Opus 232 (October 31, 2008). Hallowe’en indeed, the spooky long-awaited Politickle Issue of Rancid Raves, a massive missive, an epic opus, fraught with meaning and pregnant with the fate of the nation’s future. A monster of a posting in honor of a monstrous ElectionYear. You can’t hope to read it all sitting there in front of your computer screen: print the thing out and ponder it at your leisure. To assist you in sorting through it all, think of it as a huge three-cheese pizza—cheddar, feta, and gouda. The usual departments are here—news roundup, plus Newspaper Comics Vigil, Funnybook Fan Fare, and Book Marquee, but the emphasis is on the political content to be found in these genre. The somewhat tangier section, The Politickle Issue, brings together all the scabrous bits and pieces I could find in the last month’s public prints that discredit John McCain’s candidacy, chuck full of braking news. Finally, at the delicious soft-center, a goodly discussion of ethics for political cartoonists, employing an object lesson in the form of an actual person and his adventures. We can’t possibly have this much fun again soon so, dig in and enjoy. Here, as usual, is what’s here, in order by department:


Anniversaries in the funnies, the first and the 90th; Berke’s new book, bad news about a friend’s untimely retirement, two new annual anthologies, a new threat to private life, Jewel of Medina finds a publisher, Spirit news, and incendiary cartoons by Ted Rall, John Cole, and Glenn McCoy



This is the section you can skip if you like, but you’ll miss Will Rogers, the funniest part; there’s also:

Let’s Put the Adults Back in Charge


The Debates: There’s Gotta Be a Pony in There Somewhere


An Ayer-y Distance

Even More McCain-icality

Raising the Risibilities with a Seasonal Sampler of Editoons


Conflict of Interest with some Thomas Nasties


Politics in Strips


Three Collections of Campaign Cartoons


Comic Books Take Political Stances

MSNBC Report on Journalists Who Contributed to Political Campaigns

And a caution: this Opus is much too long to read at a single seating, crouched there in front of the glowing computer screen. Save your eyesight and posture: activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” and then can print off a copy of this lengthy installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu—



All the News That Gives Us Fits

Richard Thompson’s comic strip Cul de Sac about a little oddly normal girl named Alice and her family and fellow delinquents at school was a year old on September 10. A collection of the strips, Cul de Sac: This Exit, is due in bookstores this month from Andrews McMeel. ... On the other hand, Gasoline Alley will finish its 90th year on November 24, an occasion that the current proprietor, Jim Scancarelli, will commemorate with one of his classic nostalgic strips on Sunday the 23rd. And Jim has sent me a copy of the strip so I can post it here, which I’ll do shortly after the 23rd. ... In Baghdad, lawmakers threatened to sue the magazine al-Isbouiyah (or Weekly) because it published a cartoon allegedly “damaging” the image of Muslim women. The cartoon depicted a female suicide bomber in a Statue of Liberty-like pose, with a lit bomb fuse in her hand instead of a torch. The magazine’s editors say the cartoon was intended to condemn al-Qaida in Iraq and its publication should be protected by freedom of expression laws in the country’s constitution ... Berkeley Breathed’s new children’s book, Pete and Pickles—it’s his eighth, I think—is now out in the stores. Pete is a widower pig into whose life saunters a wayward elephant named Pickles, a fugitive from a circus. Pete turns the pachyderm in to authorities but has a change of heart when he discovers the dandelions Pickles has left behind. “Characters that you can’t help but love and big expressive scenes that will leave you feeling toasty warm inside and in the end, maybe just a little weepy,” said reviewer Jennifer Miller in the Rocky Mountain News. ... The new Japanese Prime Minister, Taro Aso, is having a difficult time pursuing his hobby, reading comics. He takes comics with him on trips abroad, but last week he had time to read only two of the four he had at hand. The conservative often gruff lawmaker has sought to soften his image in recent years by casting himself as one of Japan's "otaku"—nerds (it sez here in the online article from which I absconded with this tidbit) whose comics hobby borders on obsession. ... Robert Downey Jr has got iron in his blood: he’ll reprise his Iron Man role in the sequel to last summer’s blockbuster in “Iron Man 2,” out in May 2010, and again in “The Avengers,” slated for July 2011.


The Really Bad News Department. Newspaper cartoonists have lost their journalistic voice, the one heard beyond the borders of their paneled world. For a quarter of a century, the comings and goings of cartoonists were reported to the newspaper industry by Dave Astor, senior editor at Editor & Publisher, whose major beat was syndicated comics and columns. Astor was laid off on Wednesday, October 22, in one of those “cost-cutting measures” that have been desecrating newspapers for a dozen years or more, all dutifully reported by E&P, many of the reports, doubtless, written by Astor. About 20 other staffers at Nielsen Company business magazines lost their jobs in this budgetary binge.

For much of the last decade, E&P, the industry’s “house organ,” has been a steadily sinking ship. In January 2004, the journal shifted from weekly publication in print to monthly, keeping track of breaking news in its online edition, up-dated hourly. E&P had about 20 employees in 2000; by this fall, the roster had dwindled to seven, who valiantly tried to do the work of scores. Editoonist Kirk Anderson, who had exchanged e-mails with Astor just as the axe was falling, said Astor told him he’d written fifty stories over the last week: “That’s more than one an hour,” Anderson exclaimed, “—unless, of course, he was working 100-hour weeks.” Probably, Astor was working 100-hour weeks.

I last saw Dave in June at the convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. We often sat next to each other at these annual confabulations, taking notes on the proceedings. Dave went to his room at the end of every day and wrote and posted his reports to E&P’s New York offices. I usually went to the bar for more practice. click to enlarge Dave’s is a familiar name to readers and subscribers here at Rants & Raves: I’ve quoted his online reporting more often than any other source of the day-to-day news about cartooning in newspapers, and as my hearing has deteriorated over the last few years, I relied more and more upon his reports about the conventions of AAEC and the National Cartoonists Society, which we both attended more-or-less regularly but which I heard less and less. He’ll be missed here in more ways than one: he was a friend as well as a fellow reporter, and we frequently exchanged professional scuttlebutt and commiserated about the state of the newspaper industry. In recent years, as purse strings tightened at E&P, Dave could attend only one of the two cartoonists conventions every year, so he alternated, one year at AAEC, the next at NCS.

But he’ll be missed even more by the cartooning fraternity: “For many years, Dave was practically the only person reporting on our industry, particularly the plight of editorial cartoonists in recent times,” said J.P. Trostle, editor of AAEC’s newsletter, The Notebook. “He almost single-handedly kept our little corner of the syndicated world in the media spotlight.” In 2006, AAEC gave Astor its Ink Bottle Award for his many years of stellar reporting on the profession.

Editoonist Michael Ramsey wrote in Alan Gardner’s blog, DailyCartoonist.com: “I am very sorry to read this. Dave is a great guy, a true pro and has always done a great job covering the cartooning profession. ... E&P will be a lesser publication now.” Said Bill Holbrook (On the Fastrack, Safe Havens, Kevin & Kell): “I met Dave Astor at my first Reubens dinner in 1985. I’ve regarded him as an invaluable voice for the profession ever since. His reporting for E&P has been tireless in keeping us all up-to-date on syndicate news, and to say his column will be missed is the understatement of the year.” Jenny Robb, assistant curator at Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library, said: “Dave also did a wonderful job reporting news about cartoon exhibitions, collections, and special events. What a terrible loss! I guess I can cancel my subscription to E&P now.” Rocky Mountain News sports cartoonist Drew Litton said: “I am just stunned by this news. Dave Astor is such an amazing guy who has championed our causes and given us all a voice in the newspaper industry. Dave is one of the most caring and compassionate people I have never known. And he, much like [the late King Features’ editor-in-chief] Jay Kennedy, was and is really one of us. I’m going to miss him and the industry is going to miss him. But I know that Dave Astor will have many great opportunities ahead because quality and talent always wins out. And Dave has a bunch of both.” And Washingtonpost.com "Comic Riffs" blogger Michael Cavna wrote: “Dave, you covered our business passionately, for a longer period of time, than anyone. If you land at another outlet or start your own operation, please send word: as a reader, I’ll follow you there. Dave has, of course, been a constant source of information through his writing, but I’ve also (like many here) been interviewed by him, and he was accurate and insightful. It adds to a reporter’s credibility when people can say, ‘He got my story right, so I’m going to assume he’s getting the others right as well.’ No, that shouldn’t be rare, but this editor can tell you that it certain is.”

In phone conversations with E&P staffers in the week since Astor’s departure became known, other syndicates’ executives paid tribute to him. Claudia Smith, director of advertising & public relations at King Features Syndicate, wrote the following in a letter to E&P: “In the years since I first joined King Features and learned about this industry, I have come to believe that no publication has covered the business of syndication as effectively as Editor & Publisher, and no journalist has covered it with more knowledge, insight and passion than David Astor. Those of us at King Features who have known and worked with him salute his years of service to this industry and wish him well in his future endeavors.”

At editorandpublisher.com on October 29, we learned that Dave joined E&P as an associate editor in early 1983, working both the ad and syndicate beats. By the end of the year, he was concentrating on syndicate news only. He was promoted to senior editor in 2000. Before coming to E&P he was editor-in-chief of the Rutgers Daily Targum, then reporter for the Daily Register in Shrewsbury, N.J. He earned a master’s at the Medill School of Journalism, after which, he joined what was then called the Passaic (N.J.) Herald News as a reporter.

Reported Gardner: “Dave tells me that his greatest experiences covering the cartoonists was watching the comics page diversify since 1985 with more female and minority representation and having the opportunity to meet the cartoonists he covered professionally. Two giants in the field that he admired and was excited to meet included Peanuts creator Charles Schulz in 1985 and later Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. ‘It’s been wonderful covering cartoon creators, most of them are great people. I’m going to miss covering them,’ he said.”

Other aspects of his beat, Aster will miss not at all he told Gardner—the shrinking number of comics and the many job loses in the editorial cartooning community. Said Astor: “I have written so much about editorial cartoonists losing their jobs, I felt for them, but now I know what it feels like at a gut level.”

Dave told me he isn’t sure what he’ll do next. For the past five years, he’s been writing a local humor column for the Montclair (NJ) Times, and he thinks he’ll try to concoct a national version of it—for syndication, I assume.

Editor & Publisher, which looks to be on its last legs, was not the first trade journal for journalists and newspapering, but it is the last incarnation of all of its brethren. Founded in 1901, E&P joined The Journalist (launched in 1884), Newspaperdom (1892), and The Fourth Estate (1894) in covering the burgeoning industry. In 1907, E&P merged with The Journalist; in 1925, it acquired Newspaperdom, and in 1927 when it merged with The Fourth Estate, E&P was the last of the pioneering breed still standing. But it scarcely forgot its origins: in 1984, it celebrated its “100th anniversary,” appropriating The Journalist’s founding date as its own. E&P eventually absorbed other upstart journals: in 1996, it acquired Free Paper Publisher, which had launched in 1990, covering free weekly community papers; in 1997, it acquired the Interactive Newspapers Conference, which had started in 1988. In September 1999, E&P was purchased by BPI Communications, a subsidiary of VNU-USA, which owns, among other similar entities, Bill Communications, which, in turn, is owned by the Dutch publishing giant VNU N.V. The purchase ended E&P’s ownership by the family of James Wright Brown, who bought the company in 1912. Among BPI’s publications at the time were Adweek, Brandweek, Mediaweek, Shoot and MC magazines, plus online, conference and training operations. John Babcock, BPI prez, was reported as having been interested in acquiring E&P Co. for years: “I always thought it was the perfect fit because we do the same things,” he said.

Since the BPI purchase, E&P, like most of the print news media, has been in the throes of a long death rattle, steadily losing circulation to the Web. I’m afraid I don’t see much future for E&P as we’ve known it. My guess is that the print version of E&P is on the cusp of collapsing altogether; and with the precipitous decline in staff, its Web incarnation cannot hope to cover the industry in any fashion likely to keep or attract readers in the industry.


And just at post time, we learned that another venerable publication is deserting print for the digital electronic ether: the Christian Science Monitor will discontinue its daily Monday-Friday print version after a century of continuous publication; hereafter, the daily CSM will be on the Web.


Once again this year, two publishing houses have produced hardcover anthology tomes of comics, excerpts gleaned, usually, from graphic novels: Houghton Mifflin with The Best American Comics 2008 ($22), edited by Lynda Barry, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, and Yale University Press with An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories: Vol. 2 ($34) edited by Ivan Brunetti. Gratifying as it is to a student of the artform to witness such productions, it is also exasperating to see so much badly drawn material given such prestigious treatment. Just because a story is rendered in pictures rather than solely with words doesn’t mean the story is worthy of anthologizing as if it represents some pinnacle of achievement in American cartooning. Bad pictures—by which I mean infantile scrawl, clumsy approximations of anatomy, or intemperate linework—seem a vital part of the “graphic novel” enterprise these days, and the bad is shoving out the good. We can do better.

Dunno if there’s a trend loose or not, but the local tabloid, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, recently added two new comic strips to its line-up and, to make room for them, dropped two of the most venerable of strips: Garfield and Hagar were elbowed off the page for DeFlocked and The Knight Life strips. And the Centre Daily at State College, Pennsylvania, will add Red Rover, Argyle Sweater and Tundra to replace Opus. To create a large enough hole in the comics section, the paper will drop Dennis the Menace, another venerable presence. Broomhilda was dropped in Australia; probably not a trend though. ... Then a week later, the Rocky (as it calls itself), which has the best comics line-up in these parts, re-instated Garfield, citing reader protests, numbering in excess of 2,000 letters, e-mails, and phone calls. “Many Garfield fans told us that in these troubled times, they counted on the comic relief of their longtime favorite strip,” the paper explained. To make a place for the fat cat, the paper dropped Over the Hedge, which got my wattles in an uproar. Okay, I can understand why they had to put Garfield back in: it's the only strip for cat lovers. It's also pretty worn out and highly verbal in a visual medium. Not a terribly good instance of cartooning, in other words. But, well, demographics always win, right? But dropping Over the Hedge is criminal. Not only is it well-drawn (a notable feat these days), but it is often topical, frequently satirical, and always funny. Why not drop something that is the antithesis to well-drawn, satirical, and funny? Like Drabble, for instance. Drabble's demographic is covered in other of the paper’s numerous “family” strips. And if it gets the boot, then maybe Over the Hedge, a brilliant (comparatively speaking) instance of the cartoonist's art and craft, can return.

