Open Season on Editorial Cartoonists?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
The day editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett returned to work after a short vacation, he says, Phil Gailey, his editor at the St. Petersburg Times, called him into his office and fired him.
"I thought, hell, everything was going fine," says Bennett, 36, who had worked at the paper for 13 years and was let go October 3.
At the Seattle Times, political cartoonist Brian Basset, 37, says that on October 18 Editorial Page Editor Mindy Cameron gave him 15 minutes to clean out his office. "We rarely butted heads on anything political or philosophical," says Basset, who had worked there 16 years. "I just don't know what happened."
Was October open season on editorial cartoonists? Though the firings are unrelated, they raise a larger question: Does the political cartoonist parrot the editorial pages, or is the cartoonist a columnist with his or her own point of view? What happens when a cartoonist draws something opposed to the paper's position?
"So often a cartoonist is seen as the mouthpiece of the newspaper, but most cartoonists don't see themselves that way," says Signe Wilkinson, president of the 500-member Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. "You won't find any editor saying I hired a mouthpiece. But in their heart of hearts it hurts when the cartoonist does something against the editorial line."
When Wilkinson goes against the editorial line, her boss, Philadelphia Daily News Editorial Page Editor Richard Aregood, often swallows hard and lets the cartoon appear, she says. Aregood says he puts the cartoonist on the same level as a columnist. "The only time we've had any differences is about the use of religious symbols, but I've never killed any of her cartoons over that," Aregood says. While tension is inherent, says Wilkinson, a good editor will give a cartoonist plenty of leeway.
Bennett, an unabashed liberal, says he was fired because Editorial Page Editor Gailey, after three years on the job, wants his own team in place. Gailey says he simply didn't like Bennett's work. "His cartoons didn't do a lot for me," he says. "If a reporter's making errors and can't write, that's pretty easy to identify. With something like a cartoonist, there has to be a subjective judgment."
Basset's job was eliminated for budget reasons, Cameron says. At the paper, the cartoonist is protected by the Newspaper Guild, but the paper does have the option to eliminate jobs, though it must wait a year before reinstating them.
"It's not an option I wanted to exercise, but we eliminated the job to save the dollars there," says Cameron. "It had nothing to do with any differences in political philosophy."
Basset has a different view. Two years ago, he says, Cameron began telling him his work lacked sophistication and bite. He received poor evaluations and early last summer Cameron began the official termination process, says Basset.
Cameron refuses to comment, saying it's a personnel matter, but says Basset is "very well-liked... so this was not a personality dispute."
Basset believes his dismissal must be related to his performance. "If you put in 16 years and the paper was eliminating the job because of economic reasons, don't you think they'd do something a little nicer than give me 15 minutes to get out of there?"
The firings were blows to morale in both newsrooms. Nearly 200 Seattle Times staffers signed a petition protesting Basset's dismissal and 102 people signed a similar petition in St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, Scott Willis, cartoonist at the San Jose Mercury News, along with San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Tom Meyer started a letter-writing campaign among fellow cartoonists to get Basset reinstated. And Wilkinson sent a letter to the St. Petersburg Times signed by eight Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonists, including Tony Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pat Oliphant of Universal Press Syndicate.
"Clay Bennett is one of America's best cartoonists," they wrote. "To get rid of a cartoonist whose provocative work is an example of the highest standards of our profession merely points out the obvious. Bennett is being dismissed because an editor disagrees with his point of view."
Bennett, who says the paper has become more conservative over the years, says, "Many saw the termination as political because I was out there on the far left. Obviously expressing your point of view can cost you your job."
Gailey says the paper has not swung to the right. "My God, the idea that he was let go because he was too liberal is ridiculous," says Gailey. "If I were purging the liberals, there wouldn't be anyone left in this department."
Bennett says he won't sue the St. Petersburg Times. He is doing a syndicated Sunday cartoon for the Tallahassee Democrat and is searching for full time newspaper work. "They gave me a pretty good severance deal and I'm still drawing for my syndicate," says Bennett. "I'm not worried."
Basset, on the other hand, is furious. Despite having a syndicated cartoon strip, "Adam," that runs in 176 papers, he intends to fight the Seattle Times' decision with the Guild's backing. "My feeling is we'll take it to arbitration and win and I'll get my job back."###