BY Tony Palmeri
The late George Bernard Shaw mused that “assassination is the extreme form of censorship.” A chilling illustration of that sentiment occurred on January 7th, when masked gunmen stormed the Paris office of the irreverent newspaper Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 staffers including prominent editorial cartoonists. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the killings, calling them “revenge for the honor” of the Prophet Muhammad whose image frequently graced Charlie Hebdo in a manner perceived as blasphemous and offensive by religious fundamentalists.
Almost as upsetting as the murder of the Charlie Hebdo satirists was the disingenuous, self-righteous, and hypocritical posturing in support of free expression by large numbers of American pundits and politicians. Listening to these self-serving sermons, you’d think that the modern United States was a beacon of free speech protection. The sad truth is that political discourse in the United States operates in a very narrow left/right spectrum, exemplified most depressingly in the op-ed pages of establishment newspapers and the Sunday morning news (snooze?) shows on network television. Biting satire in the Charlie Hebdo tradition for all practical purposes does not exist here (commercially driven enterprises like the Daily Show, the Onion, and Saturday Night Live are extremely mild by comparison), making the proclamation of “Je suis Charlie” in response to the massacre sound hollow and unbelievable.
Delusional statements of support for free expression became so over the top that even the ordinarily vacuous David Brooks of the New York Times managed to make a good point:
“The journalists at Charlie Hebdo are now rightly being celebrated as martyrs on behalf of freedom of expression, but let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.” As someone who’s been involved over the years in campus struggles to promote political discourse not even satirical as much as simply critical of established orthodoxies, I can identify with Brooks’ statement.
What about American editorial cartoonists? Terrorists do not kill them, but they don’t have to: contemporary corporate media business models ensure that edgy editorial cartoonists will be either (a) out of work, (b) become low paid freelancers, or (c) compromise their edginess just so as to be able to appear in large circulation venues. Lee Judge, the longtime Kansas City Star cartoonist whose full-time position with the paper was eliminated in 2008, told National Public Radio that “It’s pretty hard to find a new job when your resume says you are a professional smart ass.”
Lee Judge received death threats for a gun control cartoon he penned in 2013, threats which literally forced him out of his home and should have resulted in wider distribution for the controversial drawing. But due in part to commercial pressures, American editors just aren’t that gutsy. Contrast that with Charlie Hebdo; radical American cartoonist Ted Rall met the murdered cartoonists a few years ago and recalls that “They were encouraged by their editor to be as aggressive as possible. It’s a big difference between the way things are done in the United States, where often editors are trying to rein in the cartoonists. There, they were encouraged to stretch and be as aggressive as possible.”
Wisconsin is at the moment not exactly a mecca of full-time editorial cartooning. While the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cried crocodile tears over Charlie Hebdo, they neglected to mention the 2009 forced buyout of cartoonist Stuart Carlson, which at the time left Joe Heller of the Green Bay Press Gazette as the only remaining editorial cartoonist in the state. At the time the American Journalism Review called Carlson “one of a number of editorial cartoonists who have been eliminated from newspaper staffs without replacement during major industry downsizing.”
As for Joe Heller, his 28 years at Gannett’s Green Bay Press Gazette ended when he received a pink slip in 2013. Gannett cited finances as the reason for the layoff even as they were at that very moment purchasing 20 television stations for over 2 billion dollars.
My favorite Wisconsin cartoonist, the late Lyle Lahey, was also a Gannett victim. Lahey spent 38 years raising cartoon hell for the Green Bay News Chronicle, a tenure that ended in 2005 when Gannett purchased the paper and proceeded to shut it down.
You wouldn’t know it from reading the mainstream press, but there are lots of provocative editorial cartoonists working right now. My favorites are those who operate in the tradition of Thomas Nast, the 19th century “father of the American cartoon” whose caustic pen brought down the corrupt Tammany Hall corruption ring in New York City. They include Matt Bors (mattbors.com), Tom Tomorrow (thismodernworld.com), Ted Rall (rall.com), Jen Sorenson (jensorensen.com), Matt Wuerker ( politico.com/wuerker), Ruben Bolling (gocomics.com/tomthedancingbug), Joe Sacco (google “Sacco’s response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks”), Lalo Alcaraz (gocomics.com/laloalcaraz), Stephanie McMillan (stephaniemcmillan.org), and Wisconsin’s Mike Konopacki (huckkonopackicartoons.com). Matt Bors created “The Nib” (medium.com/the-nib), a great archive of cutting edge cartoons featuring cartoonists you (unfortunately) will not see in your local newspaper.
For more information about the plight of editorial cartoonists globally, visit the Cartoonists Rights Network International. (cartoonistsrights.org).
Tony Palmeri (email@example.com) is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh.