This week we learned that the influential American newspaper, The New York Times, has chosen to drop political cartoons from its international edition. The Times previously eliminated the cartoons from its domestic edition, forcing staff cartoonists Patrick Chappatte and Hang Kim Song to lay down their pens.
A disappointed Chappatte has written about his termination in an open letter, where he shares that the background for ending political cartoons has to do with a controversial political cartoon that The New York Times published in its international edition in April.
The cartoon he refers to depicts American President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter as a Seeing Eye dog with the Star of David on his collar, while Trump holds the leash. Netanyahu reacted strongly to the cartoon, and Israel’s ambassador compared the drawing to Nazi propaganda in Der Sturmer, the German weekly magazine from 1923-1945, which was known for its hatred of Jews and its anti-Semitic cartoons.
The American newspaper, in the end, had to publish an apology. Now, the leadership of The New York Times has decided to drop all political cartoons. The editors maintain that the newspaper has considered ending the cartoons for “over a year” in the international edition.
’A Pressured Genre’
Roar Hagen has been the staff cartoonist with the Norwegian newspaper VG since 1986 and is regularly published in influential international newspapers. He is well acquainted with the case of the American newspaper.
“It is bad that The New York Times made such a decision. This is a newspaper that is supposed to be the flagship for freedom of speech and a free press, and this says a lot about the pressured situation for the genre,” says Hagen.
Hagen is a member of the international Cartooning for Peace Foundation, where Chappatte is also a member, and belongs to the same syndicate as Antonio Moreira Antunes, the man behind the dog drawing.
“Political cartoons are a peaceful expression that can cross linguistic, religious and political boundaries. That The New York Times does not see this says a great deal about the situation,” Hagen said.
When asked by this newspaper whether he has become more aware of what he does and does not draw in this climate, Hagen said, “I often go through several rounds with myself. It can be the right thing to change your mind.”
Was Accused Himself
Hagen himself experienced a so-called Twitter storm for a cartoon published in The New York Times, depicting Netanyahu taking a selfie in front of a gravestone with the Israeli flag. The cartoon was published in the aftermath of the first debate over the dog cartoon with Netanyahu and Trump, and the subsequent apology from The New York Times.
“I, too, was accused of being anti-Semitic. I am what one calls a friend of Israel, and have from day one as a political cartoonist taken an active choice not to draw anything anti-Semitic. With the discipline’s history from the interwar years, this was important,” says Hagen.
“This shows how terrible the situation has become and how many people have had opinions attributed to them which they do not hold. This shows that visual expression is under pressure.”
Asked by this newspaper how he interprets the decision by The New York Times, Hagen said, “As I see it, this is about readers making a fuss and the newspaper cowardly choosing to cut out one of the most significant expressions of [exercising] freedom of speech.”
More Are Losing Jobs
The curator at the House of Political Cartoonists in Drøbak, Norway, Biana Boege, is outraged that it is The New York Times that now chooses to drop political cartoons.
“This feels like the nail in the coffin for free speech. The New York Times is a leading newspaper that has stood strong in the international media landscape without having a political bias. For this reason, it has been so important that this publication has printed cartoons,” she says.
Boege sees it as a sign of the times that an American newspaper is now cutting its editorial cartoons.
“In the course of only the last year, a slew of newspaper cartoonists have lost their jobs,” she says.
Last year, cartoonist Rob Rogers, among others, lost his job at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, allegedly for some caricatures of Trump. The Israeli caricature artist Avi Katz met the same fate at The Jerusalem Post for satirical depictions of Netanyahu.
Earlier this year, the artist Wiley Miller was fired from the Butler Eagle, an American newspaper. The occasion was a drawing with the inscription, “We fondly say go fuck yourself to Trump.”
“Often it is the case that those who lose their jobs have portrayed political leaders. It can seem as if our democratic standpoints are in the process of unraveling,” Boege said.
Boege also notes the media’s own responsibility for what is published.
“It shouldn’t be the case that political cartoonists are punished for the caricatures. If a controversy arises over a drawing, it is editorial responsibility that should concern the newspaper, not the individual.”
She adds that she often receives feedback from cartoonists who censor themselves.
“This was not the situation 10 years ago. I think that part of the reason it has changed is that controversial drawings today are soon spread and discussed on social media. It quickly becomes a witch hunt for the cartoonist, and this leads to many becoming more cautious,” Boege said.
Cuts Also in Norway
Hagen thinks the cartoon The New York Times published in April should be seen as well within the boundaries of what is acceptable.
“It has to do with globalization and a collision of different cultural expressions. People project all possible things onto caricatures, and then a completely ordinary drawing of a national leader becomes anti-Semitic,” Hagen said.
For Hagen, the standing of political cartoons and the caricature genre is threatened on several fronts. In the aftermath of the caricature controversy, it was dangerous to be a cartoonist, and support to cartoonists was experienced as only partial. Support after the Charlie Hebdo attack also faded, Hagen points out.
Furthermore, the digitization of the press has contributed to cuts among freelancers, among them, cartoonists.
“In Norway, it is not the commotion on social media, but the economy that threatens us. Newspapers that previously invested in political cartoons, such as my previous employer, Stavanger Aftenblad, have stopped that,” Hagen said.