Sometime last year, the weekly newspaper magazine supplement Parade revamped its cartoon section, dropping, for a short time, the eponymous star of the show, a St. Bernard hound named Howard Huge, produced by John Reiner and Bunny Hoest, who continues the cottage industry founded by her late husband, Bill Hoest, a magazine and strip cartooner of note, once, 1987-88, president of the National Cartoonists Society. After a few forays into different formats—including, briefly, cartoon caption contests (which it continues online, Parade.com/cartoons)—Parade has settled down to a three-cartoons-a-week format. Howard is back as a regular, but the other two cartoons have no continuing characters except the cartoonists: Gary McCoy of The Flying McCoys and Dave Coverley of Speed Bump; sometimes, Dan Piraro of Bizarro stands in for one of the latter.

The Australian Cartoonists Association will meet November 21-23 at Coffs Harbour to award its distinguished trophy, the Stanley Award, to some outstanding Aussie ’tooner. More when we learn who is the lucky recipient. ... You can still buy the second issue of Stay Tooned, the quarterly magazine of interviews with cartoonists and other cartooning lore; visit Staytoonedmagazine.com, where even the first issue is still available—either one for $10; or subscribe. ... And while we’re on the subject of laugh riots, here’s a photograph of Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, and he’s smiling! Unprecedented. The ostensible cause of all this usually suppressed hilarity? He’s looking at his birthday present—a tiger cub. Takes one to enjoy one, I reckon.


From the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: CBLDF has signed on as consultant to the defense of Christopher Handley, an Iowa collector who faces up to 20 years in prison for possession of manga that he ordered from Japan. Handley, who is 38 years old, faces penalties under the PROTECT Act for allegedly possessing manga that the government claims is obscene because the books include what the government claims are depictions of minors engaged in sex acts (no photographs are involved). CBLDF’s Charles Brownstein finds the Handley case especially troubling. “The government is prosecuting a private collector for the possession of art," he said. "In the past, CBLDF has had to defend the First Amendment rights of retailers and artists, but never before have we experienced the federal government attempting to strip a citizen of his freedom because he owned comic books.” Handley has a collection of over 1,200 volumes of manga; he's being prosecuted for images that occur in just a handful of the volumes in his collection. Putting the case into context, Burton Joseph, CBLDF's Legal Counsel says, "In the lengthy time in which I have represented CBLDF and its clients, I have never encountered a situation where criminal prosecution was brought against a private consumer for possession of material for personal use in his own home. This prosecution has profound implications in limiting the First Amendment for art and artists, and comics in particular that are on the cutting edge of creativity. It misunderstands the nature of avant-garde art in its historical perspective and is a perversion of anti-obscenity laws."


Virgin Comics, abandoned just a few weeks ago, has been acquired by Liquid Comics in a management buyout led by the founding management team of Gotham Chopra, Sharad Devarajan, and Suresh Seetharaman, who plan “to proceed with a number of the projects previously announced as Virgin Comics.” Both assets and liabilities of Virgin Comics were acquired as part of the management buyout.

It seems that I missed the other shoe dropping after reporting, some weeks ago, that Random House had decided not to publish Sherry Jones’ Jewel of Medina, saying that the novel “about Muhammad’s third wife (and child bride) Aisha could potentially offend and provoke a violent response by a small and radical segment of Muslims.” Early in September, Gibson Square Publishing Company picked up the book, “a courageous move in support of free speech,” according to Independent News Agency, which also speculated that “the content of Jewel of Medina cannot be the sole reason for the fear Random House ‘buckled’ in to—as they have published books far more degrading, racist and insulting without the fear of a violent or dangerous response. Censorship of this type,” the Agency continued, “due to the fear of violent response from literature or printed material underscores a more serious issue. Supporters of radical Islam show no hesitation in making racist, bigoted, and false remarks about non-Muslims, Christians and Jews, and in preaching hatred for the United States. However, the explicit incitement and advocacy of violence, murder, and cultural jihad is seemingly immune to criticism. The fear tactics employed by extreme elements of Islam against Random House and the lack of any stance of strength Random House Publishing displayed constricts the free sharing of ideas and undermines the war against radical Islam. Such restrictions on our freedom of speech coupled with the threat of violence are a long term threat to our ideals and values. Ignoring the cause and placating the perpetrators will only exacerbate and strengthen this evil for the future.”


News of the Spirit. Cartoonist Frank Miller, director of the forthcoming film “The Spirit,” told Staci Layne Wilson at ScifiWire that the film will mix eras and influences. "It's romantic, but as in ‘Sin City,’ you don't know what date it is," Miller said in an interview on the red carpet for Spike tv's third annual Scream Awards on October 18 in Hollywood. "It's a very urban/Zorro story. I tried to make it as timeless as possible, so you will see cell phones and vintage cars and not really know where you are." Miller added: "It's my solo directorial debut, so of course that's exciting. I learned everything I know about directing from Robert Rodriguez [who shared director’s credit with Miller for the 2005 movie based upon Miller’s Sin City graphic novel series]. Everything," Miller emphasized. "Mainly, I learned never to waste anyone's time. When the cameras are ready to roll, then the actors are ready to go [and so on]. No one gets tired, everyone steps lively, and I think it makes for a better movie." Miller went on to extol the appeal of his own powerfully beautiful female lead, Eva Mendes, who, he said, will be even more memorable when "she does her march toward the camera. You really see who's boss in that scene. She is amazing." “The Spirit” opens on Christmas Day.

The movie script called for Will Eisner’s durable villain, the never-before-seen Octopus, played here by the oft-seen Samuel L. Jackson, to confront Gabriel Macht’s Spirit with a succession of bigger and bigger guns. After looking over the arsenal, Jackson said he thought the Octopus needed something even larger, so Miller got the two biggest machine guns in the prop room and taped and hot clued them together. As it turned out, reported USA Weekend on October 10, “the hybrid was so heavy that Jackson needed fish wire to lift it.”

The October Previews alerts us to the arrival of an assortment of action figures that herald the forthcoming flick. The 7-inch high Spirit figure includes “real cloth trenchcoat, removable hat, and alternate hands” plus a cat and a crowbar. Sand Seref is wearing a skin-tight rubber suit zippered down the sternum, and Plaster of Paris is dressed like a belly dancer; she comes with alternate hands though.


Incendiary Editoons. Just in time for our Politickle Posting, here’s gadfly Ted Rall with a cartoon so outrageous that his syndicate, Universal Press, wouldn’t publish it on its website. Meanwhile, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, concerned citizens, about 45 of them, gathered outside the Times-Tribune office to protest a cartoon by the paper’s editoonist, John Cole. click to enlarge Cole’s cartoon was interpreted by the misguided multitude as “rampant anti-Catholicism” that mocked “the Catholic faithful” although it’s difficult for an infidel like me to see how that interpretation is possible. Well, no: it’s possible to see how the cartoon could be misinterpreted, but, by the same token, any cartoon that includes any pictorial reference to anything in the real world could be misinterpreted by determined mobs of protesters to be a slight on their favorite cause or belief. Picture a nurse? Obviously, the nursing profession is being ridiculed. It’s a cartoon, isn’t it? Aren’t cartoons intended to make people laugh at the butts of their jokes? So if a nurse is depicted, aren’t we expected to break out in derisive laughter about the nursing profession? Picture a plumber? A cable guy? Obviously, the cartoonist is ridiculing plumbers and cable guys.

In the case of the “elephant in the nave,” however, Cole had something else in mind. Published on October 4, the cartoon was inspired by the pulpit antics of a local bishop, Joseph Martino, who had lately ordered priests in his diocese to read to their flocks a letter urging Catholics to keep in mind the church’s position on abortion when they vote November 4. Because John McCain opposes abortion, many allegedly crazed but otherwise thoughtful persons believed the bishop was endorsing the Republican candidate, and so, too, did Cole. And that’s why he drew the bishop with the lower extremities of the Grand Old Pachyderm, suggesting, strenuously, that the Church had entered the political arena, normally an off-limits region for official religious bodies that enjoy tax-exempt status because of their supposed non-partisanship. Interviewed by Borys Krawczeniuk of the Times-Tribune, Cole denied any intention to demean the bishop although he could see how people might interpret the cartoon that way. He also “denied a bias against Catholics, saying he would have drawn the cartoon ‘if this were any other church or any other faith where you’re basically giving an endorsement from the pulpit. This isn’t an anti-Catholic thing,’” he continued. “There is a principle of separation of church and state, which personally to me is very important, as well as I believe single-issue politics is almost always not a good idea. And that’s my only point, and that’s what drove the cartoon. So I’m not picking on the Catholics.” The diocese said it hadn’t planned or inspired the protest but issued a statement that supported people who felt “the need to publicly express their displeasure about the posture of the Times-Tribune toward the Catholic Church and Bishop Martino. Clearly no other religion or religious leader in this area is subjected to this kind of criticism and disrespect.” Maybe no other religion or religious leader in the vicinity endorsed McCain. Or seemed to.

Rall’s cartoon was inspired by the McCain campaign’s apparent indifference to the inflammatory comments being made by the more fanatic of the Republican candidate’s supporters during rallies around the country. According to the Associated Press, when McCain or his running mate, the former mayor of an Alaskan hamlet, mention their opponent, Barack Obama, shouts of “traitor,” “terrorist,” “treason,” “liar,” and even “off with his head” have sometimes been heard in the crowd. Many observers are fearful that such remarks, undeterred, will incite the lunatic fringe in the country, the sorts of violence-prone nut jobs that need but the most tenuous encouragement to follow in the footsteps of Siran Siran, Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Arthur Bremer, John Hinckley Jr. and other would-be patriots who take up arms against those whom they regard as enemies of “the American Way of Life.” In this climate and context, it is but a small step in a diabolically logical progression to see a lynch mob gathering for Obama, and that’s where Rall went with his cartoon, taking as a visual model for the picture a shocking and controversial Life magazine photo of a lynching in Indiana in 1931. At his blog at tedrall.com, the cartoonist elaborated on his motives and methods:

“I'm releasing Thursday's cartoon (October 23) early because of its newsworthiness and because my syndicate's online division has decided not to release it on its official website. I know that some readers, particularly supporters of John McCain, will be offended by my referencing of a classic 1931 Life magazine photo of an Indiana lynching which shocked the nation. However, I believe it is fair to call McCain, Palin and their campaign for their dangerous tolerance of intolerance among some of their supporters. At a number of their campaign rallies, attendees have shouted comments like "kill him!" and "terrorist!" and "treason!" about Barack Obama. Now, as my readers know, I have been sharply critical of Obama and will continue to criticize him and his policies as I see fit in the future. Furthermore, I am well aware that crazy people show up anywhere and everywhere, and that the McCain-Palin campaign is not responsible for the random hateful comments of some of their supporters. It is shocking, however, that neither candidate is willing to tell racists that their support—and attendance at rallies—is not wanted. When McCain, and especially Palin and their surrogates, hear these comments, they are silent. This amounts to tacit consent. When they appear on television to answer questions about hate speech at their rallies, both of them deflect. They do not directly confront the issue by saying, as they should have said at their rallies: ‘Bigots and racists are not welcome in our campaign or the Republican Party. We do not want their votes or their support.’

“Instead, at the third presidential debate, McCain responded to Obama: ‘Let me just say categorically I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies. Whenever you get a large rally of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people, you're going to have some fringe people. You know that. I've and we've always said that that's not appropriate. But to somehow say that group of young women who said ‘Military wives for McCain’ are somehow saying anything derogatory about you, but anything—and those veterans that wear those hats that say World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens. And I'm not going to stand for somebody saying that because someone yelled something at a rally—there's a lot of things that have been yelled at your rallies, Senator Obama, that I'm not happy about either. In fact, some T-shirts that are very unacceptable.’”

Rall continued: “In other words, says McCain, calling racists to account is tantamount to insulting war veterans. And he dares to compare his supporters' calls—calls he didn't speak out against at the time—for Obama's assassination to T-shirts (he didn't say what he didn't like about the shirts). I was only three months old on November 22, 1963, but I am reminded of historical accounts of the hateful atmosphere that had poisoned Dallas before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. McCain and Palin are playing with fire. I am calling them out for their drive to win at any cost—including that of our national soul. Before releasing this cartoon, I searched archives of editorial cartoons to see if anyone else had done anything else similar. Apparently, no one else has. I don't know why—the idea seemed obvious to me. And it needs to be said. Now let's see how many newspapers have the guts to print this.”

Feelings run hot and high among the perusers of editorial cartoons. At the Kansas City Star, syndicated editoonist Glenn McCoy sparked some low level outrage with an October 23 cartoon that depicted the Obama cabinet with Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko, William Ayers, and even Karl Marx as key advisers. A letter-writer opined: “It feeds the continuing misperception that Barack Obama has been seriously influenced by these individuals and further stokes the paranoia that he is a flaming radical.”

Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.


Interviewed in Playboy’s November issue, Frank Miller talked about the reissue of his 1983 watershed book, Ronin, now entitled Absolute Ronin: “The dirty secret of most cartoonists is we make up stories about things we want to draw. Notice I loaded Sin City with vintage cars and beautiful women. In the early 1980s there was an explosion of creativity coming from France, led by Jean “Moebius” Giraud. And in Japan, Koike and Kojima were doing a series called Lone Wolf and Cub. I wanted to bring those influences together, yes, but mostly I wanted to tell a rollicking yarn about urban life in America. ... At the time, we were still stuck on newsprint [for comic books], with hand-separated colors. Frankly, comic books looked like they were ashamed of themselves. We wanted to bring American comics up to speed to show the Europeans we could compete.” For more, visit playboy.com/frankmiller.

At her website, Hilary Price, who creates the comic strip/panel Rhymes With Orange, said: “One of my goals in the strip is to inspire more young women to join the field. My early inspirations were Dr. Seuss for the rhymes, Shel Silverstein for the clever word play and black-and-white illustrations, and The New Yorker cartoonists Roz Chast, Sam Gross and George Booth. I’d like to think like Roz Chast, draw like George Booth, and have the chutzpah of Sam Gross.”

