line.”

Fine. But the *real* question is this: How many people decide which *columns* get printed on those pages?

#14 Mike Peterson
December/2/2008
@ 8:33 pm

Generally one.

Now, the paper in Virginia where Clay Jones works has a brilliant editorial page editor who knows cartoons up and down. They run two or three a day across a two-page spread I was down there to do a workshop for teachers and wanted to just sit down with her and talk and never mind the workshop.

That, I promise you, is the exception.

At most papers, the person who decides what will go on the page is a words specialist who doesn’t know cartoons from cowbells. The other factor is that most papers will latch onto a specific set of columnists but grab cartoons out of a big sack that comes from the syndicate. That is, they’ll run Kathleen Parker on Tuesday and Ellen Goodman on Thursday, with Cal Thomas on this day and Andy Rooney on that day … and so the only “choice” is when they have a columnist who runs in their paper once a week but sends out two columns a week. And so it’s “Do I run his column on the Wal-Mart trampling or on the price of fuel oil?” But whatever the specific topic, they know more or less what the guy is going to be saying.

If they would decide to run the same cartoonists the way they lock in columnists, they’d probably be happier. They could pretty much tell what the slant was going to be, how much edge would be involved, etc. However, since (A) cartoonists come in big fat packages and (B) most editors can’t interpret cartoons, it’s an absolute free for all as to what gets on the page.

So, the answer is, in both cases, “one.” But in the case of the columnists, it’s one person who can read and who doesn’t have to read much. In the other, it’s one person who probably couldn’t interpret a cartoon to begin with, and is faced with a dozen that he doesn’t understand.

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