Plagiarism cases raise ethics issues in cartooning

The recent cases of alleged plagiarism by Jeff Stahler (Post Dispatch) and David Simpson (Urban Tulsa) in the last couple of months has raised the question of journalism standards and cartooning.

Editorial cartoonist Rob Tornoe writing for Editor and Publisher writes reactions from AAEC President John Cole, a statement from Jeff MacNelly from 1990 and Matt Bors.

The Poynter Institute held an online chat with Michael Cavna to discuss the what ethical guidelines cartoonist should adhere to.

Lastly, in the comments section on the announcement that Stahler resigned is a disussion among several cartoonists regarding the issue that is worth a read.

17 thoughts on “Plagiarism cases raise ethics issues in cartooning

  1. I have been following this since the stuff about Simpson broke, and the one thing that keeps coming to mind is, what self-respecting cartoonist would WANT to plagiarize somebody else’s work? Our goal as cartoonists is to put OUR ideas and drawings out for review, not to rehash somebody else’s. Speaking for myself, I’ve been in many deadline situations and have had to produce 5-7 cartoons a week and the idea of appropriating another cartoonist’s drawing and/or concept just hasn’t occurred to me. I have had cartoons that have been similar to other’s work, but who hasn’t? Maybe I’m being naive, but if you can’t come up with your own ideas and drawings, you might want to start looking for other work.

  2. In the E&P story Rob writes that since the Simpson case
    several other case have come to light. Actually only one has,

    It was great to read Jeff MacNelly himself knock down the
    accusation that cartoonists influenced by his style are
    That would be like suggesting the NC Wyeth plagiarised his
    teacher Howard Pyle. Or that all the impressionist are
    plaigiarists of each other

    There is no art school for Editorial Cartooning, so MacNelly,
    Oliphant,Wright,Peters and Borgman were the “teachers” for
    many of us. They were our Howard Pyle,Degas,Monet….

    Steve Benson and Ramirez won well deserved Pulitzers not just because of their MacNelly school master draftsmanship but because of their ideas. Ideas that expressed their view points not Jeff MacNelly’s

    I resent the accusation by a critic in the E&P story that
    many of us are just lazy and make excuses. This critic
    has never worked on major daily newspaper under a major
    daily newspaper’s editor. If he did he’d have better appreciation of actually how hard we work.

    My standard and goal everyday is to come up with a Pulitzer
    level idea. I spend several hours a day sketching up one idea after the other, trying to top or improve the idea i just drew up
    before. Sometimes I start sketching at 10 and stop at 2.
    Sometimes my editor picks the first idea I drew up, sometimes
    its the tenth. But they all have one thing in common. They express my opinion on the story not some other cartoonists.

    The reason editorial cartoonists get into this profession is to
    express their opinion, not someone else’s.

    I’ve had people boycott the paper and protest outside the building over my ideas. Do the critics of our profession think
    I or any cartoonists would put themselves on the line like
    that for an idea that wasn’t their own to begin with. Absurd.

    The suggestion that the editorial cartoon profession is a den
    of thieves is ignorant,false and insulting.

  3. Ethical Guidelines for cartoonists? Influence is plagiarism? Overlap is laziness and/or plagiarism?

    I believe the bigger questions are …
    Why was Simpson’s plagiarism tolerated for decades after it was brought to his employer’s attention?

    Why after Simpson had to resign for plagiarism was he hired at another newspaper?

    Why are the above two items ignored whenever the plagiarism topic resurfaces?

    Why are safe ‘n’ social gag type of cartoons from the New Yorker magazine accepted as editorial cartoons in a daily newspaper?

    Is ‘idea overlap’ really overlap if your readers only see your concept of the idea you thought of?

    Why is there overlap of ideas…? Laziness? or plagiarism? or is it because we’re all working in the same cultural pool of symbols ‘n’ such (the short ‘n’ easy answer) or is it because editors DEMAND super safe cartoons from their staff or syndicated cartoonists.

    Accept it people, newspaper editors do NOT want unique, thought provoking or hard hitting graphic commentary, especially now in these challenging economic times.
    Editors are not ones for breaking new ground, in fact it’s quite the opposite per Daryl Cagle’s “The MacNelly Scale” (as mentioned in Tornoe’s column about the subject).
    Editors prefer the super safe type of cartoon that doesn’t push any boundaries or cause them ANY undue extra time consumption.