Berkeley Breathed, as we’ve noticed ere now, has been producing children’s books as well as his Sunday comic strip Opus, which last will cease after November 2. Mike Shea at the Texas Monthly interviewed Breathed a year or more ago and nailed the relationship between the books and the strip for Breathed, speculating that the cartoonist exorcized his cynicism in the strip and revitalized his optimism in the books. Breathed responded: “Bingo. It’s the yin and yang of it. Although, due to the sober realities of the fading newspaper business, I will soon be left with only the yang.” Shea didn’t catch the sub rosa allusion to the impending but, then, unknown demise of the strip and went on to other topics.


Celebrating the Greatest American Comical Strip, Presidential Elections

Wherein Raw Egos and Naked Ambition Are “Stripped” Bare for All to See

In beginning our quadrennial orgy of political comedy, we can do no better, doubtless, than to consult with Pat Oliphant, the editorial cartoonist that most of us aspire to be. He has developed, he says, a new symbol for the Republican Party: “It’s not an elephant anymore,” he said during an interview at scoop.co.nz, “—it’s a pig with lipstick.”

click to view

Like most of his inky-fingered brethren, Oliphant enjoys more than he abhors Presidential Elections—if, that is, we are to judge from the pictures he makes. His cartoons remain among the funniest of the hardest-hitting editoons in the nation. It’s as if, having made his political point, he then continues to noodle around with his drawing, introducing tiny hordes of manic citizens, all enraged about something—senior citizens, say, storming party headquarters en masse, hobbling at breakneck speed on their canes and crutches. Maybe not hordes all the time. Sometimes, it’s just two guys in funny hats, or a frowzy housewife in down-at-the-heel slippers, or Sarah Palin clearing an impossibly low hurdle at the Vice Presidential Debate to the roaring acclaim of Joe Sixpack, or panic-stricken Supreme Court justices, all a-twitter over a decision that invalidates their political mission. Whether depicting lots of people or just a few, Oliphant’s pictures, always, are comic: the message, always, is thunderous with portent. click to enlarge

Not that Oliphant thinks Presidential Elections are frivolous. “I would rather McCain would disappear,” he said. “What worries me is Mrs. Palin, for the obvious reasons. She is clearly not ready to be the leader of the free world. I always collapse in laughter, and then tears, to think of that. It could happen,” he continued. “Nobody ever lost money betting on the intelligence of the American public, and I’m learning that more and more after being here [in the U.S.] about 44 years,” said the Australian-born cartoonist, now a U.S. citizen.

“These criminals who have been in the White House for eight years are already thinking, ‘Maybe we can get away with this again. We can beat this rap’—and give us 12 years, for God’s sake. This will be destructive to the country. Very very bad.

“We will have no chance, if we elect McCain,” he goes on, “at repairing all that damage that was done overseas to our reputation by the Bush crowd. Not only the psychological damage but the actual damage, reputation-wise. We are no longer the leader. We no longer have the authority we used to have. It’s very important that that be repaired.”

Despite his gloom, America’s political plight makes for good satire, Oliphant says. “That’s always been the great thing about this country,” he said, “—anything can happen. It’s very good for cartoonists. It’s not very good for the country, but very good for cartoonists.”

With that as preamble, Rancid Raves will now commence an amble through the political underbrush of the Election Season, a randomly arranged patchwork of clips and quips culled from sundry of the public prints, all, without exception, about the 2008 crop of presidential candidates, among which, by way of injecting even more perversity into the proceedings, I’ve sprinkled insightful comments by one of America’s great political pundits of yesteryear, the cowboy comedian, Will Rogers, who, forthwith, starts us off:

My idea of an honest man is a fellow who will pay income tax on money he sold his vote for.”—Will Rogers

Overture. Voter turnout in the U.S. ranks in the bottom quarter of all democracies worldwide, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Only 44.9 percent of Americans eligible to vote did so during the 1990s. “Overall, the U.S. ranked right between Chad and Botswana. The highest turnout was in Malta at nearly 97 percent. The lowest was in Mali at 27 percent.”

At fatcatinc.com: “New political animal toys give your dog the right to chews.” That’s right, even Fido has a chance to chomp into politics with Bark Obama and John McCanine toys available at PetsMart and elsewhere.

Someone is spreading around the insidious rumor that the U.S. is adopting a new Government Seal: “The federal government today announced that it is changing its emblem from an Eagle to a condom because it more accurately reflects the government’s political stance. A condom allows for inflation, halts production, destroys the next generation, protects a bunch of pricks, and gives you a sense of security while you’re actually being screwed.”

With that, we commence our tour of the festivities, from which, as Frazier Moore has it at the Associated Press, “the tv-news impresarios have, overall, done a fine job keeping tedious substance from overtaking entertainment value.”


And Vote the Children Out of Office

A block of Republicans in the House voted against the first version of the bailout bill, defeating it, because they were miffed at a speech Speaker Pelosi made just before the vote. She addressed the body to the effect that the crisis was a direct consequence of conservative laissez faire economic policies, the “right-wing ideology of anything goes—no supervision, no discipline, no regulation of financial markets.” Instead of just pouting for several hours, like any self-respecting child, the infantile Republicans, as Barney Frank said, “decided to punish the country” because their precious li’l feelings were hurt. Phooey. Throw the rascals out, all of them—every one of the incumbents. Let’s start over. And let’s do it every two years.

According to The Week, the $700 billion bailout is about “$175 billion more than school districts, states, and the federal government spent last year on all forms of public education.”

Lord, the money we do spend on Government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one third the money twenty years ago.” —Will Rogers

Garrison Keillor, September 27: “John McCain is a lifelong deregulartor and believer in letting brokers and bankers do as they please—remember Lincoln Savings and Loan and his intervention with federal regulators in behalf of his friend Charles Keating, who then went to prison? McCain now decries greed on Wall Street and suggests a commission be formed to look into the problem. This is like Casanova coming out for chastity.

“Confident men took leave of common sense and bet on the idea of perpetual profit in the real estate market and crashed. ... That’s why you need government regulators. Gimlet-eyed men with steel-rim glasses and crepe-soled shoes who check the numbers and have the power to say, ‘This is a scam and a hustle and either you cease and desist or you spend a few years in a minimum-security federal facility playing backgammon.’ The Republican Party used to specialize in gimlet-eyed, steel-rim, crepe-soled common sense and then it was taken over by crooked preachers who demand we trust them because they’re packing a Bible, and God sent them on a mission to enact lower taxes, less government. Except when things crash, and then government has to pick up the pieces.

“And McCain has not one moment of doubt or regret. He switches from First Deregulation Church to Our Lady of Strict Vigilance like you might go from decafe to latte. Where is the straight talk? Does the man have no conscience? Where were the cops? What we are seeing is the stuff of a novel—the public corruption of an American war hero. It is painful. First, there was his exploitation of a symbolic woman, an eager zealot who is so far out of her depth that it isn’t funny anymore. Anyone with a heart has to hurt for how McCain has made a fool of her. Never mind the persistent cheesiness of his attack ads. And now this chasm of debt and loss, and the gentleman pretends to be shocked. He was there. He turned out the lights. He sent the regulators home.”

Republicans take care of the big money for big money takes care of them.” —Will Rogers

Robert J. Samuelson, Newsweek: “A dozen years ago, James Grant—one of the wisest commentators on Wall Street—wrote a book called The Trouble with Prosperity. Grant’s survey of financial history captured his crusty theory of economic predestination. If things seem splendid, they will get worse. Success inspires over-confidence and excess. If things seem dismal, they will get better. Crisis spawns opportunities and progress. Our triumphs and follies follow a rhythm that, though it can be influenced, cannot be repealed. Good times breed bad, and vice versa. Bear that in mind. It provides context for today’s turmoil and recriminations.”

In his struggle with Trusts and other monied predators, Teddy Roosevelt embodied a essential truth about capitalism: if left unchecked, the system could self-destruct. Teddy’s fight formulated the fundamental American version of capitalism, which is that government must regulate it just enough to forestall self-destruction without hampering, much, the greedy impulses that animate the system. An admirable balance whenever it can be maintained, a balance struck every now and then over the last century as the party of the capitalists, the Republicans, alternates power with the party of regulation, the Democrats. We’ve been mostly lucky that the pendulum has swung back and forth with some regularity, forestalling, until just now, the self-destruction brought about by simple, uncomplicated greed.

If some efficiency expert would work out a scheme where each politician would be paid according to his ability, I think we would save a lot of money. Once a man holds public office, he is absolutely no good for honest work.” —Will Rogers

Jo Becker and Don Van Natta, Jr., New York Times: “A lifelong gambler, McCain takes risks, both on and off the craps table.” After describing McCain in 2000 “tossing $100 chips around a hot craps table” in a room “reserved for high-stakes gamblers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut”—a casino run by the Mashantucket Pequot, a Native American tribe, which McCain, as a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, oversees the operation of—they continue: “He was betting ... with the lobbyist who represents that casino, according to three associates of McCain. ... As a two-time chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, McCain has done more than any other member of Congress to shape the laws governing America’s casinos, helping to transform the once-sleepy Indian gambling business into a $26-billion-a-year behemoth with 423 casinos across the country.” After a “marathon” session at the craps table, “the Arizona Senator and his entourage [including the lobbyist, Scott Reed, who works for the Mashantucket Pequot] emerged with thousands of dollars in winnings. ... As public opposition to tribal casinos has grown, McCain has distanced himself from Indian gambling ... but he has rarely wavered in his loyalty to Las Vegas, where he counts casino executives among his close friends and most prolific fund-raisers.”

Common Sense is not an issue in politics; it’s an affliction.” —Will Rogers


A woman can go farther with a lipstick than a man with a Winchester and a side of bacon.”—Charles M. Russell, cowboy painter and philosopher

While the selection of the Governator of Alaska as VEEP candidate has consistently supplied most of the campaign’s few lighter moments, as the “first Presidential decision” made by McCain, the Palin pick also shows McCain to be a gambler reckless enough to bet the family farm on a single roll of the dice, demonstrating beyond quibble his unfitness to be President—and it has, in the last analysis, yielded the year’s biggest joke, Sarah Palin, hockey mom with lipstick all over her face.

Since her nomination, demand for the stylish $375 eyeglasses affected by Mayor Palin has “quadrupled,” reports The Week: “Italee Optics, which manufactures the glasses, has added shifts and is working around the clock to keep up with the flood of back orders.”

Tina Griego in the Rocky Mountain News, September 18, reported having a short conversation with a young mother at a Palin rally. “As her 8-year-old son played at our feet, she said Palin ‘represents everything we soccer moms are, every day. She’s someone I can relate to. She’s smart. She’s pro-life. I am her.’ I am her,’” Griego marveled. ... “Palin has tapped into something largely subconscious, something preceding the mommy wars and the media battles over the meaning of feminism. ‘I am her’ summons not only the modern she-can-have-it-all but the ancient she-is-all.” But “this is not the basis upon which one should support a candidate or a ticket. The office for which John McCain selected Palin, whom he barely knew, requires more than gender resonance or identification with archetype. It requires a fluency Palin does not possess in the languages of national security, domestic policy, diplomacy. But make no mistake. What some see in her is powerful. It is a reaffirmation of motherhood, a representation of the innate capacity of women, a testament not to what can be but to what women know in their own lives has always been.”

As a final testament to what “women have always been,” the Republican National Committee had to get Palin a suitable wardrobe and spent $150,000 to “clothe and accessorize” her and her family. A team of specialists at VanityFair.com did a little comparison shopping and discovered a Melton jacket by Michael Kors for $199.50 at Nordstrom that looked as nice as the $4,900 Valentino jacket Palin was wearing; and a Gap pencil skirt for $44 that I’d have trouble telling from the $1,490 Valentino skirt Palin donned.

At the debate with Joe Biden, Palin showed her maverick credentials by refusing to answer Gwen Ifill’s questions. An admirable independence of mind, perhaps, but haven’t we had, after eight years of GeeDubya and Darth Cheney, enough of maverickery in the Executive Branch? People who go their own way and ignore Constitution dictates to do it?

As for Palin and her non-answers, it revealed what we all knew: she knows just enough to talk for about 20 seconds on any topic that Biden could discuss intelligently, without buzz words or hockey-mammery or repeating himself, for hours. But Palin is proving by her popularity that she is no longer the campaign joke: she’s a national disaster in waiting.

Her various utterances in response to questions hither and yon are, as Fareed Zakaria says at Newsweek (October 6), “nonsense”; virtually everything she says is “a vapid emptying out of every catch-phrase ... that comes into her head,” most of which phrases were poured in there by her handlers, talking-points experts all. Zakaria continues: “Can we now admit the obvious? Sarah Palin is utterly unqualified to be vice president. ... She has never spent a day thinking about any important national or international issue, and this is a hell of a time to start. ... In these times, for John McCain to have chosen this person to be his running mate is fundamentally irresponsible. McCain says that he always puts country first. In this important case, it is simply not true.”

Katha Pollitt, The Nation (October 13): “There is no way Sarah Palin is equipped to be vice president, much less president. She doesn’t know enough; she lacks the necessary grasp of, and curiosity about, our complex world; her political philosophy could fit on a bumper sticker: Us Versus Them. ... Lower standards for potential leaders of the world’s most powerful country, in the name of diversity, is what Republicans stand for now. ... Palin’s only qualification for the second or, God forbid, the first job in the land is that John McCain thought she’d lend his sagging campaign a shot of estrogen and some right-wing Christian fairy dust.”

Patricia J. Williams, The Nation (October 6): “She was reciting what would soon become a familiar litany: I am your average hockey mom. I worked my way up through the PTA. Here are my children—Trigger, Trapper, Plucky, Pillow and Plum (or that’s how I heard that rat-a-tat blizzard of names the first time around). ... In the few weeks since Sarah Palin has become a household name, she’s often been glibly compared to a Barbie doll. ... I think the analogy is more apt when thinking about how Palin has been mass-marketed. As Barbara Johnson says, ‘The packaging is part of what the consumer buys: not only can Barbie not stand without the box, but in it she is positioned for maximum effect.’ ... That so much of the public is willing to buy it is something I find much more disconcerting than lipstick on a pit bull; to me, it looks frighteningly like Karl Rove in designer glasses and a skirt.”

She is, however, a terrific performer of speeches. Her acceptance speech at the Republican Convention was written for the “vice presidential nominee” some weeks before anyone knew it would be Palin—the scribe, Matthew Scully, who once wrote memorable lines for GeeDubya. A few of the zingers—like the pitbull and lipstick line—were doubtless supplied by Palin; but most of it was Scully’s. Palin, however, is undeniably a superb stage presence who can read a teleprompter with panache. Her mockery of community organizers, however, was an insult to everyone who ever worked at the grassroots level—once, ironically, the goal of the Republican Party in espousing doctrines for smaller government.

