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Editorial cartoonists return to satirical ways

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From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 14.

By Chip Bok

We all know how the Sept. 11 terrorist attack affected New Yorkers. It brought to the surface a humanity and dignity that will take them years, perhaps decades, to overcome. No doubt they’re depending on the famous American attention span, hoping that we, like the guy in the movie Memento, will forget this glimpse of the truth within the next 30 seconds. If that’s their hope, New York’s losing streak continues, because the country has changed. Americans are now focused, serious, patriotic and mentally plaque free. They no longer forget. America loves New York. America also loves President Bush, Rudy, special forces, daisy cutters, and, above all, police and firefighters. It seems like everything has been transformed in the wake of the tragedy.

Well, not everything.

America does not love journalists. Nor does it seem to love the small subset of journalists that includes me, editorial cartoonists. Never mind that journalists have taken more casualties per capita in the Afghan War on Terror than most others. The big question, at least to 30 or so cartoonists and two or three interested editors, is: What effect did all this transformation have on editorial cartoons?

It’s had a tremendous effect and at the same time none at all. When four commercial airliners are commandeered by suicidal maniacs with a detailed and highly synchronized plan to attack the United States, taking out its military central nervous system in Washington and its financial heart in New York City, it’s hard to know what to say. The president was God-knows-where, and Dick Cheney was a poor substitute for Al Haig. No one knew if this was just the beginning or even who the enemy was.

All a cartoonist could do was acknowledge that something really terrible had happened.

This seemed to take the form of graphic comparisons to Pearl Harbor, plays on the date using the twin towers to form an “11”, and the old standby, Lady Liberty, who, in this case, from her perch in the harbor, literally was an old standby.

Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Constitution managed this nicely by showing the reflection of the stricken towers in a close-up drawing of the eyes of the Statue of Liberty.

Within the next few days the facts of the matter became more clear, but the scope of the tragedy was staggering. It was evident that police and firefighters died heroically, Mayor Giuliani led with cool competence and compassion, and the nation would defend itself under President Bush’s leadership. It was also evident that he had the enthusiastic support of an overwhelming majority of the people, cartoonists included.

Patrick Oliphant said that now was not the time to trash the country’s leaders, an activity he excelled at until Sept. 11. In fact, he leveraged the number of people he could offend by frequently drawing a purse over the shoulder of President Bush. Now, however, Oliphant felt that the time had come for cartoonists to defend the homeland and support the war effort with strong cartoons (especially ones depicting Uncle Sam) that would inspire. Most cartoonists seemed to follow suit.

A lot of eagles appeared as symbols of America’s righteous wrath. One of the better images was a drawing by Steve Breen of the San Diego Union of an irritable eagle sharpening his talons with a big file.

While sharing the mood, I never had much luck with these kinds of cartoons myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I share America’s hope that Osama is in a dialysis treatment cave, so he can be killed mano-a-mano. But whenever I tried to draw a positive cartoon with soaring symbolism, I thought it looked dumb. It made me uncomfortable to set my skepticism aside, even when I supported the cause. I got around it by redirecting my skepticism at the new bad guys and not saying much of anything about our leaders, (gulp) the good guys.

If you can’t say something nasty about someone, don’t say anything at all.

The New Yorker magazine took “not saying anything at all” to extremes. They ran no cartoons in the issue after the attack. As for Mr. Oliphant’s advice, Bush got pretty much a free pass in newspaper editorial cartoons. Most of those who in the past chose to draw him with Dumbo the Elephant ears, no longer did so.

As with any big news event though, this one generated all sorts of offshoots that were ripe for ridicule, and in that sense, didn’t change cartooning one bit.

Jerry Falwell, in a TV appearance with Pat Robertson on his 700 Club show, couldn’t have said it better if he were bin Laden himself, when he called the terror attacks God’s wrath. It was also reasonable to question why the government didn’t see this coming, given the attack on the USS Cole and other attacks. Geraldo Rivera, switching sides like a Taliban commander, from CNN Clinton defender to Fox warrior journalist, also made for an appealing target.

Not all cartoonists were supportive of our leaders, directly or indirectly.

When Bush on Sept. 18 said, “It’s time to get back to work,” Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald Leader took him at his word and got back to his work as a cartoonist by drawing “W” in a simian pose, about six inches tall, nipping at Dick Cheney’s heels saying, “War against evil, huh, Uncle Dick? Evil!”

