When the Pulitzer Prize committee announced the 2022 winners in early May, one category was missing: There are no more awards for editorial cartooning. Entries will now be reviewed alongside “illustrated reporting and commentary”. As a former editor of the Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, with ties to two prominent editorial cartoonists – one a Pulitzer winner and the other a finalist – I think the omission of the category is a mistake.
The Pulitzer committee’s decision does more than hint at the global challenges that print newspapers have long faced but managed to overcome until the last 20 or so years. Deciding not to honor a subset of the content that has helped them stay afloat suggests the fight to survive in print journalism may already be lost. It will be a terrible shame.
Tribune editorial cartoonist Scott Stantis has had a distinguished career with the paper since 2009. His razor-sharp artist’s pen conjures up clever words and drawings to focus on Chicago’s politically messy landscape. I don’t know anything about Stantis’ personality, but I guess he has a private spirit that appeals to him as he does to other cartoonists who display a bizarre flair on occasion. For example, Mike Peters, a Pulitzer winner once dressed as Superman, hid on a windowsill and jumped into an editorial board meeting to suggest that his role was not as insignificant as the committee members thought so. Another time, he showed up wearing a suit to illustrate that editors treat editorial cartoonists as clowns. While he was pontificating, someone took his street clothes down to a dry cleaner and handed him the slip to collect.
But the pleasure and the games overshadow the singular role that press cartoonists play in the content of a daily newspaper. As blunt or erudite as a written editorial may be, it cannot convey what an unforgettable little sketch and a few words can do in a split second. When a former presidential candidate put supporters to sleep with boring speeches, there were undoubtedly plenty of words to describe his bland personality. But it was a cartoonist, Peters, who drew a woman smiling and waving as the blank-faced contestant stood behind her in a crumpled suit. Peters said it all: “Behind every woman…there’s an incredibly annoying presidential candidate.”
Bob Englehart, my newspaper’s editorial cartoonist, highlighted his best work in an aptly titled book, “Never Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Cartoon.” I had the opportunity to confuse it in a somewhat playful way in a column called “I am the editor of Bob Englehart”. Behind my attempt at humor hides a column with a serious message: “Editorial cartoons are often used as a counterpoint. He is direct and caustic in a way that we can never be with written words. …Cartoons make people laugh. Or your blood is boiling. They knocked on the house. You talk about it with your friends.
Obviously, some readers didn’t always appreciate Englehart’s humor or point of view. So they turned their anger on those who let him start an issue or a politician who desperately needed a figurative stab. As some readers have observed, the publishers received a lot of money to deal with the grief caused by their employee, the cartoonist. What readers didn’t realize was that we savored those moments when they got pissed off. This meant they were doing more than glancing at a page full of words – boring editorials and other opinions flying over their heads. They stopped to laugh or fume in front of a small block of words and drawings. The editorial cartoon was perhaps the most watched face of the paper.
Unfortunately, this is not as true today as it was then.
When the Tribune hired him, Stantis said he was optimistic about the future of newspapers. He said the newspaper sees editorial cartooning as “an integral part of that future”. I wonder if that’s true today. A startling fact: there were about 250 editorial cartoonists nationwide when Stantis came to Chicago. Today, a source estimates that there are 20 who still work for the newspapers. The future of cartoonists is likely to be as difficult as other aspects of print media.
A major chain, Gannett, is reducing the frequency of editorial pages in its 250 newspapers. He determined that readers don’t like to be lectured or told what to think. This conclusion, if accurate, may become even more pronounced as the nation remains severely divided and opposing sides eye each other with outright hostility.
The Pulitzer Committee should applaud what cartoonists are still doing to support democracy. They should restore the top prize for best efforts.
Dennis Shere was a contract criminal defense attorney in a case involving one of the two defendants in the Brown’s Chicken massacre case.
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