In the interest of letting you all in on the hilarity that is Sarah Palin, the Governator of Alaska, here are a couple genuine gems from my gleanings of the more trenchant witticisms of the last seven weeks:

“I for one feel better knowing Sarah Palin is watching out her kitchen window and keeping an eye on those godless, commie Eskimos in Russia.” —Rocky Hill, Denver resident

“This week, the presidential race continued to tighten up. In fact, according to the latest polls, John McCain is now only six points behind Sarah Palin.” —Amy Poehler, “Saturday Night Live”

Speaking of SNL, Palin finally made it into the other branch of show business when she appeared on the program the same night Tina Fey did one of her Palin impersonations. The two didn’t speak, but they passed each other on camera, Palin leaving the stage as Fey arrived. Entertainment Weekly interviewed SNL’s creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels, about Palin’s appearance; he was highly complimentary, saying Palin “could have her own show.” As for Palin’s willingness to appear at all, he said: “People either have a sense of humor about it or they don’t. They probably wouldn’t be there if they didn’t.” So Palin proved she has a sense of humor, but she still can’t see that she’s the joke.


Leonard Pitts Jr., my favorite syndicated columnist: “There were once two compelling arguments for a McCain presidency. The first, he was a man of long experience and experience matters. The second, he was a man of honor, of such fierce moral courage that he would never put that which was political above that which was right. McCain took the first argument off the table when he chose as his running mate the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a woman of such meager substance that even conservatives have been lining up to denounce her. He is now in the process of taking a sledge hammer to the second argument. It’s not a pretty sight. ... McCain has been muttering, “Who is the real Barack Obama?’ as if we had not been drowning in all things Obama for two years. ... What McCain is doing is not the usual business of questioning an opponent’s plans, fitness or intelligence. Rather, he is attempting to resurrect the threadbare narrative which holds that Obama, by dint of color and heritage, is something foreign, something scary, something not of us. It’s an offensive argument, yes. But in a nation as riven and fearful as ours, it is also a dangerous one. After all, it is a short leap from toxic words to toxic deeds.” It’s gone far enough that McCain himself has asked his supporters to “dial it down. Take it as evidence of a schizophrenic campaign, and of a man ill at ease with having compromised some essential part of himself. McCain seems ashamed, and he has good reason. So the question McCain faces is this: Would he rather run a losing campaign of which he can be proud, or a winning campaign of which he cannot? An honorable man wouldn’t need to think twice.”

There is no other business in the world that allows a man to work after he is fired except politics.” —Will Rogers

Eric Alterman, The Nation (October 6): “Recently, the media have begun to pick upon the McCain campaign’s strategy of brazenly lying to the public whenever convenient. ... Among the most egregious were the allegation that Barack Obama had called Palin a pig and the accusation that he favors sex education for children too young to read. And yet many in the media cling to the belief that it is the calling of a reporter to report a politician’s lies without apparent prejudice.”


In an attempt, no doubt, to help John McCain with his faulty memory about his possessions, The Week (October 3) reported that the Republican candidate and his wife “own 13 cars, including a Lexus and a Honda,” adding that Barack and Michelle Obama own one, a Ford Escape hybrid. The McCains’ fleet,” the magazine continued, “also includes a 1960 Willys Jeep that is older than Obama.”

If we didn’t have two parties, we would all settle on the best men in the country, and things would run fine. But as it is, we settle on the worst ones and then fight over ’em.”—Will Rogers

The Nation, September 15: “As they arrive in Minneapolis for their convention, Republicans cannot evade the monuments to their misrule. Only a few miles from convention headquarters is the site of the I-35W bridge, which collapsed last August 1, killing thirteen and injuring 145, symbol of the Republican drive to ‘starve the beast’ by stinting on basic public investment, rolling back sensible regulation, scorning the very government they were elected to lead. ... Thanks for the memories—Iraq, Katrina, record home foreclosures, Gilded Age inequality, corporate cronyism, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and more.”

About McCain: “Once more McCain is dusting off the old staples: tax cuts for the rich and the corporations as a recipe for growth,” a policy which has proven itself a failure ever since installed by Ronald Reagan and his cronies. “Corporate trade deals as a generator of jobs. More war and more imperial bluster. More Big Oil energy and Big Pharma medicine policies. He calls for privatizing Social Security [converting it to a profit-making enterprise instead of a safeguard against poverty in old age] and taxing healthcare benefits. ... Cloistered in a life of privilege —raised on an admiral’s estate, married into an heiress’s fortune—McCain dares paint Barack Obama, who grew up in less than ideal circumstances, as elitist and out of touch. And so McCain’s campaign is reduced to a noun, a verb and POW, invoking the one sacrifice of his life to fend off a deeper look at his career and policies. ... McCain dare not acknowledge that market capitalism, once relieved of government regulations and social obligations, has produced harsh inequalities and brutal dislocations instead of general prosperity.”

That’s one peculiar thing about a Democrat—he would rather be told that he is right, even if he knows the guy is a liar, than he would to know he is wrong but belongs to the Republican party.”—Will Rogers

The Nation, September 15: John McCain believes “that the United States must come to the defense of the reckless Georgian government, which taunted Moscow and wound up getting its butt kicked.”


Letter to the Editor, Denver Post: “Am I the only middle-class working man in America who is offended by being referred to as ‘Joe Sixpack’?” who he then goes on to describe as “sad souls who have fallen victim to the exploitation of the working class—also known as functioning alcoholics, who ... pick up a sixpack after work and hopelessly drink themselves to sleep on the couch every night. ... In my experience, Joe Sixpacks are not the kind of citizens who bother to vote. ... these are the men who have given up on the American dream. Thank God they are in the minority. Thank God Sarah Palin doesn’t know what she is talking about.” Ted Paske

There is no race of people in the world that can compete with a Senator for talking. If I went to the Senate, I couldn’t talk fast enough to answer roll call.”—Will Rogers

In Entertainment Weekly’s “Final Cut” for September 26, Mark Harris took on tv news coverage of the Presidential Extravaganza, calling the campaign “tv’s most popular series. Don’t groan,” he continued, “—you’re the ones who made it a hit.” Excerpts: “In short, tv news coverage of the impending election is bigger than “American Idol.” Sadly, it’s also dumber. Television has told this story largely by dodging in-depth coverage of the issues while focusing obsessively on either campaign strategy or ‘compelling personal narratives.’ That approach warps the news into two genres tv understands—a reality-show competition and a prime-time soap—while avoiding real substance. This year’s election is gripping people along the entire political spectrum. But it’s easier to cover the contest that to cover what the contest is about. And on that front, so far, tv journalism has let us down. Let’s immediately write of Fox News, that nonstop foghorn of strident right-wing inanities. And for its pathetic (and short-lived) attempt to become the just-as-noisy-and-dumb left-wing version of Fox, let’s also consider MSNBC benched until November. That leaves ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and PBS, which have four big opportunities to redeem themselves—the presidential and vice presidential debates.”

Harris then describes five ways tv news could redeem itself in its coverage of the debates: “1) Make the candidates talk to each other. If they start to go into monologue autopilot, push them harder with follow-up questions, but if they’re arguing with each other, stay out of the way. 2) Refuse to send any reporters to any candidate’s ‘spin room’ after the debate ends. ... It’s called spin for a reason. To repackage it as ‘news’ isn’t just inept, it’s irresponsible. 3) While you’re at it, please spare us those instant post-debate focus groups in which you corral the last 20 people in America who apparently didn’t know this was an election year and try to extract coherent reactions from them. 4) Devote the following evening’s newscast to telling us exactly who lied and about what. ... Do your own legwork. ... And if you do identify an outright, no-gray-area falsehood, tell us—and don’t give the person who lied equal time to tell the same lie again. That’s not ‘fairness,’ it’s just laziness. 5) If you think the candidates and campaigns are skimming over important issues, take the lead and generate your own material—an hour on education, on health care, on national security or the economy.”

“This is your one chance to go deep,” Harris concludes, “and it runs out in six weeks. So do it. And do it in prime time.”


There’s Gotta Be a Pony in Here Somewhere

Our subtitle, you may recognize, comes from an inventive tale about optimism. It seems a small boy was eagerly looking forward to getting his heart’s desire for a birthday present, and his father took him out back to the barn, handed him a shovel, and said his present would be inside. A few hours later, the father returned to discover his son cheerily digging in a huge pile of horse manure, saying, “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere.”

And that, as surely as day follows night, describes our sentiment about the always popular and invariably disappointing Presidential Debates.

In the 3rd and last debate, not much changed even though it was the most viewed tv program of the week according to Entertainment Weekly: it drew an estimated 31 million viewers on broadcast television, plus another 25.5 million on cable; next highest ranked was CBS’s “CSI” with a mere 19.3 million. During the debate, McCain repeatedly, at every opportunity, discussed the issues exclusively in terms that would appeal to one of the Republican niche groups; Obama, on the other hand, spoke to the issues, suggesting programs and solutions. Which of these two approaches sounds like a president for all Americans?

By the conclusion of the 3rd debate, our disappointment at the shallowness of the interrogatory exchanges was well nigh colossal. None of the questions—or, even, responses that weren’t exactly answers—addressed the sorts of large issues that face the country and its government in the wake of the disastrous Bush League occupancy of the White House. We heard no questions about what the limits of presidential power ought to be, about the legitimacy of detaining “enemy combatants” (even American citizens) in Cuba and elsewhere, about torture, about renditions, about wire-tapping of U.S. citizens, about the wisdom (or folly) of contracting out so much of the military’s traditional functions to high-paid mercenaries, about how to preserve Social Security and Medicare, about the Constitutionality of “signing statements,” about all the tangential threats to civil liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution, which have been systematically eroded by Darth Cheney and his cronies. Answers to such questions by candidates for the Presidency would tell us much more about the kind of President a particular candidate might be than bloviations about how to improve the nation’s health care, which a president can’t do much about, alone, without Congress’ acquiescence. Other crises we face—global food shortages, population explosion, scarcity of water, human rights, species extinction—likewise received short, and sometimes nonexistent, shrift. It was clearly hoping for too much to expect some discussion about undoing the right-wing infestation of the federal bureaucracy by the Bush League minions—creating a fifth column that will threaten American liberty and life for generations if not rolled back soon—not to mention the urgent need to discard the treasonous systematic re-interpretation of laws that resulted in changing their meaning in order to pervert the intent of the legislation, but that didn’t stop me from hoping. And I’m still at it.

Headlines from Don Asmussen’s Bad Reporter:



Senator Accuses Obama of “Failing to Lead during This Palin Emergency’;

GOP Faults Pelosi for McCain’s VP Pick


GOP: “Do You Want Your Government

Telling You When to Stop at Intersections?”


Paul Campos, Rocky Mountain News: “Every mass political movement has its lunatic fringe. In the case of contemporary conservatism, that fringe is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from the center.”


The irony [in the Wall Street meltdown a couple weeks ago]—yes, even in economics, there’s irony—is that the Bush administration, which thinks that unfettered and capitalism go together like subverted and Constitution, will be remembered for nationalizing the mortgage industry, bailing out Wall Street firms, and putting the government in the insurance business. And where does that leave the rest of us? How about somewhere between leveraged and beveraged?”—Mike Littwin, Rocky Mountain News pundit.

What could we expect? Remember that good ol’ GeeDubya failed at every business he was ever a part of. He drove three oil companies into bankruptcy before starting on the state of Texas, which he left deeply in debt. And then he moved on to pervert the U.S. Constitution and to destroy the country’s economy with the same carefree smirk as he’d displayed while a frat boy cheerleader in college and, later, as the spoiled son of a distinguished American public servant (that’s his father, kimo sabe). What a record GeeDubya leaves behind him!

George W. (“Wrecker”) Bush, saith Sean Wilentz at Rolling Stone (September 4), will leave office “with the longest sustained period of public disapproval ever recorded ... one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the American presidency.” By way of explaining all this, Wilentz runs through a litany of malfeasance by the Bush League: “The deepening quagmire in Iraq coupled with reports that the administration had relied upon false as well as questionable evidence to justify the original invasion, soured the public’s mood ... [leading to what George Will called] “a torrent of acrimony about the dubious inception and incompetent conduct of a war that became perhaps the worst foreign-policy debacle in the nation’s history.” Wilentz continues: “The growing dissent was fueled by the administration’s efforts to claim extraordinary executive powers under the cover of an undeclared war, to disregard the Constitution and defy Congress by using so-called ‘signing statements’ [that, in effect, announced that the President had no intention of enforcing or executing the law, a treasonous flouting of the Constitution’s explicit description of the duties of the Executive], to spy on American citizens without warrants, and to torture [helpless] prisoners detained [without habeas corpus] in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” And it got worse with “the White House’s abortive campaign to privatize Social Security under the guise of reform. Then came the Terri Schiavo affair, in which Bush signed extraordinary legislation giving federal courts the authority to force a husband to keep his irreparably brain-damaged wife alive [obeying a moral imperative, presumably, which, in effect, insinuated a religious as well as a moral stance into government]. ... Then came Hurricane Katrina ... marking the turning point in the public’s evaluation of [the Bush League as Americans watched on tv] while the federal government, through incompetence and neglect, abandoned a great American city to its fate. ... The catastrophe dramatized the results of decades of Republican indifference to the plight of the nation’s urban poor.”


At the Washington Post at the end of October, E.J. Dionne wrote: “Conservatism has finally crashed on problems for which its doctrines offered no solutions (the economic crisis foremost among them, thus Bush’s apostasy) and on its refusal to acknowledge that the ‘real America’ is more diverse, pragmatic and culturally moderate than the place described in Palin’s speeches or imagined by right-wing talk show hosts.”