    The ultimate question is, should editors follow ethical guidelines when employing, working and choosing an editorial cartoonist and graphic commentary….?

  4. Milt makes a good point about overlap cartoons not being
    overlap if your local readership only gets to see your version.

    A Pulitzer winner once told me that when he discovers another
    cartoonist has beaten him to print with a similar idea, he just
    doesn’t send it out nationally to his syndicate but does run it
    in his paper.

    When the postal story broke my first thought was snail mail
    getting even slower. I drew up a sketch of the Postmaster
    General looking like Napoleon riding a snail yelling “CHARGE
    …slower” Before I can get it in the paper, I start seeing all
    the other snail cartoons.

    Knowing I came up with it on my own, and that readers would
    like it…do I kill it because some other cartoonists in other
    states did a version of it? So, because some readers in other
    state saw that joke my readers will get deprived of it?

    I ended up killing it because I had another mail joke that
    I and my editor liked equally as well.

    But it’s important to remember, that many readers are
    still just seeing the cartoons in their paper, not these national
    cartoon web sites. So their is no overlap for them

  5. I don’t think Milt was endorsing obvious, lazy, trite, duplicate cartoons, Jeff.
    I don’t resent the critic in the E&P story for saying many of us are lazy and make excuses, because obviously, many of us are lazy and make excuses for it.
    I don’t understand the reason for an individual to be an editorial cartoonist if he/she is not going to TRY to be irreverent. Why does anyone, and there’s a lot of them, desire to be obvious?

  6. I didn’t think Milt was endorsing overlap cartoons and I’m
    not either. It’s acknowledging that happens and when it
    does it doesn’t overlap unless you get your cartoon fix from
    just a cartoon web page.

    Like every cartoonist I know, I hate when it happens.
    I don’t like trite either but I also don’t believe in being
    irreverant and edgy just for the sake of it.

    You can be a great disc jockey, worth listening to without being
    a Howard Stern shock jock

    And if people want to continue using the broad bush of
    “many” of us are lazy excuse makers….MAN UP! Name these
    “Many” you keep refering too. And don’t do it behind their
    back on some candy ass anonymous web page.

    Think cartoonist on major dailies are lazy?
    Try this: Every morning draw up 3 to 5 roughed out sketches
    on different topics, then take them to your neighbor who’ll act as you Editor, have him pick the one he likes the best, then
    get that drawn up and colored in a few hours. Next day start
    the process over again–do it 5 days a week for a month, then
    do it for 25-30 years and hope you don’t stroke out and lose your ability to even move a pen

    Then you can lecture cartoonist about being lazy excuse makers.

  7. Rough out several cartoons a day and show them to someone? Done! I guess I’m qualified to lecture about lazy excuse makers.

    I’m not going to name all the many cartoonists I think are lazy. That’s not really fair to them since they’re not in this discussion. I’m sure there’s someone out there who hates my work but he’s not trashing me on a message board.

    But I will point out you, Jeff. You admit drawing and considering an idea you know has been done to death. Then you use the excuse that you have to draw a cartoon every day. Yes, drawing a cartoon every single day will prevent you from making each one brilliant, but that’s no excuse for settling for something blatantly obvious.

    I’m sure you draw some good cartoons, but your statement fits the description of being lazy. Is that “manning up” enough for you?

    And where is this candy ass anonymous web page? I wanna check it out.

  8. “I resent the accusation by a critic in the E&P story that
    many of us are just lazy and make excuses. This critic
    has never worked on major daily newspaper under a major
    daily newspaper?s editor. If he did he?d have better appreciation of actually how hard we work.”

    I’m sorry to have never worked at a major daily newspaper before criticizing. Kind of a hard gig to get these days.

    Nothing was directed at you, by the way, Jeff. While I do certainly sympathize with the work load and that in drawing hundreds of cartoons there will certainly be overlap, yes, many cartoonists are lazy. When a field produces numerous Yahtzees, non-political cartoons, and a lot of stylistic similarity every week, that is indeed laziness and hardly a revelation. Cartoonists have been complaining about that stuff for years.

    I don’t know what you mean by “candyass anonymous web page” since the E&P story quotes me by name.

