I never dreamed of growing up to be a political activist/commentator, but here I am, and it’s worked out pretty well for me. I’ve been lucky enough to have a voice in public matters and eke out a modest living running my mouth as an independent populist agitator. Still, I have to confess to the sin of Job Envy. Not in the sense of being resentful, but regretful about my own inability to lift the trade of journalistic commentary to the heights attained by a small, feisty collection of unique public opinionators: political cartoonists.
In framing issues and rallying people to think and act, these journalists have an unfair advantage over us mere word crafters. They can literally draw a picture to make their point! They reach masses viscerally as well as cerebrally. And visceral usually outpunches cerebral. Editorial cartooning is a profession made up largely of progressive mavericks who enter the social-political-cultural fray with an abundance of anti-establishment audacity, an eye for irony, a fondness for the underdog, an ability to laugh at absurdity… plus artistic talent.
Because cartooning is an expression of the human spirit that has been irrepressible since cave drawings, generation after generation of pen-and-ink champions of democracy blossomed. The general public’s appreciation and demand for the cartoonist’s unblinking honesty and satire have never flagged, even increasing whenever the artists come under public assault by autocrats, plutocrats, screwballs and assorted other censors.
Beyond popularity, though, these graphic editorial artists matter. Again and again, the pointed ink pens of generations of political cartoonists have roused the public to rise up and put down corporate and political scoundrels, incrementally advancing our nation’s democratic possibilities. As in the natural world though, even the most beneficial creatures can be driven to extinction.
Yes, right before our eyes, this invaluable American species — Kartoonus Amerikanas — is fast disappearing from view, and there’s nothing natural about their sudden decline. It’s not the result of a shrinking talent pool, and certainly not due to a lack of political targets. Rather, what’s happening is that their media habitat is being intentionally destroyed.
Around the start of the 20th century, some 2,000 newspapers featured their own full-time cartoonists, but in just the last decade, those healthy media environments have shriveled. So now, only a couple dozen newspapers have these vibrant artistic journalists on staff. One major reason is that most U.S. papers have been gobbled up by profiteering hedge funds that have merged, purged and plundered these essential local sources of news and democratic discourse.
The overriding interest of these Wall Street owners is to cash out a paper’s financial assets and haul off the booty to boost their personal wealth — journalism and democracy be damned. Thus, they view cartoonists as a paycheck that can be easily diverted into their corporate pockets, dismissing the fact that enjoying good local cartoonists ranks as one of the top reasons people give for buying the paper. Note that this mass extermination is not old-school media censorship, but sleight-of-hand money censorship by the new monopolistic order of newspapering. Political cartoonists are still free to express any opinion they want — but the Wall Street system locks them out of their primary marketplace. Censorship is ugly, but eliminating paychecks… well, that’s just business.