Elections are like mosquitoes: you can’t very well fight ’em off without cussin’ ’em.”—Will Rogers

Of the 150 or so alleged “protesters” arrested during the Dem Con in Denver, most of them were “local”: 45 Denver residents and 93 from other Colorado cities. We don’t need these figures to realize that the protest, as imagined by its sponsors and as egged on by the insufferable gasbag Rush Limbaugh, was a failure—not even a resounding failure, but an almost invisible silent failure. Planners of the street fair frontline had been talking all year about thousands of fellow malcontents descending on Denver from all across the country. Mostly, if we consider the arrested protesters a rough gauge, they all stayed aloft and never descended. But we don’t need to guess based upon arrest records. The so-called “organizers” of the protesters have pronounced it a failure. “Mass marches don’t work any more,” said co-founder Mark Cohen; “politicians don’t perceive any kind of threat from our actions.” His co-conspirator with “Recreate 68,” Glenn Spagnuolo (described as “louder-mouthed”), said: “I’m done with that type of protest.” And one of the leaders who succeeded in getting himself arrested, Carlo Garcia, said: “At the end of the day, the only people who heard us were the riot cops.” Not that the protesting class has given up all hope: they went at work immediately planning protests with the American Indian Movement, which hopes to disrupt, again this year, the Columbus Day parade downtown. But enthusiasm is frail. Said AIM leader Glenn Morris: “The question is whether it’s worth our time, energy and resources to scream at a blind and deaf infrastructure.” But, he added, “surrender is not an option.” Disruption fatigue, however, is rampant: the Columbus Day parade in Denver went off without any notable disturbances or confrontations. Spagnuolo, who has added to his agenda of revamping Western Civilization, the intention of ending the parade, said that lawyers for the protesters needed a break. Reported the Rocky Mountain News’ Berny Morson: “The same lawyers who defended the Columbus Day protesters last year—when 83 people were arrested—also represented some of the same people after arrests during the Democratic National Convention [in August]. ‘That’s thousands of dollars worth of legal work that’s done for us,” said Spagnuolo. “You have to be respectful of their time and their resources.” Respect lawyers’ time and resources but disrespect Italians celebrating Columbus’ voyage of discovery?


One of McCain’s favorite mantras, attributed, he says, to Mao: “It’s always darkest just before it’s totally black.”

Politics has always been lousy with blather and chicanery. But there are rules and traditions, too. In the early weeks of the general election campaign, a consensus has grown in the political community ... that John McCain has allowed his campaign to slip the normal bounds of political propriety. ... Even such August institutions as the New York Times editorial board are calling John McCain a liar. ... Almost every politician stretches the truth. ... McCain’s lies have ranged from the annoying to the sleazy, and the problem is in both degree and kind. ... [He has persisted] in repeating demonstrably false charges [which is] something new in presidential politics. Worse than the lies have been the smears. ... These dreadful weeks should not be forgotten. John McCain has raised serious questions about whether he has the character to lead the nation. He has defaced his beloved military code of honor. He has run a dirty campaign.” —Joe Klein, Newsweek

More Bald-faced Lies: Sarah Lipstick Palin rated a 67 on Newsweek’s Dignity Index, October 27, because, in responding to the news about the Troopergate report, she said she was “pleased to be cleared” of “any kind of unethical activity.” But the report said exactly the opposite. Hitler and his crew showed us how: tell a lie often enough, and people will begin to believe it.


Seen, repeatedly, on tv: McCain, responding to one of his more fevered supporters at a town meeting, who announced he was terribly concerned because Obama was an “arab,” McCain said, “No. He’s not. He’s a decent man.” The implication is that arabs are not decent; neither, therefore, are Muslims. As Collin Powell pointed out during his historic “meeting with the press” a couple weeks ago, if Obama were a Muslim (he’s not, but if he were), the proper response is: So what? Isn’t this a country in which everyone has freedom of religion? Isn’t the implication that all religions are, while not equal, at least equal under the law?


McCain has also proved to be erratic and impulsive, always a reed in the wind, changing his position on issues, flitting from one crisis to another with sound-bite solutions and a serious face but little serious deliberation. “We are all Georgians,” he said, hoping to inaugurate a national catch-phrase like JFK’s “We are all Berliners.” But the Georgian call to patriotism fell flat, leaving McCain on stage with his oh-so-serious face.

And then, as Congress wrestled with the Wall Street Bailout, McCain had this pronouncement: “I do not believe that the plan on the table will pass as it currently stands, and we are running out of time. I will suspend my campaign and return to Washington.” And what? Save the day? Rescue the nation? The Congress? More serious face. More grotesque show-boating.

Did McCain believe he alone could save the financial institutions of the civilized world? Apparently. But, no—that’s not why he suspended his campaign. He suspended his campaign in order to dodge the latest bullet Baracko Bama sent his way. Here’s how Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin told the tale: “And then came the Wednesday morning phone call. It wasn’t 3 a.m. It was 8:30 a.m., and that was close enough. ... Obama calls McCain at 8:30 a.m. [proposing that they issue a joint statement incorporating their mutually held beliefs about the financial crisis]. He doesn’t reach McCain, but he leaves a message, and you can imagine the panic that must have set in [at McCain headquarters]. If there’s a joint statement, one suggested by Obama, then Obama wins the day. If McCain refuses to make a joint statement, then, well, Obama wins the day. And so McCain calls a TO, baby. It’s what the pundits like to call an obvious political ploy, in which McCain politicizes the crisis by saying that the crisis shouldn’t be politicized. It isn’t as if you need to suspend campaigns during difficult times. (See Roosevelt-Landon, Great Depression.) But McCain did need something.”

Really. McCain’s pose of sacrificing his campaign to the greater good of Wall Street is so transparently a political maneuver, designed to do nothing except draw attention to himself. He hasn’t been in Washington to vote in the Senate for months. Then he cancelled an appearance on “The David Letterman Show,” so pissing off Letterman that the easy-going late nighter went off on McCain for ten minutes. Adding to his pique, possibly, was McCain’s appearance on “CBS News” a few minutes before with Katie Couric. Couric is important; Letterman is chopped liver.

If McCain’s actions don’t demonstrate for once and all his absolute unfitness for the office, then Obama’s comment is surely the nail in the coffin lid. Said he: “It’s going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.” And McCain apparently can’t multi-task. Even GeeDubya was capable of waging a war on terror and getting in a good hour of exercise a day.

“I”m going to suspend my campaign”—until when? Until the Congress finally enacts a bailout bill for Wall Street? McCain is a poseur, not a leader.

As our Government deteriorates, our humor increases.” —Will Rogers


In articles purporting to clarify Barack O’Bama’s relationship to William Ayers, one-time Weatherman and a founder of the anti-war group, Obama is usually quoted to the effect that his connection with Ayers was casual and of little consequence. So far, so good. But since it is Ayers’ supposed advocacy of violence as a method of protest that Obama is being associated with, why not quote Ayers’ denunciation of violence and terrorism? In his blog/website on September 15, 2001, Ayers posted a letter he said he’d sent to the New York Times, attempting to correct an erroneous impression that he was still a dedicated terrorist created by the article Dinitia Smith wrote, published in the Times on September 11, 2001. In this letter, Ayers says, in reference to his recently published memoir, Fugitive Days: “My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy.” In a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune (September 23, 2001), Ayers wrote: “I condemn all forms of terrorism—individual, group, and official.” Although Ayers has been quoted as having “no regrets” about his Weatherman career, saying “we didn’t do enough bombing” and he would “do it all again,” he has characterized those quotations as not only “taken out of context” but “deliberate distortions.” In fact, he said “we didn’t do enough” but doesn’t say “enough bombing.” Attempting to clarify, Ayers says he did not mean that he wished to have set more bombs but that his efforts were “inadequate” because they did not stop the Vietnam War. “We didn’t do enough,” Ayers explained again in September 2008, “is not a tactical statement; it’s an obvious political and ethical statement. In this context, ‘we’ means ‘everyone.’” It seems to me that to fail to report Ayers’ statements about terrorism and the Weathermen is to reduce articles about Obama and the Republican accusations to “he said” vs. “he said,” gossip rather than reportage. And it leaves poor grizzled old anchors like Tom Brokaw flailing foolishly about: Brokaw actually asked Collin Powell during the famed “Meet the Press” encounter when Powell endorsed Obama, wouldn’t it have been better had Ayers come out in public to denounce bombing and terrorism? Well, yes; but I think Ayers did that, at least three times by my count, and none of them had penetrated the anchor’s head.

As for the “radical education foundation” Obama ran with Ayers, it was the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, funded somewhat by Walter Annenberg, a lifelong Republican and former ambassador to the United Kingdom under Richard Nixon. PolitiFact.com notes that “Obama served on the foundation’s volunteer board from its inception in 1995 through its dissolution in 2001 and was chairman for four years. ... Ayers was active in getting the foundation started but was never on the board.”

Meanwhile, speaking of incendiary associations, what about Henry Kissinger, honorary co-chair of McCain’s New York campaign and a foreign policy advisor to the candidate? “If we’re going to make crimes of the radical left in the 1960s and 1970s a campaign issue,” said Paul Campos on October 8 in the Rocky Mountain News, “then how about the crimes of the radical right?” Campos then lists a half-dozen of Kissinger’s international initiatives that “morally speaking, make Ayers’ actions, deplorable as some of them were, look like the equivalent of jay-walking”—all of which have made it “dangerous for Kissinger to travel overseas because of the possibility he would be arrested as a war criminal.”


Garrison Keillor, on or about October 18: “The American people are poised to do something that could not be imagined ten years ago—or even five—which is to vote for the best man regardless of his skin color and elect him president. The campaign against him is not one that anybody will point to with pride in years to come. It is a long trail of honkings and flappings and traces of green slime, as if a flock of geese had taken up residence in the front yard. But Barack’s cool poise in the face of blather is some sort of testament to American heart and humor.”


Jon Meacham in Parade (October 19), discussing “five ideas for our next president,” all derived from Andrew Jackson, “Old Hickory,” who, Meacham writes, “created the modern Presidency” and also advised keeping church and state separate: “Raised a Presbyterian, Jackson was a religious man. But he resisted calls for the formation of a ‘Christian Party in Politics,’ believing that liberty of conscious—the right to believe or not—was a fundamental American value and that the federal government should stay out of matters of faith. Such distance was good for faith and government. Like the Founding Fathers, Jackson thought that public life was complicated enough without turning political disputes into religious ones, something we often forget.” Particularly in the last decade or so.

They are so hard up for an issue that Mr. McCain has finally just announced his policy will be Common Sense. Well, don’t you know the Democrats will claim that too? Do you think they will call their campaign ‘Darn Foolishness’?”—Will Rogers


George Will, syndicated columnist and legendary conservative: “Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie paying in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama.” It is, rather, John McCain. “For McCain, politics is always operatic, pitting people who agree with him against those who are ‘corrupt’ or ‘betray the public’s trust,’ two categories that seem to be exhaustive—there are no other people.” ... McCain’s campaign characteristically substitutes “vehemence for coherence.” ... “Conservatives who insist that electing McCain is crucial usually start, and increasingly end, by saying he would make excellent judicial selections. But the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.” Think of his choice of running mate. “It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?” Probably not.


Jon Meacham again, this time with Evan Thomas, writing in Newsweek (October 6): “McCain is passionate, sometimes impulsive and unpredictable.” Erratic, swooping and veering in and out of newsworthy crises. “Obama is precise, occasionally withdrawn and methodical.” McCain’s approach to the recent financial crisis was, first, to say the “fundamentals” of the economy were “strong”; then he redefined “fundamentals” to mean “American workers.” That scarcely helped, so, prodded by Obama, he declared that the economy was “in total crisis.”

McCain’s public persona and his governing philosophy and foreign policy are determined by those five years he spent in a North Vietnam prison, enduring brutal treatment and surviving. When the U.S. finally devised a way to escape the war, “McCain,” say Meacham and Thomas, “was furious: the cause for which he had endured five years of torture was being betrayed, in his eyes, by his own government. ... Former senator Gary Hart says his old friend McCain, ‘like other veterans, believes that we could have ‘won the Vietnam War’ but the politicians panicked.’ ... [Said McCain in 2003, talking about the military being undermanned in Iraq:] ‘We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the [military] tools at our disposal.’”

In Doonesbury on October 5, Garry Trudeau pegged McCain’s Iraq policy, nailing it securely to the “fighting POW” syndrome. Several soldiers in Iraq are silhouetted as they talk, one initiating the discussion with: “Yo, you think McCain would really keep us here until we win?” “Sounds like it,” says another. “Count on it,” says the third, who goes on: “Mac sees Iraq as a chance to re-fight Vietnam, to show that we really can win an open-ended war regardless of cost. If we gut it out and eventually win here, it proves we could have won in Nam if we’d wanted to. And if we could have won, it means we didn’t really lose, which is the same as winning.” Says the first speaker: “Wow—how cool would that be, Sarge? To finally win the Vietnam War! That would rock!” Says the second speaker: “It’d sure mean a lot to my parents.”

McCain’s solutions to most problems in government and public life, it seems to me, involve fighting, one way or another. He’s a fighter, not a wimpy thinker; action not words. And I wonder whether we wouldn’t be smarter to talk out way out of international and domestic dilemmas rather than to smash our way out like the rampaging Hulk.


The New Yorker, as might be expected, endorsed Obama, a feat it committed in its October 13 issue. The editorial may be the soberest, most reasonable assessment of the two candidates’ various virtues and vices that I’ve seen in this age of hysterical exaggeration and wholesale outright mendacity. It can be found at newyorker.com/talk/comment/2008/10/13/081013taco_talk_editors; or The New Yorker home page, scroll down to “Comment”—“The Editors: The Better Candidate for 2008.”


Karyl Miller, prez, Southern California Cartoonists Society, who has been posting “Beyond the Palin” left-leaning cartoons and blogs for weeks, but only to Democrat friends because she doesn’t want to lose Republican friends; alas, one of the latter was mistakenly sent a missive intended for all the former and, saith Miller, “I was soon confronted by my otherwise normal, sensible friend who told me Obama was actually a secret witch doctor, that he channels Malcolm X through his dental fillings, and that he honeymooned in outer space with Louis Farrakhan. All I could think was—This guy is never voting for a black man, period.” She is exasperated by the so-called “independents” because they haven’t yet made up their so-called minds. “Could the candidates be any more opposite? Doesn’t that make choosing a candidate easier? Yet they can’t decide. They’re like the fat lady sashaying back and forth past the sample cheese plate at Whole Foods, testing and retesting the munchies, wondering ‘which do I like more? Muenster or cheddar? Obama or McCain? Which makes my tongue happiest?’ I pity the poor candidates busting their humps to win the favor of these ninnies.” Miller speculates that the Undecideds “are overwhelmingly products of mixed marriages where the mother was a Democrat and the father a Republican or vice versa so the kids grew up not knowing who they were because they were constantly being torn apart to favor Mommy’s or Daddy’s candidate. So once these schizos finally take a stand, they’re automatically rejecting one of their parents, Freudianly speaking. So naturally, they’re postponing that ugly feeling until the last possible moment. One ‘Woman on the Street’ on the ‘Today’ show said she wasn’t going to decide until she closes the curtain in the voting booth. Wow! That is sooo Freudian!”


