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CSotD: Truth, Facts, Bias and Opinions

The AAEC panel on “Cartooning in a Post-Truth World” was, as noted yesterday, dynamic enough to justify separate treatment, and much of that was in the balance of the group.

With AAEC President Kevin Necessary moderating, the panel consisted of Marc Murphy, who cartoons for the Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal, the local public media outlet and a local alternative paper but is also a successful trial attorney; Tim Campbell, who cartoons for the mid-sized Current in Carmel, Indiana, (Update: No, the Hamilton County Reporter) and is nationally syndicated by Counterpoint; and Ann Telnaes, an internationally known figure whose work appears in the Washington Post.

 

This provided a variety of experiences that allowed the discussion to avoid taking place entirely in the clouds, but was not entirely earth-bound either, and Murphy began things, as good attorneys do, by arguing the basis for the title, “Cartooning in a Post-Truth World.”

“Truth,” he would submit, is not a useful term, because it is based on philosophy or religion, and he argued his case instead for “fact-based,” which is more objective and provides an armor for cartoonists, who, of course, have biases as everyone does, but can stand behind their work if it conforms to the facts rather than simply to their subjective impression of truth.

But beyond that set of definitions, he said, we are certainly in a changed world, in which “truth depends on which TV you watch.”

He noted that, a generation ago, the news came on for a half hour in the dinner hour and another half hour at night, and was a presentation of “what we should know is news,” offered in a reliable, well-vetted format. Murphy cited the moment when Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and sorrowfully announced the death of John Kennedy as a standout moment in that otherwise straightforward version of the news.

The job of editorial cartoonists, he insisted, has not changed, but, certainly, the world in which they operate has. “It’s easy for us to get thrown into the pot of ‘more biased journalism,'” he noted, but the mission of expressing opinions based on facts remains unaltered.

 

Campbell argued that he does not aim to cartoon from the right or left but simply to make people think about the news, which begins with him reading the news each morning to figure out how he feels about it. “I’m not trying to get people to think as I think,” he said, “but simply to get them to start thinking.”

Murphy said he comes at things from a progressive viewpoint, but he’s not wedded to it, so that, while Democrats tend to agree with his work, when he departs from an established point of view, he hears, “I thought you were on our side!’

To which his response is, “You don’t understand what I do.”

 

Telnaes has been teaching college-level political cartooning to art students recently, and said she was surprised to see how bright, politically engaged, well-educated students took in the news, particularly since so many of them get the bulk of their news from social media.

“A lot of students are well-meaning,” she said, “but they honestly didn’t know that you couldn’t just share whatever your friends posted.”

In addition to helping them with technique, she said, she had to coach them through the process of evaluating information, and it was eye-opening both for her and for her students.

 

 

One of her assignments, then, was for them to create cartoons reflecting on the need to evaluate information, and she shared a multi-part series of panels one of her students made, of which these are the two final pieces, tips that included things like finding out who owns a site where a particular item has appeared, not to reject or accept it outright but to view it through an appropriate filter.

Telnaes admitted that “avoid commentary” wasn’t on her menu, but she agreed that commentary, while not to be avoided, also had to be evaluated in its context, not taken as the first fact to cling to, and needed to be subjected to the same fact-checking as other information.

Necessary agreed with the need to know your sources, citing the problem when people uncritically buy into false information. “How do you distinguish facts from what they’re seeing on Tucker Carlson?” he asked.

And, he added, does commenting on disinformation simply help to spread it?

The issue of what to comment on is part of the issue of making people think, the panel agreed, which makes the issue of humor touchy.

“Comedy is gravy,” Campbell said, saying that, when people complain that a cartoon is not funny, his response is, “It’s not my job to be funny.” But, he added, “if I can get it in, that’s fine.”

“I’d rather make people think than make them laugh,” Murphy said, adding that if you try too hard to inject comedy into a political cartoon, it can result in disrespecting the topic rather than illuminating it.

There is also the issue of immediacy versus importance.

“You have to make choices,” Telnaes said. “Are you going to do something about covfefe or something about how the government is destroying the EPA?”

And choosing what to emphasize is a matter of choosing what people will note, Campbell said.

“If you look at a forest, how many trees do you see?” he asked. “But if one of them is on fire, you notice it. We need to grab their attention. It’s like a billboard, drawing people in.”

Meanwhile, the goal of converting people from one side of the aisle to the other is unattainable, the panel seemed to agree.

That doesn’t make the task pointless, however, Murphy insisted, citing someone who said that a bumper sticker never changed anyone’s mind, but it can make the person in the car behind you feel supported in their own beliefs.

Similarly, he said, “If I can make somebody feel better about things they’ve been feeling, maybe that will let them go out and talk to their friends about it.”

As for threatening feedback, he shrugged it off, noting that he would never face the torrent of misogynistic abuse Telnaes faced when a cartoon critical of Ted Cruz was picked up and denounced by rightwing media, or the very real arrest and death threats faced by cartoonists like Pedro X. Molina, who had to flee Nicaragua and is currently working from exile here.

“Having my face splashed across Fox News made me nervous for a minute,” Telnaes confessed, “but it’s nothing compared to what cartoonists face overseas,” where her work with freedom of expression has brought her into contact with far more threatened artists.

To which Murphy made an if-you-can’t-stand-the-heat response: “Nobody makes us do this.”

 

Community Comments

#1 Douglas Hawley
October/10/2022
@ 8:12 am

For several years, I only subscribed to the Arizona Republic for the cartoons. Craigslist replaced the classified. Long, multi-page articles informed of nothing. I finally cancelled when they dumped the last one of my favorites. Thanks Mike for keeping the conversation going.

#2 Tim Campbell
October/10/2022
@ 7:36 pm

Just an FYI to give credit where credit is due.
The local paper that I cartoon for is the Hamilton County Reporter. I stopped working with Current in Carmel earlier this year. Nice article, Mike. The panel was a lot of fun. Thank you!

#3 Mike Peterson
October/10/2022
@ 7:45 pm

Got it, Tim. And you done’em proud.

#4 Ann Telnaes
October/12/2022
@ 4:50 pm

Since I totally blanked on my student’s name during the discussion….her name is Erin McDermott.
And you can see more of her wonderful work here:
https://www.erinmcd.com/

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