The Hannity and Colmesification of Cartoonists
When I watch Fox News I see that every opinion, and every person who has an opinion, is classified as either a liberal or a conservative. It is a simple way to view the world as good vs. bad. Pick your side and the other side is bad; we’re the good guys. Each side comes with a complete set of views on every topic. I can order my opinions from liberal list A or conservative list B, but I can’t order a la carte, because that would be too complicated for TV – and, sadly, it would also be too complicated for newspapers.
I’m a political cartoonist. In the black-and-white world of editorial page editors, I’m classified by some editors as a conservative cartoonist but most tag me as a liberal cartoonist. I can’t have a variety of views; that would be too complicated for editors. I’m classified for a complete set of worldviews based on a few cartoons an editor happens to read first. Newspaper editorial pages have been “Hannity and Colmesified.”
Unlike TV pundits, most editorial cartoonists don’t conform closely to list A and list B. Liberal readers bash me for being conservative when I draw cartoons supportive of the troops in Iraq, while editors call me liberal when I bash President Bush for busting the budget. My cartoons are syndicated to close to 900 newspapers, so if editors assigned the cartoonist labels randomly according to the last cartoons the editors saw, it wouldn’t make much difference (I took statistics in high school). Unfortunately, it is not a random process.
I run a syndicate that distributes the work of about 50 editorial cartoonists to newspapers across the country. There are about 1,500 daily newspapers and 5,000 non-daily or weekly newspapers. The largest, most visible, urban papers tend to be liberal leaning (a fact that conservatives complain about loudly) but the vast majority of newspapers are small suburban or rural, conservative papers. The conservative editors from these papers complain to us all the time that they want more conservative cartoonists (not conservative cartoons, they want conservative cartoonists). Most editors quickly classify cartoonists as liberal and undesirable after glancing at a few cartoons, and the editors don’t bother even looking at further cartoons from liberal cartoonists.
We thought we would try a little experiment. We started labeling our cartoons “liberal” or “conservative.” The first thing we noticed was that 80% of the cartoons could not be labeled, such as cartoons about Katie Couric, Barry Bonds, March Madness and the death of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. There was no discerning liberal from conservative cartoons when Anna Nicole Smith went to the Supreme Court, when high oil company profits were disclosed, when Muslims around the world were rioting about Danish Muhammad cartoons, when Hamas won the Palestinian election, when North Korea and Iran bluster about nuclear weapons, when a new study tells Americans that they are too fat and when we all suffer preparing our income taxes. The recent immigration debate defies classification as President Bush and Senate Republicans support legalizing the illegal/undocumented people who are already here. When Cynthia McKinney slugged a policeman all of the cartoonists pounced on her equally. The cartoonists are also in lock-step when they ridicule Saddam’s courtroom antics. Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham had no conservative defenders. What is most noteworthy about our survey is that cartoonists agree about most issues in the news.
About 8 out of 100 political cartoons are conservative and 12 out of 100 can be classified as liberal.
We thought that our bright red and blue labels on the cartoons would force editors to recognize that our cartoons are not overwhelmingly liberal, but they just can’t believe their lying eyes. Although editors don’t argue with the labels on each cartoon (they like the labels), they continue to speak in generalities about the liberal cartoonists rather than liberal cartoons – “Hannity and Colmesification,” where the pundit must be labeled without much regard for what he has to say.
Conservatives prefer cartoons that reinforce their preconceived worldview, and cartoons that deviate are annoying and are noticed; conservative cartoons are reassuring and less noticeable. Cartoons that bash President Bush are annoying to conservative editors; the most common complaints we get are that too many cartoons criticize the president – even when those cartoons are conservative, such as bashing the president for overspending, or bipartisan, bashing the president for FEMA’s poor response to Hurricane Katrina. The other big complaint is that there are too many cartoons about Iraq – in fact there are fewer cartoons about Iraq now that the story is old. I had an interesting call from a New York Times reporter recently who wanted me to confirm that there are more cartoons about Iraq now as criticism of the president grows. Of course, the Times has no cartoonist and runs a pitiful weekly editorial cartoon round-up that they call “Laugh Lines,” so it is no surprise that the Times would be oblivious to what goes on with cartoons in other papers.
It is our role as cartoonists to bash the people in power; we may be perceived as liberal just because the president and Congress are Republican now. During the orgy of Clinton-Lewinsky cartoons we could have been called conservatives – but we weren’t… that was before editors were Hannity and Colmesified.
Daryl Cagle is the political cartoonist for MSNBC.com. He is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and his cartoons are syndicated to over eight hundred newspapers, including the paper you are reading. His book, “The Best Political Cartoons of the Year, 2005 Edition,” is available in bookstores now