So how will it all come out? Republicans number about 55 million, but there are reportedly about 72 million Democrats, not counting all the dead people and comic strip characters being registered by ACORN. Maybe straight math will win. Or not.

Ted Rall, commenting more-or-less enthusiastically about Obama’s nomination, said: “So the Democratic Party isn’t racist. What remains to be seen is whether America is. Will general election voters support a thoughtful, vigorous and handsome African-American running against a rigid, aging militarist pushing the policies of the most unpopular president in history?”

If, as I’ve supposed, the outcome will be decided by ageism and sexism as well as racism—all enduring facets of American life—the Grand Old Pachyderm, which scores two out-of-three, will doubtless lose.

The GOP presidential candidates have been consistent winners in another department, though: they are the butts of more jokes on late-night tv than the Democrats. AP’s David Bauder reports: “From September 1 through Friday, October 24, the Republicans were the target of 475 jokes by Jay Leno and David Letterman alone. The Democratic team of Obama and Joe Biden were the victim only 69 times, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which has been tracking such data since 1988. That’s nearly a 7-to-1 ratio. In no other campaign over the past 20 years has one party’s ticket been jabbed more than the other by even a 2-to-1 ratio, said Robert Lichter, a George Mason University professor and head of the Center.” I don’t know whether it’s more distressing to realize that McCain and Palin are jokes than to discover that the Center for Media and Public Affairs keeps track of such things.

A flock of Democrats will replace a mess of Republicans. It won’t mean a thing. They will go in like all the rest of ’em. Go in on promises and come out on alibis.”—Will Rogers


Having navigated these troubled waters with admirable aplomb so far, we now dip into the nasty nitty-gritty of editoonery. click to enlarge Our first array includes the Oliphant effort that inspired more than 750 complaints at the Washington Post when it appeared on the paper’s website. The Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, interviewed several editorial cartoonists, including the paper’s own Tom Toles, about their work and their ideas of fairness. She says she wouldn't have run the drawing in the paper's print edition but seems fine with giving cartoonists greater leeway on the web. About this adventure, Dan Wasserman, editoonist at the Boston Globe, said: “My own take is that cartoonists shouldn't be slamming religions as religions. However, people who loudly carry their beliefs into the public arena or present their religious credentials as qualifications for elected office shouldn't cry ‘foul’ if their claims of piety and divine guidance come in for some satiric scrutiny. This is particularly true if they are candidates, like Palin, who claim that the Iraq war is a ‘task from God’ or who ask their fellow believers to pray for gas pipeline projects.” Religion, however, was probably not uppermost in Oliphant’s mind when he drew the cartoon.

The complaints alleged that Oliphant was ridiculing a Pentecostal religious practice, speaking in tongues, but Oliphant was undoubtedly drawing a parallel between Pentecostal gibberish and the typical Palin campaign speech, which, as Fareed Zakaria said, consists largely of regurgitated talking point screed, blurted out in disconnected fragments that make almost no sense except to the initiated (i.e., the Righteous Right Wing).

Next to Oliphant’s Palin is Nate Beeler’s Palin. The moose field dresser prompted me to google “field dressing,” which led me to a video that shows just how to disembowel a deer or an elk in the field without causing the bladder or bowel to leak. Wonderful stuff. Pat Bagley’s “Geezer and Gidget” seemed to me a wonderfully apt expression, so I put it in here. And Mike Lester’s image of the news media vetting Palin is both funny and damning, easily the best of the breed on the subject. click to enlarge In the next batch on the collapse of the financial universe, we find several memorable images: Patrick Chappatte’s “I Broke the Bank” blends a happy verbal cliche with a contradictorily bleak visual to send his message. And Mike Peters’ Titanic is an equally powerful visual metaphor. I think the logic of the little old lady in Ed Stein’s cartoon is impossible to refute. I like John Cole’s cartoon more for its caricatures than its message although his portrait of the impulsive and bellicose McCain is unforgettably comedic.

Cole’s artwork over the past few years seems to me to be getting better and better; not that it was ever substandard (it never was), but now it’s superb. (Others, by the way, whose work has lately attracted my attention and applause include Dave Fitzsimmons at the Arizona Daily Star, drawing in a manner akin to that deployed by Bagley at the Salt Lake Tribune and Calvin Grondahl at the Standard Examiner in Ogden, Utah—all deploy an attractive loose-jointed energetic style capable of great comedic impact. Fitzsimmons has become more visible nationally now that he’s syndicated by Cagle Cartoons; ditto Eric Allie, John Darkow and Nate Beeler.)

click to enlarge In our next example of caustic visual-verbal commentary, Mike Keefe’s cartoon with its backdrop (in color) of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 232 years ago seems an irrefutable refutation of Palin’s denigration of “community organizers.” And here’s Oliphant’s Obama, about which the cartoonist said: “I’ve been drawing him as sort of a spindly silhouette, and letting him develop. I don’t know what he’s about either.” Tony Auth’s cartoon about the Grand Old Pachyderm’s fighting itself over the disgrace in Washington is a perfect visual metaphor, and I love Nate Beeler’s wildly comic interpretation of how Wall Street collapsed—because Congress, the guy in the top hat, did nothing. The caustic part of it, of course, is that Congress wants to take credit for doing nothing. click to enlarge Finally, we have two Tom Eagan strips that handily demonstrate how a strip works differently than a single-panel cartoon: both of these present a progression of images that, while sufficiently pungent commentary in themselves, culminate in a punchline the impact of which is greater because it is the concluding image in the progression.


But when it comes to absurdity made manifest, nothing can match the adventure of editoonist Paul Fell.


In the spring of 2007, well into the Modern Age of Enlightenment, a freelance political cartoonist was fired for expressing a political preference. On the face of it, absurdities abound. How does one “fire” a freelancer? Aren’t political cartoonists supposed to express political preferences? Or maybe he was fired because he didn’t give a rat’s ass and said so in public. Or because his political preference wasn’t the same as the preference of the newspaper he freelanced with. Or, as it happens, all of the above. Which doesn’t make it any the less absurd.

The editoonist whose head dubiously rolled off the chopping block well over a year ago is Nebraskan Paul Fell, a friend of mine and a fellow member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), which posted the story of Fell’s fall from so-called grace on its website (editorialcartoonists.com), precipitating an online discussion about the alleged ethics of opinion mongering among the inky-fingered fraternity. The confabulation seemed to me to explore issues that are somewhat more compelling here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer than whether you can formulate a foreign policy by looking at Russia across the Bering Straits, and since this is one of the quadrennial Cartoon Festivals brought to us by supposedly serious candidates for the Presidency of the U.S. of A., I thought we might attempt to dignify the festivities by rehearsing the disputation here. Most of the conversation took place on the AAEC-List, which is private; I’ve quoted the participants by name when they gave me permission, manufacturing pseudonyms (psdym) when they didn’t.

Paul Fell and the Journal-Star

Fell grew up in Massachusetts, according to his website bio (paulfellcartoons.com), “but headed west to Nebraska to play college football and study art. He married a farm girl and discovered that the Cornhusker state and its people had grown on him.” He stayed in Nebraska and, while pursuing a career in cartooning, he worked as an art teacher and coach in high school and as an art professor in college. In person, Paul often displays in his conversation a sardonic sense of humor liberally laced with satire, the sort of thing that is hinted at in the last paragraph of his bio: “Fell figures that if he can make a living as a cartoonist out in the heart of the Great Plains, he can make it anywhere. He takes pride in being able to cope with Nebraska’s extreme weather conditions and feels only contempt for those Midlanders who move to places like Arizona and spend the rest of their days bitching about how they miss the change of seasons.” At present, Fell operates a freelance cartooning and humorous illustration studio in Lincoln, and his cartoons are distributed by Artizans Syndicate. click to enlarge

When Fell came to Lincoln in 1984, the city had two daily newspapers: the Lincoln Star in the mornings and the Lincoln Journal, afternoons. The Star was a link in the Lee Enterprises chain; the Journal was owned by a local family, the Seacrests. Fell joined the staff at the Lincoln Journal in 1984 as editorial cartoonist, a position he held until 1992, when, in one of those cost-cutting spasms which has made the newspaper industry beloved among its fans lately, his position was eliminated. Fell went freelance, doing cartoons for other newspapers across the state and taking an assortment of commercial art gigs. A couple of years later, Lincoln’s two newspapers merged as the Journal-Star, owned by Lee Enterprises. Fell approached the editor of the new entity and worked out a deal to supply the paper with three cartoons a week for which he was paid as a freelancer on a cartoon-by-cartoon basis. This relationship continued for 15 years until June 2007, when Fell was “fired.”

The precipitating event was a June 21 report by Bill Dedman, an investigating reporter at MSNBC. Dedman, scouring the Internet records of the Federal Election Commission, found 143 journalists who had contributed to political campaigns between 2004 and the start of the 2008 season of shenanigans. Dedman was motivated in part by the growing chorus of right wing criticism that claimed a liberal bias in the news media. And his research seems to have confirmed the contention: of the 143 journalist donors, 125 gave to Democrats and liberal causes, 16 to Republicans and conservative causes, and two to both persuasions. This discovery upset numerous of the journalistic fraternity.

Said Dedman: “There's a longstanding tradition that journalists don't cheer in the press box. They have opinions, like anyone else, but they are expected to keep those opinions out of their work. Because appearing to be fair is part of being fair, most mainstream news organizations discourage marching for causes, displaying political bumper stickers or giving cash to candidates. Traditionally, many news organizations have applied the rules to only political reporters and editors. The ethic was summed up by Abe Rosenthal, the former New York Times editor, who is reported to have said, ‘I don't care if you sleep with elephants as long as you don't cover the circus.’ But with polls showing the public losing faith in the ability of journalists to give the news straight up, some major newspapers and tv networks are clamping down. They now prohibit all political activity—aside from voting—no matter whether the journalist covers baseball or proofreads the obituaries.”

Not every publication’s rules are absolute: there’s wriggle room here and there. And questions abound. If you donate to a charity or help with the local Boy Scout troop or join the Catholic Church, does any of that count as political activity? The Boy Scouts have an official anti-gay policy; the Catholic Church has views on reproductive rights. Would one’s association with such groups influence his/her reporting?

Tom Rosenstiel, co-author of The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, was interviewed by Dedman, who paraphrased some of his responses: “Giving money to a candidate or party, Rosenstiel said, goes a big step beyond voting. ‘If you give money to a candidate, you are then rooting for that candidate. You've made an investment in that candidate. It can make it more difficult for someone to tell the news without fear or favor. The second reason,’ he continued, ‘it would create—even if you thought you could make that intellectual leap and not let your personal allegiance interfere with your professionalism—it creates an appearance of a conflict of interest. For journalists, that's a real conflict. All of the ethics of journalism are about trust. They don't come from Planet Journalism. They come from the street.’ Rosenstiel said that even opinion journalists, such as columnists and arts critics, should not make donations, because there's a difference between having opinions and being captive of a particular party or faction.”

“One of the recurring themes in the responses,” Dedman went on, “is that it's better for journalists to be transparent about their beliefs, and that editors who insist on manufacturing an appearance of impartiality are being deceptive to a public that already knows journalists aren't without biases.” He quoted The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick, who, with 10 political donors at the magazine, doesn’t agree: "Our writers are citizens, and they're free to do what they want to do. If what they write is fair, and they respond to editing and counter-arguments with an open mind, that to me is the way we work."

Howard Kurtz, the flaccid “news media critic” at the Washington Post and moderator of CNN”s “Reliable Sources,” observed that MSNBC was apparently able to find only 143 journalists who donated to political causes—a “tiny fraction” of the roughly 100,000 staffers in newsrooms across the country, less than two-tenths of one percent of the newsstaffs in the country. That means a whopping 99% of the working journalists in the country do not contribute to candidates or political parties. Right wingnuts, of course, will run with the “less than two-tenths of one percent” and claim it validates their argument that the news media are left-leaning; they’ll ignore the 99% that proves the opposite. Media Matters commented: “The news outlets that don’t ban donations seem to regard them as a matter of personal preference, like joining the PTA. But they seriously underestimate the public distrust of journalists, which is only fueled by such practices. Those who work for opinion magazines or are employed as commentators have a stronger case that their views are no secret. But there is still an important distinction between rhetorically supporting a candidate and helping bankroll one.” [Oh, Kurtz is a flaccid critic of the news media because even on those rare occasions when he interrogates a journalist about an egregious lapse of professionalism, he usually lets the culprit off with some simple-minded explanation like “that’s what the public wants” as if the news media can’t influence the public’s tastes as well as its opinions.]

Dedman’s corrected and up-dated report appears, verbatim, below. In addition to the article, Dedman published the list of 143 donors, and that’s where Fell met Fate. His name was on the list. His name and that of a Journal-Star copy editor, Sylvia Hermanson. Fell had given $450 to the 2006 Democratic congressional campaign of Maxine Moul; Hermanson had donated $250 to the Democratic National Committee the previous January. The paper’s newsroom ethics code forbids political contributions by staffers who are involved in political coverage. As one of about a dozen news copy editors, Hermanson is involved in political coverage in that she edits and writes headlines on local and national political stories. After MSNBC contacted her for verification, she consulted the newspaper’s ethics code and realized she’d violated it, told her supervisor, and apologized. She was therefore allowed to keep her job. Fell, however, was terminated.

Kathleen Rutledge, one of the Journal-Star editors, climbed on a tall journalistic horse on June 23 to explain: "Fell's case differs from Hermanson's. We pay him to express his own opinion on matters of public interest through cartoons that appear on the editorial pages. He is not an employee but a freelancer who is covered by our ethics code. He did not see fit to tell us he had made a political contribution, either at the time he made it or when he was contacted by MSNBC. The biggest difference, though, is the cavalier attitude about journalistic ethics Fell exhibited. He said he doesn't give 'a rat's ass' about the policies of this paper."

