Is a noose tightening around editorial cartoonists? Are they being roped in by cautious big-company ownership?
Cartoonists, being creative types, are natural sufferers. They probably always thought they were up against it.
But the collective opinion of some savvy name-brand cartoonists recently assembled at the American Press Institute was that the fear of offending prevails more frequently today. The same concern has been heard at other meetings around the big table at API.
When you mix 17 cartoonists with half a dozen editors and a couple of publishers, drop in a spoonful of fresh ideas and stir with a pinch of irony and a dash of bitters, you get "Drawing Fire: The State of Political Cartooning."
This was API's annual J. Montgomery Curtis Memorial Seminar. (Participants' expenses were paid.)
The venerable Paul Conrad lamented that newspapers had been "dumbing down," with bad consequences for cartoonists. Pat Oliphant predicted more "dumbing" ahead.
The cartoonists talked about the negative aspects of syndication. Every cartoonist, probably, wants the biggest possible audience. Syndication makes you famous. But it also makes you do less with the territory where you could do the most good: your home state and city. You choose a topic that will appeal to as many newspapers as possible.
Some of the best in the business routinely do only one local cartoon a week, some two. (Local cartoons are less likely to win prizes.)
Editors and publishers who want more than that risk losing good cartoonists to other papers that will not require it.
Mike Waller, publisher of the Baltimore Sun, said local cartoons are the ones that most frequently cause conflict between the cartoonists and their editors and publishers. They're also the most likely to get under the skins of readers. There's a connection here.
Overall, the cartoons that usually cause the most noise are about race, guns, religion, gender and Arab-Israeli conflicts, Waller said.
The delicate relationship between cartoonist and editor will always involve a tricky daily dynamic. Does the cartoonist speak for the paper? The good ones are not illustrators; they have to have running room. The icons among them have escaped almost completely from the tight restrictions of a paper's policies. For others, there must be give and take with the editors.
One thing is certain: Compelling cartoons appeal to readers. They enliven the paper. "Synergy," a much-overworked term, is a reality on editorial pages. The cartoons and letters have very high readership. An unacknowledged fact: Editorials in any good paper also are well above average in readership, in part because they attract a balance among female and male readers. A good editorial page still has a winning combination.
Why aren't strong cartoons regarded as one of a newspaper's greatest weapons in fighting declining readership?
Too much caution with cartoons is another evidence of the lock-step mediocrity that makes so many papers dull.