  9. One thing I am interested in exploring (and didn’t have the ability to address in my piece) is the role editors play in this so-called overlap.

    Ultimately, the ideas that cartoonists present to their editors are their own, but I’m sure there is a fair amount of pressure being exerted by some editors when the feel particularly inspired by an idea.

    When I was still with the NY Observer, on election night 2008 my editor wanted me to draw an Obama/Martin Luther King cartoon. I knew most cartoonists would be doing that, so I pushed back and convinced him to let me go with something else.

    If he had been more stubborn, or if I feared crossing him or pushing him too much in the name of job security, would I have been lazy?

  10. The candy ass web page is the Bad Cartoonist. Thought that was Obvious
    Clay reread both my posts. Not making excuses. Stating
    the facts and a reality check. Where is any of those
    statements do you hear me complaining about drawing a
    cartoon everyday Clay? I was stating the common workday
    for a cartoonist on daily for those who don’t know. And
    there’s nothing lazy about that daily routine of drawing up
    4 to ten cartoons per day.

    If I didn’t like doing that I would have retired after suffering
    two strokes that disabled my drawing hand, instead of going thru grueling rehab to return to wallking and drawing everyday

    In the past six years alone my cartoons have generated
    a boycott of my paper from a local Arab group, A month long
    email protest from mainland China communists,a sidewalk.
    protest by a local African American group, and subscription
    cancellation campaign from a wealthy white suburb

    Guess what Clay, they weren’t protesting over timid cartoons or accusing me of be lazy. I was hired from an alternative
    newspaper where my work was known for being a pit
    bull, not a timid poodle

    This profession has enough enemies to fight off in the
    form of corporate accountants killing off our jobs. We don’t
    need fellow cartoonists also trying to bite our hands off

    Thanks a lot, Clay!

  11. Clay. Just another little fact you missed I didn’t know that snail mail idea was done to death until after I had drawn up my version.
    The yes I did still consider using it for the same point Milt was
    making about overlap cartoons. But as I stated pretty clearly
    and you read over…I tossed the idea and decided to go with one
    for the other ten ideas I submitted that day.

  12. I disagree with the conventional wisdom that if you go with your first idea that’s inherently lazy. Of course, plenty of first ideas are not well thought out and need work or scrapping – but I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about what I call a “natural” idea – an idea that grows organically in metaphor,imagery and caption.

    And you know when you have one and you know if it’s good. How much time you spend developing it is irrelevant.

    So when I do have an idea that I like I try to get it out quickly. If I see that someone else has beat me to it I scrap it and try another idea – and that happens a lot. There are other times I rush it out there and no one has a similar take – but I’m still glad I got it out in publication.

    Sometimes I spend all day running through sketches and ideas before I get THE cartoon, but when I come up with a good natural idea and I can complete it in a couple of hours I’m perfectly happy. That’s not laziness – that’s good cartooning.

  13. Berkley Breathed had similar problems in the eighties with several strips of his looking and reading very much like Doonesbury episodes. This can easily happen.
    when we read editorial cartoons and strips a lot goes into our subconcious. Ideas that look similar to somebody elses are therefore easy to come onto paper quite innocently. We forget that for years and years Stahler produced original cartoons and if he has the talent to do that he would not intentionally take someone else’s ideas.

  14. #15 ” This can easily happen.
    when we read editorial cartoons and strips a lot goes into our subconcious. Ideas that look similar to somebody elses are therefore easy to come onto paper quite innocently.”

    Innocent as a baby fart. Happens everyday and it’s unavoidable, incurable and unfair to those afflicted. We need a lapel ribbon because it’s clear we’ve stumbled upon a previously unheard crippling condition: DISRSCR (deadline induced spontaneously repressed subliminal cartoon recall)

    Symptoms: you have a deadline and a subscription to the NY’r.

    C’mon man…The notion that we file away and suddenly remember gag lines VERBATIM is delusional. But damn it makes you feel better.

  15. #15. There was nothing “subconscious” about Bloom County’s resemblance to Doonesbury. Breathed’s strip was initially almost an homage to Trudeau, though the scenario of the strip also owed a great deal to Walt Kelly. That didn’t stop it from being one of the best strips of the 20th century. Just the opposite, actually.

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