Fell's full response to MSNBC when interviewed was: "For your information, I did contribute the amount listed to the Maxine Moul for Congress campaign in 2006. I am a freelance cartoonist who contracts with the Lincoln Journal-Star to draw three editorial cartoons a week. They don't pay me enough money to be able to dictate how I conduct myself in political campaigns. I generally do not donate to political candidates, but Maxine Moul is a longtime friend and former newspaper publisher where I got my start as a cartoonist in 1976. Frankly, I don't give a rat's ass what the Lincoln Journal-Star or their parent organization, Lee Enterprises, policies are on allowing newsroom staff to give to candidates and parties. I do not believe they did disclose my donations. That's their problem, not mine."

Rutledge continued: "Fell's comments make it clear he does not care about guarding this newspaper's trust with readers. We don't think he should treat our credibility with such disdain."

Despite the altitude of Rutledge’s steed, the newspaper’s purity of motive is not above suspicion. Like most of the newspapers in the Lee Enterprises chain, the Journal-Star is conservative, and both of the miscreants are liberal. Moreover, in the case of Fell’s departure from the path of virtue, the Journal-Star had endorsed Moul’s opponent in the 2006 congressional race, Jeff Fortenberry.

Later, Fell decided he had been wrong to contribute to a political campaign and offered an explanation to his colleagues on the AAEC-List: “To be frank, last fall when I contributed to the Maxine Moul for Congress campaign, it never occurred to me that I was doing something I shouldn't. Call it a brain fart or an early onset stroke, but I did what I did. My comments in the MSNBC.com interview were pretty angry and if I had been less truthful and snarky, pleaded ignorance and begged forgiveness from the Journal-Star, I'd probably still be freelancing for them. The fact is, I had backed them into a corner where they had no choice but to give me the axe.

“My anger stemmed from the fact that I had not received a per-cartoon raise from the paper for the past five or six years. Then, to add insult to injury, two years ago the paper goes and hires another freelancer to draw local cartoons. Late in the spring I met with Ms. Rutledge and my editorial page editor. At that meeting I told them that it was high time I received a raise and exactly how much I wanted. (It worked out to the princely sum of $14 per cartoon.) In exchange for this, I was willing to let them run my cartoons on their website (something they could not do without my permission) and I would create the cartoons in full color. If they were unable or unwilling to raise my compensation by fall, then I observed that we should probably end our long-standing business relationship. Obviously they had no intention of giving me a dime more, so my MSNBC.com comments were the perfect excuse for getting rid of me once and for all.”

Fell concluded: “I am already in conversations with some folks in this area about using my editorial cartoons either online or in print. There is an alternative paper that will start up in July to which I have already agreed to contribute cartoons. Rest assured, though, I will be sure to ask each and every one of them what their policy is on political activity by their staff and freelance personnel.” He added that he felt he was “pretty much at fault here,” saying, “This marriage was doomed to fail. It just happened sooner than later.”

In an e-mail a few weeks ago, I asked Paul if he had a written contract covering his freelance work for the Journal-Star.

“I did,” he wrote me, “—with the Journal-Star and Lee Enterprises. They tried, over the years, to foist a ‘work for hire contract’ on me, and I would always reject it. Finally, they told me to just line out the objectionable parts as all they really wanted was just a contract of some kind. I don’t recall any mention of political donations in it. Had I been working as a regular staffer,” he added, “I wouldn’t have dreamed of donating to a political campaign. That’s one of the things they always remind newsroom works about during every election.” Since he was a freelancer, he didn’t think the usual newsroom rules applied.

His colleagues’ conversation on the AAEC-List may have persuaded Fell that he had erred, but I’m not convinced, as will become apparent the more we scroll along here. In another note on the AAEC-List, Fell supplied a revealing footnote: "Interestingly, during my ‘you're fired’ phone conversation with the editor and editorial page editor on Friday afternoon, they mentioned that the Journal-Star code of ethics covered freelancers as well as full-time staffers. I responded that it would have been nice, then, if they had thought to share that policy with their freelancers. You could have cut the long and uncomfortable silence with a knife."

Rutlege concluded her column of justification and explanation by saying: “We are renewing efforts to make sure all newsroom staffers and freelancers know and understand the provisions of our ethics code. It’s important.” [My emphasis] She also invited readers to “join in an online conversation about this issue.” And they did.

Reader Reaction and Comment

Judging from the reader responses I saw (most of which are quoted below), many of the Journal-Star’s readers thought that the touted “code of ethics” was something of a sham, if not outright hypocritical, and that firing Paul Fell was a good example of the letter of the law overwhelming common sense. Readers sometimes supplied their names, but many gave only initials or pseudonyms. My interspersed comments, whenever I’m provoked to insinuate them, appear in boldface italic, like this.

WCG wrote: "Your ethics code seems reasonable for news staff, but perhaps not for an editorial cartoonist, especially freelance. These people do nothing but display their opinions, anyway. Why would you worry about a perception of bias in that situation? And you mention donations by journalists. How about those from publishers? Do your bosses at Lee Enterprises donate to political campaigns? If so, how much political control over Journal-Star contents is simply due to who is hired, ... and knowing what will keep the bosses at Lee Enterprises happy? And how much is due to recognizing public opinion in Nebraska? You're selling a product, so you've got to be careful that you don't antagonize a customer (reader or major advertiser). I understand that you must sometimes walk a fine line between journalistic integrity and economic necessity. So a strict ethics code is probably a very good idea."

Tod wrote: "I can't believe this, but I agree with Paul Fell. His cartoons over the years have probably provided millions of dollars worth of advertising for the Democrat party, yet a $250 [sic] contribution isn't allowed? That's just crazy. His political leanings are obvious. He is a freelancer. I don't care if he contributed his entire salary to a Democrat. In fact, that goes for all of the Journal-Star staff. Who do you, Rutledge, think you're trying to fool? Do you really think the number of cartoons you publish bash Democrats and Republicans equally? If you have fired Paul Fell, you may as well fire the entire editorial staff, yourself included. Sheesh!"

Not everyone supported Fell. Observer wrote: "I appreciate the Journal-Star's effort to appear to be free of conflicts of interest with political campaigns. However, as much as I believe the newspaper should report the happenings as a neutral observer, they do not in all instances. Unfortunately, Mr. Fell's ego exceeds his talent and he has been extremely disrespectful and insubordinate in his relationship with the paper and to the public He owns his words, and he has to live with them."

Many of the comments, however, poked holes in the so-called reasoning of Rutledge’s diatribe. David wrote: "Whether or not journalists donate to or are involved in political campaigns, they still hold their own personal views. What the J-Star (or Lee Enterprises) is really worried about is the ‘appearance’ of bias, not any ‘actual’ bias taking place. Everyone has an opinion, but journalists are taught to be fair in their reporting. If they are doing their job, there shouldn't be a problem. It's a crazy world when political journalists are singled out for contributing to politicians, and yet our politicians can take money, gifts, and favors from anyone while we (the constituents) naively expect them to work with our best interests in mind. If the J-Star were doing it's unbiased job of giving us news that matters, that would be the story. "

Liz wrote: "This is one of the many reasons the Lincoln Journal-Star is a rag of a ‘news’-paper. Right on, Paul Fell!"

Greg wrote: "I read your editorial with interest today, and I am not sure I understand the almost righteous indignation it expresses. While from a simplistic approach I can understand the ideal of the neutral journalist and paper and how this policy promotes it, but in the real world I don't know if the policy makes sense. I assume Journal-Star staff is encouraged, or at least not discouraged, from voting—i.e. they have opinions and participate in the political process; this is generally considered to be a good thing in our democracy. If you concede the point above then the issue is really about appearances or the public knowing what those opinions or political leanings are. I think most of the public is smart enough to know that media employees have opinions and political leanings. So the policy in place just keeps them from being known. One could argue that a policy of allowing political contributions, but requiring disclosure, would be better and promote journalistic integrity—that is the approach the state takes in the lobbying areas. Certainly as others have noted, it seems kind of silly for editorialists or editorial cartoonists, who are in fact paid for their opinions, to be precluded from expressing them in a way that is considered to be politically protected free speech. I also feel that the policy is a little onerous if employed for rank and file employees. Lastly, it seems a little hypocritical and heavy handed: the paper endorses candidates and takes sides on issues, but apparently its employees are not allowed to. Is the real purpose of the policy to prevent those that always accuse the media of having a liberal or other bias from saying ‘gotcha’?"

Gerard Harbison wrote: "This is sweeping the problem under the rug rather than dealing with it. The real problem is the heavy pro-Democrat, pro-liberal bias of journalists, and the refusal of editors to correct that bias. Political donations are one way we can find out what a person's political affiliation is. The fact that Ms. Hermanson donated to the DNC is useful information about her, that allows us to evaluate her coverage and that of your newspaper. By forbidding such donations, you are suppressing the truth, not correcting the problem. "

Whatever wrote: "I commend these efforts to be forthcoming with this information. I only wish our politicians were as forthcoming. Everyone is certainly entitled to an opinion and the right to voice that opinion, but journalists must be especially careful to ensure they are unbiased and that their credibility is beyond approach [sic]. It's unfortunate that there even needs to be an ethics code as this should be common sense. "

Employees-can't-give-but-the-J-Star-can wrote: "I find it somewhat ironic that you can scold a reporter for donating $250, and chastise a freelance cartoonist for donating $450, yet when one checks the A&D website for Journal-Star, one finds that the J-Star donated $10,000 to the ‘Yes On Schools’ committee on 10/07/99 and $15,185.16 to the ‘Yes on Streets & Trails’ committee on 9/1/04. Not to mention the fact that you have editorials every election that specifically endorse certain candidates (generally Republicans but not exclusively). I'm not seeing any justification in your code of ethics for why it's okay for the paper to do it but not the individual reporters and columnists. Please enlighten me."

Timmy wrote: "I think the policy is rather unfortunate and laughable, and believe Paul Fell's reply is the appropriate citizen response to any efforts at anti-democratic controls in the United States. Unless a political contribution is viewed to be a form of a wager where it's feared, like Pete Rose in baseball, that an employee who has money on the line is more likely to try to manipulate the outcome, what difference does it make whether or not your employees give to political campaigns? Do journalists surrender their citizenship rights? Whether or not they give to a political campaign will not change their own political leanings. And, unlike people in many other businesses, it's hard to imagine how a journalist is going to gain financially from giving a contribution by receiving anything like preferences on contracts, legislation that favors their businesses, etc. Paul Fell is a political cartoonist. What great political cartoonists have not had a very clear point-of-view? Thomas Nast never really tried to hide where he was coming from, nor does Oliphant. The J-Star policy seems more about projecting an illusion of objectivity than it is about assuring that objectivity is really taking place. For your policy to make logical sense it would seem that you would also have to decree that your employees cannot belong to a political party, but instead must register as independents, if at all. It just doesn't seem very American. I agree with many of the points above. I’m much more concerned about corporate influence over the content and editorials of the newspaper that occur in ways both covert and overt than I am about whether underpaid employees of the paper give campaign contributions. I expect journalists to adhere to their training and do all that they can to be objective, and editors to remain vigilant in trying to assure that objectivity. I expect editorialists, especially cartoonists, to be very opinionated and only hope that those opinions are intelligent, no matter where they're coming from politically. I don't give a rat's a-- if any of the newspaper employees give to political campaigns.”

Thomas Nast, the father of all American editorial cartooners, may not have given money to the Republican Party, but he was so devout a supporter of it that, during the Civil War, Lincoln dubbed Nast the Union’s premier recruiting sergeant. A few years later, after he won the Presidency in 1868, Ulysses Grant said: “Two things elected me, the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.”

Jo Naber reaches around the corner to approach the dysfunction that is obscured by all the fuss, writing: "I'm sure if the political opinions and donations of employees of the J-Star (Lee Enterprises) were given to Republican candidates and right wingnut groups, there would be nothing to report. Ridiculous to think that employees have no opinions, or if they do, they must never be voiced or acted upon. The purpose of editors is to supervise and censor stories that are biased, irrespective of the political affiliation of the writers or even of the editors, themselves. Freedom of speech is a precious gift of the Founding Fathers."

The Journal-Star’s policy cannot make up for the failure of an editor to do his/her job although that seems to be the intent of the policy. If editors do their jobs, they remove any bias in the material they approve for publication. If, then, they’re doing their jobs, the question of an employee’s donating money to political causes is rendered moot.

On the other hand, Former Journalist chimed in on Rutledge’s side: "I support Kathleen Rutledge's decision. In fact, the copy editor should also be removed. We learned journalism ethics at Kearney State College: when you join the editorial side of the business, it's well-known that you give up your right to donate or participate in political campaigns. I know you will find this hard to believe, but some journalists at the Washington Post either register as independents or don't vote at all."

Thanks-to-Ms.-Rutledge wrote: "You are honest and to be commended for addressing this issue head-on. ... With regard to the compromise of objectivity or the potential to scandalize readers, I think the damage is done. It’s assumed that the mass media are liberal. The MSNBC story indicates that about 9 out of 10 contributions were made to liberals. To have a policy which doesn't address the slant observed in your paper is fruitless and adds to the cynicism of readers. Either address why most media-types are (and support) liberals, or else drop the pretensions toward objectivity.”

Disillusioned used the occasion to beat another sort of horse: "Despite this sanctimony about upholding journalistic ethics that any idealist would die to believe, the Journal-Star's Republican stinkiness (and far less than open-minded and squeaky-clean ethics) leaks out from every smudgy page. People at the Journal-Star have obviously greatly benefitted from the climate of dumbed-down ethics and arts coverage the Bush administration promotes."

Journalism Student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln urged the Journal-Star to address the issue of “perceived liberal or conservative bias” by examining its coverage, beginning: "To me, the information presented by the MSNBC report is useless. Unless this report can show me whether those reporters wrote any differently on politics, whether those copy editors wrote headlines favoring one politician over the other, etc., before or after their political contributions, the information of journalists' campaign contributions has no bearing on the bias of media, perceived or otherwise. It is possible to keep your private life separate from your professional life, yet some people may have trouble doing so. Political contributions are an expression of opinion, and a person's opinion is completely under his or her ownership, not under the command of his or her employer, as the Journal-Star seems to believe according to its ethics code. However small or meaningless an example of free speech political contribution is, it is STILL an expression of free speech. Readers know journalists have opinions; it is impossible not to have them. If you want to start getting rid of this perceived liberal or conservative bias in the media (if it exists), start with examining your newspaper's coverage not with suppressing the rights of your own employees. And one more thing: To ban editorialists, columnists and cartoonists from participating in political contributions is illogical, as their entire job is based on expressing their opinion. I would hope those writers would have the courage to back up their opinions expressed in the Journal Star by participating in politics."

