The Decline of the Editorial Cartoon and Should an Historian Care? 0

Back in April Farhad Manjoo wrote a piece for Slate Magazine entitled, “Editorial Cartoons Are Stale, Simplistic, and Just Not Funny.” In his article Manjoo argues that the Pulitzer Prize committee are stuck in an out-moded mentality in its editorial cartoon prize selection mainly because editorial cartoons themselves is “stuck in the static, space-constrained, caricaturist mind-set of newsprint.” Manjoo believes that the medium of editorial cartoons themselves are “an increasingly timeworn form [where] even the best ones traffic in blunt, one-dimensional jokes, rarely exhibiting nuance, irony, or subtext.”

Monjoo believes that the Pulitzer Prize committee should expand their criteria for the editorial cartoon prize to include infographics, image macros, Tumblr blogs, web comics, and even listicles. He states that he can’t remember the last time a traditional political cartoon appeared one of his various social-media channels. His reasoning for this expansion of the criteria is that “like most political cartoons, infographics are rarely funny. Unlike most political cartoons, the best infographics tend to pack a wallop.”

My question is, how did we get from this:

Herblock, “You mean I’m supposed to stand on that?”
March 29, 1950, Published in the Washington Post

a cartoon by Herblock (editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post from 1946-2001), which coined the term “McCarthyism,” to this:

Matt Wuerker, “Those kitchen tables Americans sit around…”
September 20, 2011, Published at politico.com

the cartoon cited by Manjoo as one of those lack-luster uninspired modern political cartoons. The above example was used by Manjoo in his article and was drawn by Matt Wuerker, the latest winner of the Pulitzer Prize in editorial cartooning.

More importantly, should I care?

For my research purposes, does it matter that this form of political expression has lost its bite and relevance, since, as a historian, I’m examining political cartoons in an era where they were gripping and political and influential? My problem with Manjoo’s article is that (whether he intended this or not) he implies that all editorial cartoons are inferior to the new, digital forms of political expression.

infographics derive their power from real, often surprising data that’s presented, ideally, in a simple, understandable way. The difference between a great editorial cartoon and a great infographic is like the difference between a great painting and a great photograph. Both have their place, but the latter is clearly more influential as a form of journalism.

Manjoo underestimates the editorial cartoon, both then and now. While many cartoons are based on data and facts, they are primarily based on the cartoonists’ observations of society and the artists’ ability to (for lack of a better term) take the pulse of America. In many ways, this is infinitely harder to do, which is why the great political cartoons are clipped, posted to bulletin boards and remembered, in some cases for years after they were drawn. It is easy to display facts on a graph. It is much harder to tap into the Zeitgeist of a population and in one panel remark upon an issue so that the reader will think about it in a whole new light.

Could the problem Manjoo complains about in today’s political cartoons be that in the digital era of the 24-hour news cycle it is much harder to tap into, and quickly respond to, America’s Zeitgeist? Could the very technology that Manjoo argues produces higher quality and more relevant political commentary actually making it harder for editorial cartoonists to do their job? Or, has the quality of cartooning just declined? Regardless of which of these is true, should I, as a historian examining political cartoons from the early to mid-Cold War era, be concerned with the (decline/irrelevance/inferior) work being created by editorial cartoonists today?

The answer to all these question, I think, is yes. Whether it is possible to trace what has effected this change, I don’t know. It will be interesting to see if I can and how this might alter my research.

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