Last Sunday, David Horsey drew a cartoon showing a cartoonist beset by bean counters and hedge fund execs. In an accompanying essay in the Seattle Times, Horsey declared that political cartoonists have now become an endangered species. Besides a feeling of dread, the thought drew me back to the unsettled days when I was (nominally at least) David’s boss.
It started on a spring day in 1981 when Seattle Post-Intelligencer Publisher Virgil Fassio made a rare appearance in the newsroom. He was there to deliver a bombshell: the news that the P-I was seeking a joint operating agreement (JOA) with its long-time rival, the Seattle Times Company.
Days later, the paper’s editorial page editor, Jack de Yonge, announced he was leaving the P-I to head an Alaska Statehood study. That left me, the assistant editorial page editor, serving as “acting” editor. The interim job stretched to two years as we awaited approval of the controversial JOA by the U. S. Department of Justice.
With the unexpected title came responsibility: putting out seven editorial pages a week, working with two overworked editorial writers and a novice cartoonist, David Horsey. Not long out of the University of Washington’s School of Communications, Horsey had convinced de Yonge to hire him as the P-I’s cartoonist in 1979. The way it worked: Horsey would bring de Yonge a rough draft of a cartoon, leaving final inking until he had the editor’s approval.
After I stepped into de Yonge’s oxfords, we followed a similar routine. Most of the time, there was no problem. Reagan was in the White House and Horsey would often draw the president flirting with ideas like tax cuts, perhaps depicted as a seductive young woman. After seeing Horsey’s rough drawing, I might only suggest he dress the temptress more appropriately for a family newspaper.
Other than showing too much cleavage, Horsey’s other problem was when he flew too close to the publisher’s sacred cows by making fun of Mariners’ ownership or the Seattle business establishment. Each afternoon we’d take page proofs to the publisher’s office and sometimes I’d get a phone call: no hello or identification, just a growl saying I should pull the cartoon as too insulting to the Chamber of Commerce or whatever. I’d usually manage to convince Fassio that Horsey wasn’t anti-business and that cartoons, by definition, always exaggerate.
While Horsey adjusted to barriers, he also took advantage of any chance to get away by way of various summer overseas opportunities, educational grants, and seminars. That left the edit page faced with either using the dreary crop of Hearst cartoonists or finding a substitute for the summer. On a couple of occasions, I lucked out, often with a student from the UW Daily. Among them was Howie King, who had a unique comic style. Howie was working on an education degree and later would become a school administrator and play in a band. Another brilliant find from the Daily was Mike Luckovich, who today is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist at the Atlanta Constitution.
However, one substitute didn’t work out. I forget his name but not his crime. I hadn’t watched closely enough to keep him from drawing an Israel fighter dropping bombs on Palestinian women and children. Somehow the cartoon got picked up to fill a hole on the op-ed page. The next morning, the editorial office was jam-packed: overwhelmed by angry members of the Jewish community.
To assuage their rage, it took a self-flagellating editorial disavowing the cartoon as not based on reality and a goodbye to the fledgling cartoonist. Cartoons typically offend someone, but there are lines that shall not be crossed. (A former P-I edit page editor had discovered that when she ran a syndicated Paul Conrad cartoon showing then President Nixon being nailed to a cross.)
Those were days when almost every major newspaper had a staff cartoonist. Sad to say that is now only a distant memory. In last Sunday’s column, Horsey noted that in July alone, the McClatchy chain laid off three Pulitzer-prize-winning cartoonists in a single devastating day (Jack Ohman of the Sacramento Bee, Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer and Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader). Contrary to a subsequent mealy-mouthed news release lauding their work, the three cartoonists were dumped mainly because the hedge fund put profits above the community journalism it dishonestly professes to serve.
Political cartoonists are merely the easiest budget item for numbers crunchers to target. Not that there aren’t other targets in the incredibly shrinking newspaper world. Opinion pages are one such area. Gannett, the nation’s largest chain with 200 papers including the much-shrunken Bellingham Herald, said last year it would offer opinion pages “only a couple of days a week.” The “Letters to the Editor” feature, blamed for requiring much staff time, has also been wiped out by many papers.
The dwindling number of editorial cartoonists speaks loudly to our increasing inability to find humor in political life and our unwillingness to see more than one side to issues. In his Sunday essay, Horsey acknowledged the obvious truth that an editorial cartoon is guaranteed to anger someone. Yet, he argued that “publishers who stick by their cartoonist are wise enough to know that an outraged reader is an engaged reader.” Horsey calls them “anti-fans,” the readers “who disagree but stick around to see the next lamebrained, ignorant image that we produce.” (Horsey’s latest cartoon collection – his ninth — is titled “Drawing Apart: Political Cartoons for a Polarized America”)
Never mind that Horsey once drew an unflattering cartoon of me; David still is my favorite editorial cartoonist, treasured both for his wit and his excellence at caricature. Who else can so deftly capture the former president — lumpy, orange-faced, mop-haired, squinty-eyed and bloviating? Thanks to you, David, and to the dwindling number of cartoonists who continue to gift us with chuckles and insights. May you continue to stay afloat in these fraught times and keep us smiling.