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PANEL DISCUSSION

Cream of the Crop, or Mush?

September 19, 2004|Joel Pett | Joel Pett is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist of the Lexington Herald-Leader. His work also appears in USA Today.

Let's do the math: Each week 150 or so editorial cartoonists in the United States collectively crank out about 600 or 700 cartoons. Subtract the local and state offerings, and the remainder, maybe 400, are on national or international issues. Of these, a tiny fraction, only a dozen or so, are printed in prime-time national spots -- three in Newsweek, five in the weekend USA Today, and three or four in the Sunday New York Times.

Geometrically speaking, everyone in the business wants their rectangles to run in those circles. Unfortunately, the winners are often editorial cartoons with zero editorial content.

Week in, week out, editors at these publications, and at many others across the country, fill space with our lamest throwaway stuff. This has gone on so long that an entire generation of readers and, sadly, editors, seem to regard editorial cartoons as just another infotainment medium, something to break up the gray type and give a comforting chuckle. If the cartoon mentions sex, sports or celebrities, so much the better.

Despite the obvious fact that if we didn't draw 'em, they couldn't print 'em, this is not the fault of cartoonists, but of editors. Cartoonists have lots of theories as to why our strongest stuff is passed over in favor of what we regard as our weakest. Some of us think editors are trying too hard to be fair, or are fearful of offending their bosses or readers, or are too lazy to deal with the inevitable flak. It's more complicated than that.

After all, we're asking that content with potentially broad and positive appeal be replaced with content practically guaranteed to anger at least half the audience. But isn't that what opinion journalism is all about?

The numbers don't lie: Two of the three cartoons on the left ran in last week's Newsweek, the third in the weekend USA Today, accounting for more than one-fourth of the big-play spots. The cartoons on the right, by the same artists, were also available. Check them out and ask yourself: What's wrong with this equation?

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