Pett thinks the cartoons immediately after the attacks were “terrible because people were scared. They didn’t know if these were the first four of a hundred or what.” He thinks the best work was produced in October and November and that the whole idea that the disaster made cartooning difficult is “ludicrous.” He says the thing that changed is that people pay more attention to the rest of world now, something they should have done all along. That change makes it easier now to draw about international subjects that in the past bored readers and caused editors to mutter.

Though he makes it clear he doesn’t blame anyone but the terrorists themselves for the attacks, Pett said less American ignorance about the anger out there might have helped prevented them.

Why go overseas, though, looking for passionate anger directed at Americans, when you only need to go to Phoenix?

“A significant wet towel has been thrown over a lively profession,” says Steve Benson, cartoonist for the Arizona Republic.

He says that he is inundated with e-mail, phone calls and letters to the editor over his steady stream of cartoons opposed to the war in Afghanistan. A caller warned him he would be interviewed by the Justice Department and then jailed. The same caller informed him the First Amendment is only an entitlement to correct opinion.

Ignoring this counsel, Benson opines that he is “astounded by American disregard for international law” and that he finds this disregard “obscenely hypocritical.” He feels the prisoners at Camp X-Ray at the Guantanamo Naval Station in Cuba are not illegal combatants and should be declared prisoners of war and given full Geneva Convention protection and not interrogated. At the same time, he is “horrified and outraged” by the Sept. 11 attacks, and he believes Osama bin Laden’s video tapes prove his responsibility.

Despite irate reader response, Benson’s cartoons remain in his paper.

A cartoon by Don Wright of the Palm Beach Post trumps Benson’s idealistic view of the human rights of terrorist prisoners with a practical concern. In the cartoon, the view is from behind a man talking on the phone while looking out the window at a jetliner fast approaching the window. The man says, “It’s September 11th! I’m in the World Trade Center! Quick! Connect me with a Civil Libertarian!”

One of the first cartoons to get national attention suggesting not all cartoonists are out there on hallowed ground with Geraldo was by Aaron McGruder, creator of “The Boondocks.” His Thanksgiving Day strip plowed against the current of the mainstream when his character, Huey Freeman, offered a Thanksgiving blessing comparing Bush to bin Laden.

Also outside the mainstream is Ted Rall of Universal Press Syndicate. Rall thinks the last thing Afghanistan needs is more bombing. He says that the country is blessed with “two natural resources, dust and rocks”. He’s in a position to know. He’s been to central Asia four times and had visited all the “stans” except Afghanistan. To satisfy his craving to complete the cycle, he persuaded Village Voice and KFI radio in Los Angeles to spring for him to cover the war in Afghanistan.

Rarely does a cartoonist get out from behind his drawing board to do anything other than read and watch cable news to form the basis of his cartoons.

Rall found that Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Daris got along together, in many cases, better than many ethnic groups in America.

He also found that the more you pay the less you are respected by Afghans, which could help explain some of the experiences reported by deep pocket news organizations.

Because his backers didn’t supply him with enough cash to meet the inflated demands of Afghans for bribes and services, he had to negotiate and was usually successful.

Rall isn’t convinced that al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks, and he doesn’t think going after them will prevent future attacks. He seems to favor what we now call “giving in to terrorism.”

He calls it “taking the wind out of their sails,” and it includes withdrawing from Saudi Arabia and backing off on support to Israel. With that he feels the strength of radical Islam will evaporate much as the radical left lost its punch with the end of the Vietnam War.

The war on terrorism has changed the view of authority for some and awakened an instinct for survival that many of us didn’t know existed. It doesn’t seem, however, to have stifled freedom of expression for editorial cartoonists. If anything it has provided us with issues to take seriously where there weren’t many before. It has ended the Gary Condit drama and settled the question of who the real president is.

And it has provided us with nifty phrases like “evil doers.”

Maybe some good can come from terror after all.

Bok, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial cartooning in 1997, has been the staff editorial cartoonist for the Akron Beacon Journal since 1987. His cartoons appear in more than 100 publications, and his book, Crisis in Cartoons, will be published this fall. Bok also chairs the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.