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ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY

Imagine a world without cartoonists

July 17, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

I had already been talking to some of America's best editorial cartoonists about the enduring power of a single well-drawn image when the New Yorker delivered the proof with megaton force -- this week's cover depicting that closet jihadist, Barack Obama.

Put a turban on the senator from Illinois, dress his wife up in camo and an assault rifle, and you get the whole country talking. Some folks were outraged at the elite magazine's insensitivity; others thrilled at the satiric skewering of an absurd myth.

Newspaper publishers and editors take note: Even in that wildly divided audience, no one doubted the cartoon's power to engage and provoke.

Because cartoonists have such a potent ability to excite, infuriate, perplex and amuse, you would think that newspapers -- struggling to maintain audiences in the Internet Age -- might lovingly nurture them.

Instead, cartoonists are disappearing like brunet anchors at Fox News -- about a hundred are scratching out a living today, compared with about double that a couple of decades ago. And this presidential election cycle has been less engaging for their absence.

"Thanks to the Net, newspapers need more than ever a way to stand out in the crowd," said John Cole, cartoonist for the Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pa. "And having a give-'em-hell cartoonist is an excellent way to do that."

I talked to David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about cartoonists going the way of the dodo bird, and that got us wondering about a time when there will be no professionals left, leaving drawing the candidates to -- well, see Horsey's accompanying cartoon.

(Other cartoons by Horsey, who has earned two Pulitzer Prizes, can be viewed at www.davidhorsey.com "> www.davidhorsey.com .)

I might have asked The Times cartoonist to sketch out this problem but -- oops -- the paper ditched Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Ramirez in 2005 for reasons that remain murky. Ramirez was not replaced -- part of an un-proud tradition at Tribune Co., which owns The Times and has been paring away cartoonists with some abandon.

The loss feels especially painful in regard to The Times, because many of our readers faithfully began their day with the opinion pages. They felt compelled to see how Paul Conrad (a three-time Pulitzer winner) would find yet another way to peel back the veneer on Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and scores of others.

The latest blow to the diminishing art comes in Raleigh, N.C., where the News & Observer recently decided to make 33-year veteran Dwane Powell part-time and restrict him to local issues.

What will be lost? The kind of zingers Powell fired with regularity which, in recent weeks, included: a lampoon of Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton as bulls led around by the rings in their noses by a Wall Street steer, and an acid take on GOP alienation -- a pair of Republican elephants so distraught over McCain they are prepared to jump into the abyss from a (flat) Planet Neocon.

Newspaper executives say they can fall back on syndicated cartoonists when locals like Powell are cut, but the ranks of the collectives shrink every time another artist is fired or their duties are reduced.

"Media executives who fail to recognize the unique value of a local cartoonist are idiots and bad businessmen," cartoonist Eric Devericks of the Seattle Times e-mailed me -- a typical sentiment in a profession not for the passion-challenged.

While they mourn their thinning ranks, cartoonists can't help but be animated by the prospect of change in the White House.

An overwhelmingly liberal lot, most enjoyed years of sport with President Bush, finding it easier, as always, to "draw in opposition."

"Still, I feel like my work became more pedantic," said Horsey of his Bush-bashing, "and there was not anything particularly funny or clever left to say about this guy being incompetent or disastrous."

More than a dozen cartoonists who responded to my e-mail last week said they did not have a professional preference in the Obama-McCain showdown.

"McCain's reputed explosive temper is a tantalizing prospect," said Steve Kelley of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "as is Obama's abiding belief that there is no problem so simple that government can't find a way to waste enormous resources failing to fix it."

On the visual side, Kelley sees something of a replay of the 1996 election between President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole. In shorthand: "Mr. Charisma against the guy who yells at kids to stay off his lawn."

I'm worried that the loss of cartoonists -- and their verve and vitality -- continues to numb- and dumb-down an audience that doesn't need any help sinking into complacency.

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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