The news April 15 that The Charlotte Observer’s KLevin Siers had won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning reminded me of this essay I wrote on the ins and outs of working with talented cartoonists. I (along with Editor Rich Oppel and Publisher Rolfe Neill) hired Kevin 26 years ago, and I worked The Observer’s other two Pulitzer Prize winners, Doug Marlette and Gene Payne. Here’s my view of the experience, published in 2000 in The Masthead, journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
The Masthead, Journal of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, Spring 2000
I’ve been working with very good editorial cartoonists, Doug Marlette and Kevin Siers, for 25 years. Here is the sum of the wisdom I’ve derived from the experience: It is an unnatural act for editorial page editors to work with cartoonists, a mispairing of the magnitude of a marriage between Hillary Clinton and Howard Stern (or maybe, for that matter, Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton).
An editorial cartoonist who doesn’t have great ideas that an editor would refuse to publish should seek another line of work. The cartoonist’s job is to be provocative. The editor’s job is to decide what a family newspaper will publish. I treat the cartoonist pretty much as a visual columnist. The standard I apply is not whether the cartoon reflects our editorial position (though I can’t imagine hiring a cartoonist whose views I detest), but whether it makes a point that the general reader of our pages is likely to understand and whether it is within the rather generous bounds of taste and hyperbole that we apply to cartoons.
On cartoons I know will be controversial, I make sure I’m able to answer this question: What does this cartoon say to me that merits putting it in the paper? If I can’t answer that to my own satisfaction, I’m going to have a heck of a time answering it to readers’ satisfaction. Sometimes I ask the cartoonist why he thinks we should publish it. After all, he has a big stake in it, too.
In our discussion, the cartoonist and I talk about ways various readers might find the cartoon offensive. Our goal isn’t to avoid offending anybody. It’s to avoid offending anybody unintentionally.
Sometimes that doesn’t work. A representative of a national Catholic organization threatened to denounce us in his publication as anti-Catholic because of a cartoon that centered on a manger scene. I told him that if the cartoon was offensive, surely it was offensive to all Christians, including Baptists, of which I am one, and not just to Catholics. I also told him that if he accused us in print of being anti-Catholic, his readers who already read The Observer would think he was stupid, and I offered some examples of Catholics who would say so publicly. We exchanged a couple of letters and a phone call, and ultimately he moved onto other things. My guess is that someone had complained to him and he had followed through, much the way your local power company’s lawyer will send you a stern copyright warning if you use Reddy Kilowatt in a cartoon.
One time in all these years I apologized for running a cartoon. It criticized a local judge in a situation in which a prisoner was released who shouldn’t have been. The cartoonist and I had our usual discussion. Then late in the day, after I’d left the office, he came up with a different version of the drawing that made the cartoon better but, in my judgment, factually inaccurate by shifting the focus from the judicial system to a specific judge. In a column, I explained that after reviewing the facts, I’d concluded that the cartoon wrongly blamed the judge, and I apologized to him in print. (The judge then asked for the original so he could frame it with the apology.)
For editorial page editors, I offer this advice:
Remember, it’s the editor’s job to decide whether to publish a cartoon. Your cartoonist may be unhappy if you reject an idea because you think it doesn’t belong in your newspaper. Believe me, he’ll be a lot more unhappy if you publish it and then turn on him afterward – and he should be.
If you get a lot of complaints about a cartoon you don’t regret publishing, don’t apologize, but also don’t hesitate to explain your thinking in print.
If after hearing the complaints you conclude that you shouldn’t have published the cartoon, say so in print. It makes no sense to me to defend a decision you’ve concluded was wrong. Why not be straight with readers about it? Caution: If this happens to you more than once, something’s wrong.
If you find yourself killing all your cartoonist’s best ideas, maybe you need to (a) find another cartoonist, (b) decide whether you really want to have a cartoonist, or (c) send off for one of those exercise machines that Christie Brinkley advertises in the wee hours on cable TV to help strengthen your stomach muscles. Provocative cartoonists may be the journalistic equivalent of lower back pain for editorial page editors, but readers love them. Admit it, so do you – when they’re somebody else’s responsibility.