Editor’s note: On Monday, the New York Times announced that it would no longer run editorial cartoons in its international edition. In a statement, editorial page editor James Bennet said the decision brings the international edition in line with the domestic one, which has not featured cartoons on its editorial page for decades and ceased printing them in its Sunday Review section a few years ago. But it also comes in the wake of a public apology by the Times in April for a cartoon that ran in the international edition that was widely condemned as being anti-Semitic. We cannot speak for the intentions of the cartoonist, António Moreira Antunes of Portugal, or for the thinking of the Hong Kong-based Times editor who chose to print it, but the image was clearly inappropriate and employed age-old anti-Semitic tropes.
Not many cartoonists are quibbling with the Times decision to apologize for using that image, but they are highly critical of the paper’s decision to do away with cartoons altogether.
“I’m afraid this is not just about cartoons, but about journalism and opinion in general,” Patrick Chapatte, who until this week penned twice-weekly cartoons for the Times’ international edition, wrote in a blog post. “We are in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. This requires immediate counter-measures by publishers, leaving no room for ponderation or meaningful discussions. Twitter is a place for furor, not debate. The most outraged voices tend to define the conversation, and the angry crowd follows in.”
Editorial cartoons are live grenades. They are a powerful form of visual satire that can easily lead to outrage and backlash against those who publish them — but that is also what makes them such a potent form of journalism. When done well, they reduce issues to their essence and deliver a punch that other types of commentary can’t match. It’s no coincidence that editorial cartoonists are often persecuted for their work — or even killed, as was the case at Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
More important than the message of any individual cartoon, though, is what our embrace of this indigenous American art form says about us.
“When I travel around the world addressing audiences about satire and freedom of expression, nothing impresses listeners more than America’s embrace of cartoons,” says KAL, the long-time editorial cartoonist for The Sun and The Economist. “We can savage our leaders in caricature without danger of official reprisals. Unfortunately today in America the danger to cartooning comes not from angry tyrants before us but from our very own newspapers cutting our knees out from behind.”