Cartoonists - the 'mad men' of journalism

As the editor in charge of the opinion pages of newspapers in New York and Los Angeles, what was the hardest part of my job? Dealing with annoying, demanding bosses? Calming down angry readers? Smoothing the enormous egos of neurotic writers? No, that was the easy part.

The hard part was supervising the truly creative artist - the crazy mind that could twist a lance into your brain to make a point that you knew in your heart was true, but mere writers somehow found impossible to capture quite so deftly.

Yes, I am talking about newspaper and magazine editorial cartoonists - truly the "mad men" of journalism.

In various positions at different United States newspapers, I had the job of "supervising" them, an almost impossible task.

Make no mistake about it: At their lampooning best, which is when they are at their meanest, they hardly ever show any mercy - only respect for the truth… even if it is the truth as they see it. They don't care how you see it. There are no soft edges to their work. And they know how to hurt. Sorry to say, but most of them enjoy it - at least the good ones with whom I worked.

Not everyone sees the issues of the world as they do, of course. And the number of angry phone calls I took from readers who were outraged by an editorial cartoon in the newspaper is testament to that. The list includes mayors, governors, university presidents, religious leaders - sometimes, it felt like it would never stop.

And I also got many angry, worried calls from my bosses, especially newspaper publishers. American publishers like to make all their readers happy. But the editorial cartoonist views his work not as happy-making or newspaper marketing, but as newspaper truth-finding. Their view is that if everyone is happy, they are doing something wrong.

There's really not much the "supervisor" can do. On very rare occasions, it's possible to simply not publish the cartoon - I remember once spiking a tasteless drawing of Saddam Hussein "mooning" to the world. But if you do that too often, you break the spirit of the artist (and of largely admiring employees), and hate yourself later for not having had more editorial courage.

You then risk defeating the whole purpose of the newspaper: to fervently engage readers in the news, issues and controversies of the day, whether through the relatively civilised rationalities of expression in prose or through the relatively barbaric "emotional drone attacks" of the editorial cartoonist.

Some of the esteemed cartoonists with whom I worked have received Pulitzer Prizes - and many other top awards. However, in recent years, at US newspapers at least, the edgiest of them have retired, or been quietly retired.

The new crop seems, to me at least, tamer, even worryingly polite - more like genteel illustrators than the noisy but brilliant drunk at the family dinner table. The passion somehow seems to have diminished.

But not in Paris: Tame was not the word to describe the caustic cartoons of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine targeted in an attack by gunmen that killed 12 people, including journalists, cartoonists and police officers.

We should understand that the range of its cartooning was hardly confined to Islamic targets; its people skewered just about every imaginable sacred cow under the sun. Charlie Hebdo was, in effect, an equal-opportunity insulter.

The gunmen might have killed the magazine's staff, but they have rekindled the spirit and reason of the satirical magazine in general.

They did not realise it, but these Islamist assassins met an enemy that, over time, will defeat them. They met the truth.

American author and professor Tom Plate was an editorial page editor, at various times, at the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Long Island Newsday. His published memoir on these experiences is titled Confessions Of An American Media Man.

This article was first published on Jan 10, 2015.
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