Cartoonists use the pen in memory of slain journalists at Paris paper
Political cartoonists in the United States are used to causing controversy and making people mad. They regularly receive furious letters, angry emails, personal insults. Politicians may call for them to be fired. Sometimes they may get death threats.
For this small group of artists, causing extreme anger is part of what they do.
Political cartoons hit people in the gut. They exaggerate issues and mock opponents. They caricature politicians and others to make them look ridiculous. Cartoons freely mock and insult opponents. For the artists who draw these cartoons, the usual rules of polite, respectful debate don’t apply.
Written opinion articles can express more complicated views. They can say, “on the one hand, on the other hand.”
Articles can invite feedback and disagreement. But you can’t argue with a cartoon, said Kevin Siers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist with the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
Because the cartoons use bold images, often humorous, they skip the intellect and get right to the heart of things, Siers said.
In Memory, And In Anger
Early Wednesday, news spread of the massacre at a French satirical paper called Charlie Hebdo. The paper ran humorous articles with comic illustrations that sometimes shocked people. Two gunmen stormed the paper's offices and killed 12 people.
In the past, Charlie Hebdo had caused anger by publishing editorial cartoons showing the Muslim Prophet Muhammad in an extremely negative way. Muslims do not show their prophet in drawings, and find doing so offensive.
Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes was up early and working when Twitter came alive with news of the shootings. Her first reaction was horror. Her second was to start drawing, in memory of the dead, and in anger.
Her cartoon has joined many others in a gallery at poynter.org. Cartoonists have used the pen to show solidarity with the killed journalists, to stand up for free speech, to reach out, and to mourn the dead.
Telanes said she has received threats because of her work. One threat after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S. was serious enough to cause an FBI investigation. In her view, political cartoons have a special power to connect with people, and sometimes, to enrage them. Because cartoons are visual, they can easily be understood around the world, regardless of language.
“A really well-drawn editorial cartoon should grab you quickly,” said Telnaes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 2001. “It’s visual, and it’s satire, mocking people and institutions. Some people don’t expect it, but this is what we do.”
Mocking "Sacred Cows"
Pat Bagley is a cartoonist in Utah whose work has offended some people. He explained that people often become angry when a cartoon mocks “sacred cows." These are ideas or symbols that a certain group of people feel very strongly about.
In 2005 to 2006, the world witnessed the Muhammad cartoon crisis. A dozen cartoons showing the Muslim prophet in a negative way were published in a Danish newspaper. Hundreds died or were injured in Muslim countries during protests over the cartoons.
Bagley, a former Mormon living in Salt Lake City, the headquarters of the Mormon church, drew cartoons that mocked Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley.
Many people were offended by the cartoons, Bagley said. ““They said it was sacrilegious and I had crossed the line.”
Bagley said no ever directly threatened to kill him, although he has received emails “from people who let me know they own guns, they know how to use them, and I should be careful.”
"They Take Cartoons Deadly Seriously"
Still, Bagley said threats against editorial cartoonists in the U.S. and those in other parts of the world are different.
“One thing that is different is that in Europe and the Middle East, they take cartoons deadly seriously,” Bagley said. “In the U.S., we’re more entertainers, and we don’t get quite the respect or the response they do in Europe or the Middle East.”
Bagley said he couldn’t remember when an American cartoonist had been assaulted or killed for his or her work. “It happens all the time in the Middle East, and it happens way too often in South America and sometimes in Europe. It’s really depressing.”
Even though cartoonists in the United States often want to shock or offend, they generally follow unspoken rules. Cartoons here rarely are as bold and controversial as the ones in Charlie Hebdo, which seem to enjoy mocking sensitive subjects such as religion.
David Horsey, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who now works for the Los Angeles Times, said that he once received a death threat in response to his work but that nobody had confronted him in person.
He said the people who disagree with him most are often his most loyal followers.
“They’re back every day just to tell me what an idiot I am,” he said. “There’s not much hate behind it. It’s, ‘Boy, you’re an idiot,’ not, ‘I’m gonna come get you.’”
"The Only Weapon We Have"
Editorial cartooning is “a very dangerous job in most parts of the world,” Horsey said, giving examples from Russia to Sri Lanka.
“In many parts of the world, doing political cartoons about religious groups or about the government lands you in jail or gets you shot or beat up,” Horsey said.
For Horsey and other cartoonists, their first reaction to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo was to start work on a cartoon. “It’s the only weapon we have, the only tool we have,” he said. “This can’t go unnoted. So right away, (we think), ‘What’s the image? What can I say?’”
Clay Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist at The Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee, explained that writers have “a thousand pebbles to throw every day. A cartoonist has a brick.”
To Joel Pett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist at The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, the massacre in France serves as a reminder for cartoonists. He says it should tell them not to waste their opportunity “to draw about something that matters.”
It’s so tempting to pick something in pop culture "or something that has absolutely no importance,” said Pett, who also helps lead the group, Cartoonists Rights Network International. “People are dying out there for free speech. Those of us who enjoy it owe it to them to use it in a responsible way.”