By Tjeerd Royaards
While editorial cartoonists arguably have been producing excellent work in recent years, the environment in which we do our job is becoming ever more challenging. This article was sparked by the decision of the Pulitzer Prizes not to hand our an award for editorial cartooning this year.
No prize was awarded in Editorial Cartooning.— The Pulitzer Prizes (@PulitzerPrizes) June 11, 2021
Why would a European cartoonist have an opinion about an award for US cartoonists being awarded or not? Because this latest development seems to fit in a trend of several developments that reinforce each other and have one thing in common: they are all detrimental to political cartooning. Most of these developments have already written about, by us and by others, but I feel it's worth mentioning them again.
Many in the field were outraged by the decision of the Pulitzer Prizes not to award a cartoonist this year. The American Association of Editorial Cartoonists issued this statement. US cartoon platform Counterpoint also issued a statement. Michael Cavna of the Washington Post responded with this article. He makes it clear that the decision not to hand out a Pulitzer in a particular category isn't unprecedented, but after a year in which so many outstanding cartoons have been made, it feel unjustified and, even worse, adds to the loss of standing of political cartoons within the field of journalism.
Timid cartoons and no job security
The number of staff positions for cartoonists has been dwindling for years. As more and more of us are forced to go freelance (or have been freelancing our entire careers), the field becomes ever more competitive. Nowadays, many newspapers and magazines select cartoons from a large pool of freelance cartoonists sending in their work. Following the tenets of neoliberalism, this increased competition should lead to a better product. In the field of cartooning, it does exactly the opposite. Daryl Cagle, who runs a US syndicate of about 70 cartoonists, has written many times about timid editors shying away from hard-hitting political satire. The cartoons that get picked most from his syndicate are the ones that do not express an opinion; harmless jokes about the news do well, and cartoons about celebrities. The incentive is clear: if you want to sell your work, you need to pander to these editors; don't be hard-hitting, don't make people angry, don't draw anything controversial.
Freelancing has not only lead to more watered-down cartoons, it has also significantly weakened the job security of cartoonists. In 2019, the international edition of The New York Times decided, on the basis of one controversial cartoon, to stop running cartoons altogether. As a result, two of their regular cartoonists, Heng and Patrick Chappatte, lost their jobs over a cartoon they did not even draw.
Over the last ten years, this kind of response seems to have become the norm; when a cartoon sparks outrage, fire the cartoonist. And with more and more cartoonists working freelance, this decision is easier than ever. If we've published one of your cartoons and it makes people angry, we'll just never publish your work again. There are several examples of this, both in the US and in the rest of the world. They seem to have become more numerous than examples of newspapers standing with their cartoonists. Here are some examples from the US, Australia and most recently, India, where well-known cartoonist Manjul was fired after making the government tried to take down his Twitter account because of his critical work.
There is irony in this. In most professions, when people make mistakes we would say that to err is human; but for a cartoonist, whose job is to provide sharp critique, one mistake is unforgivable.
Please note that in the case of the US and Australian controversy, I do not agree with the cartoons published (which I think were bad and insensitive), but I take issue with the knee jerk reaction of getting rid of the cartoonist. And it's also important to point out that, despite these trends, many cartoonists are continuing to produce amazing, scathing, sharp, hilarious and downright brilliant cartoons. It just keeps getting harder and harder to find placed to publish them. Even social media is getting increasingly sensitive when it comes to satire.
Within this context, it is more important then ever that a renowned institution recognizes the responsibility they have to recognize the work being done by cartoonists under ever more difficult circumstances. Instead, they decided they could not agree on a winner and not to hand out the prize at all. The decision of the Pulitzer Board is not only an insult to this year's finalists, it also contributes to the weakening position of political cartoons in general.