LJS Wins wrote: "This is great. After reading the posts on this board, the J-Star is accused of being aligned with both Democrats and Republicans. That's the whole goal of journalism. Someone once said, ‘If you have offended both sides, that means you are doing a good job as a journalist.’”

CLS took another tack: "You know you are a Nebraskan when your boss tells you that you can't support the political party of your choice ... and your response is, ‘Frankly, I don't give a rat's (snip).’ At least Fell is honest about his politics. That's more than can be said about the rest of the J-Star staff. They hide their liberal bias beneath the veil of an 'ethics policy.’”

Lola wrote: "I agree that beat reporters and editors whose functions involve ‘straight’ reporting should not donate to or be involved with political campaigns and candidates. But Fell was paid for having an opinion and expressing it, so firing him for expressing his opinion in another venue is unreasonable. The Journal-Star is the most conservative newspaper I've ever read, and I've lived all over this country. I notice what stories get two paragraphs and what gets 12, and that's more of a gauge of a paper's political leanings. I've been waiting since Thursday for a story about Dick Cheney's brash assertion that the vice presidency is not part of the executive branch, and thus not subject to the same disclosure requirements as the president. What doesn't run in a local paper sometimes tells more than what does make it in. "

Former J prof wrote to chastise Journalism Student at the UNL: “As a former J professor at a university in the south, I would STRONGLY STRONGLY STRONGLY encourage you to take a class on journalism ethics. If you already have and they taught you that a journalist can separate their profession from their personal feelings concerning politics, you need to transfer to a better J school because UNL's must be awful. There is something called ‘the perception of a conflict.’ Your job as a journalist is to promote as objective a persona to your contacts and the public as possible. If you honestly think people who read your work don't perceive a political bias when they know you contribute to a political candidate, you need to find another major because you don't have the ability to judge scenarios that you need to be a good journalist."

Skeptic4 wrote: “Let she who has not sinned throw the first stone. Is there really a strong reason to punish journalists or anyone else harshly and publically unless they establish an egregious PATTERN of flouting ethics codes? Typically these kinds of rules are enforced selectively, and the appearance of propriety counts for more than its actual existence. Rules are usually best not enforced in a completely humorless, deadpan light either, although at least you provide a coherent rationale. Isn't irreverence part of a cartoonist's job description? The Paul Fell cartoons will be missed as part of the saner and more honest commentary in this paper."

The Editorial Cartooning Fraternity Comments

When news of Fell’s firing hit the AAEC-List, his friends and colleagues immediately sympathized with his misfortune. And then the debate about the ethics issue gathered momentum. Again, my remarks, laminated in whenever I’m provoked to abandon judicial silence, appear like this, boldface italic.

The first comments pointed out the obvious: an employer can scarcely expect a non-employee to adhere to its employment conditions unless they notify him that those are the conditions of his freelance contract.

But Clay Bennett, then at the Christian Science Monitor now at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, took the strongest stand for ethics: “A donation to a political campaign is not just a violation of the Journal-Star’s code of ethics, however. The Society of Professional Journalists devotes an entire section of its ethical code to just such matters. The three particular clauses within that section that pertain most directly to this matter are:

* Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

* Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

* Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” [I’ve emphasized what I think is the key phrase here.—RCH]

Bennett continued: “I for one expect freelance journalists to be held to the same ethical standards as someone on the staff of a newspaper or magazine. Paul is a friend of mine, and I feel terrible about what’s happened, but considering the offense, along with Paul’s unapologetic response to (what I view as) a reasonable ethical expectation, this may be a self-inflicted wound.”

The question inherent in the SPJ codical turns on what a “journalist” is. It seems to me that editoonists are “journalists” in only the broadest sense—i.e., they work in newspapers. In the broadest sense, journalists include editorial writers, who, unlike reporters trafficking in “news,” are assumed to have opinions. The SPJ ethics are aimed at preserving the presumed “objectivity” in news reporting and therefore apply directly only to reporters.

Ted Rall, currently the President of AAEC, syndicated by Universal Press, raised the same issue: “The question is: Are editorial cartoonists journalists? Very few of us break or attempt to report news objectively. I think we’re pundits, with no pretense at objectivity. Would anyone complain if Ann Coulter donated money to a political campaign? Or if George Will stole a presidential briefing book from the Democrats and handed it over to a Republican presidential campaign?”

Bennett responded: “This is a distinction without a difference to me. Our most precious commodity is credibility. The fact that we make no pretense to be objective in our work makes it that much more important that our personal and professional independence is unimpeachable. Whatever you want to call us, we should still be held to the same professional and ethical standards as any other journalist.”

Not so fast. Pundits deal in opinions; reporters in facts. Opinions stand on their own if they are reasonable; facts, on the other hand, survive scrutiny only if they are supported by ascertainable reality. There’s both a distinction and a difference.

Rall disagreed with Bennett, saying editoonists aren’t journalists because they don’t “gather, write, report news or, more broadly, edit or present news articles.” They do, however, function as pundits, offering opinion, analysis and commentary “on which they are presumed to be knowledgeable.” Editoonists, in Rall’s view, are “closer to pundits” than to journalists. “To reiterate my first post,” Rall continued, “Paul had it coming if—and only if—he was advised upon signing his contract that donating to a political campaign was against company policy. I’ll be surprised, based on my experience doing freelance work, if that turns out to be the case.”

Dennis Draughon, who freelances with the Durham News and the Fayetteville Observer, chimed in: “I think Ted has pointed out the more salient issue here, Clay. While I agree with you that our craft should be held to some standard of professionalism (we can quibble over the exact nature of that standard), the absurdity of any work situation that denies full and unfettered political participation to an employee, strictly for appearances' sake, but allows for much larger political gestures on the part of the employer is inherently unfair and undemocratic. All the newspapers I have worked for have had ethics provisions curtailing employee political activities. I haven't had any problem adhering to these probations, but I resent them nevertheless. None of these newspapers ever prevented or proscribed any of the publishers from making as many donations to political parties or causes as they like. Their donations were listed in the newspaper along with the significant contribution of others in campaign finance stories, there for all interested parties to see. Many times the publishers' donations reflected the newspapers' editorial stance and endorsements. There is no pretense of ‘objectivity’ and there need not be one. They are exercising their rights and they have the abundance of resources to make a difference as they see fit. Why shouldn't we have the same right to marshal our comparatively puny political resources? Are the rich and powerful the only ones who rate? Since we are not reporters, but opinion-mongers, why should we be denied the same opportunity? If publishers can exercise their franchise with impunity by the mere listing in the public record of their campaign contributions, then why can't we? It seems to me that a similar listing of campaign contributions would satisfy any ethical requirements, since your political sentiments would not be hidden, but recorded in the public record for all to see.”

To which Bennett replied: “You can resent the ethical restrictions that come with the job if you like, but it's par for the course in this business. Personally, I've always seen it as a trade-off. We as political cartoonists sacrifice a more personal level of political participation in favor for a job that allows us to express our political opinions 5 days-a-week. And correct me if I'm wrong, Dennis, but are you arguing that if our publishers engage in unethical behavior, we should be able to also? Perhaps we should hold publishers accountable for their transgressions instead of abandoning our own ethical standards. I'm afraid I'm somewhat of an absolutist on this issue. No semantic contortions or moral relativism is going to convince me that Paul's actions were even close to being acceptable for someone in a profession that's very foundation is built on its independence and objectivity.”

As footnote en passim, the independence and objectivity in the newspapering profession is a fairly recent phenomenon—since, probably, only the second decade in the 20th century. Before that, newspapers were unabashed political mouthpieces for the politicians of their choice, and many 19th century newspapers were published by political parties and were virtual house organs for their publishers. Still, the tradition of independence and objectivity is about a century old now, despite the inroads and corruptions effected by “new” and/or Gonzo journalism.

J. P. Trostle, editor of the AAEC Notebook, which subsequently carried a story on Fell’s firing, said the “key point” in the case is Fell’s status as a freelancer: “specifically, was he ‘told’ he was under the same guidelines (ethical or otherwise) as a full-time employee? Or did the paper simply ‘assume’ that he would continue to act as a wage-slave? (In the same way so many publishers assume they own all copyrights on our work, or that we can't sell the originals, etc.) If he signed any agreement which stated that, then they can take issue with his laissez-faire attitude; if not, they can make no ‘presumption’ about personal behavior. Sure, they can fire him—who says the weasles need ANY reason to do that?—but they shouldn't be able to claim ‘he’ should have known better. That said, it doesn't change the argument that too many publishers expect freelancers to behave as employees without any of the compensation or benefits thereof. ”

As I’ve pointed out, Fell was fully aware of the prohibition against political activity for employees of the paper; but he wasn’t aware of any similar prohibition applying to freelancers and can’t recall any such aspect in the written contract he eventually signed.

Bennett responded to J.P.’s point: “When they expect freelancers to pee in a cup, I'll agree with your point wholeheartedly, JP. But for a publisher to expect a journalist (freelance or not) to adhere to the accepted industry standards for ethics is not really asking a lot.”

Draughon entered the conversation again, resuming the exchange with Bennett that preceded J.P.’s observation : “Sure, Clay, I agree that the ability to foist one's opinions on the paper's readership trumps the regular exercise of the franchise and that there is certainly some personal cost attached to that. I have followed these rules during my entire career, but my personal resentment is entirely my prerogative. I don't think that publishers are committing any unethical acts by making any amount of disclosed campaign contributions. I am simply arguing that I should be able to do the same under the same guidelines. [That is, editoonists and other journalists should not be prohibited from making donations if those donations are made public.—RCH]

“You wrote,” Draughon continued to Bennett, “‘we as political cartoonists sacrifice a more personal level of political participation in favor for a job that allows us to express our political opinions 5 days-a-week.’ But newspaper owners don't sacrifice any political participation and they are able to express their political opinions even more effectively and with no restrictive provisos. They make out even better with no trade-off. Are they entitled to more political participation because of their wealth and newspaper ownership? Oh, wait, I forgot where I was living. Of course they are. I am not speaking to the particulars of Paul's situation, just to my perception of an unjust industry-wide arrangement. Our corporate masters are able to exercise all of the political muscle at their disposal, yet those of us who work for them must agree to an abridgment of our rights. It just doesn't seem kosher to me. Instead, it feels very undemocratic. If I know about it upfront, before the beginning of a working arrangement, and I agree to the terms and conditions of employment, then it's obviously a case of ‘you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.’ I'm not exactly clear on whether Paul had this mandate made clear to him before starting his freelance arrangement. I guess I would rather know exactly where a pundit/ reporter/ cartoonist is coming from, through proper disclosure of their political affiliations and contributions, and then be able to judge for myself their independence and reliability. Even with the industry's aspirations to ‘objectivity,’ it's pretty easy to read between the lines in most cases. Bias is inherently evident in pretty much everything a newspaper produces, according to the presentation of the supplied information, analysis and opinion.”

Another commentator contributed this observation: “Maybe coming from the position of a staff cartoonist who has signed ethics agreements and works at a paper, it seems like an ethical ban on campaign donations is completely obvious and that anyone who doesn’t follow this standard has their head in the sand. It’s probably easy to think that’s obvious from the vantage point of a newsrroom. But when you’re a freelance political cartoonist working out of your home, your relationship with a newspaper can involve anything from a detailed contract about e-rights and legal liability (which does NOT mention political campaign anything) to a verbal agreement. And you may not even receive email acknowledgements or editor feedback from many of your clients each week, and it’s not like you have time to talk to them all every week anyway if you’ve got many of them. I’ve never been asked to sign an ethics code by any newspaper, and I don’t think that it’s obvious at all. Especially since I bet that many editorial cartoonists see themselves as commentators, not journalists. I agree with Ted that by definition, editorial cartoonists are more pundits than journalists (though cartoonists CAN do reporting, that’s not usually what we’re doing). At the paper where I worked previously, news staff signed a code that prohibited them from making campaign donations or participating in partisan political events, but the art department was not really subject to that, and I certainly know that some of the art directors and paginators donated to some campaigns. I think it’s silly to expect a freelance editorial cartoonist to just magically KNOW what a newspaper’s ethics code is without being presented with it.”

Draughon again: “As for ethical concerns, in my professional experience, I have always been more worried about journalists RECEIVING money/favors/gifts/etc. than in their donating it. Receiving money, etc. from outside interests presents obvious risks to one's ethical reputation. GIVING money seems more a form of political expression, an opinion made manifest. We are not reporters. We present commentary, opinion, bias, judgment. We should not be held to the same rigid code of conduct as those professional journalists who are expected to maintain the chimera of objectivity. If we are expected to uphold the same standards, it should certainly be made plain, up front, as a condition of employment, take it or leave it. Where those requirements are not spelled out, I don't see why an individual should feel compelled to give up their right to free expression in order to mollify someone else's professional standards. I would much rather read commentary from an openly disclosed and transparent partisan than any tepid commentary from a political gelding.”

From Stacy Curtis: “Since being laid-off from The Times (another Lee Enterprises newspaper), I have freelanced editorial cartoons to two newspapers, the Northwest Herald (a Northwest News Group newspaper) and the Chicago Tribune. I have NOT been asked to read either newspaper's full Ethics Policy, but the Chicago Tribune did send me a pdf that was a letter

about ethics and nowhere on that letter did it specifically say I could not contribute to a political campaign. It did however instruct me to speak to them if I had questions about ethics. I'm wondering if I call and ask about contributing to a political campaign, what they will say? If newspaper editors are so concerned about showing bias and favoring a candidate, why do they print ENDORSEMENTS OF CANDIDATES on their editorial pages? [And he references the Journal-Star’s endorsement of Maxine Moul’s opponent in the 2006 congressional race.—RCH] So the newspaper made an endorsement too, just not financial. Is that endorsement okay, since it appears on the Opinion page? [If so, presumably it would apply to editorial cartoons.—RCH] What about newspapers who allow their endorsements to be used in political campaign literature and commercials? Over the years, I've always seen my cartoons as an endorsement. If I've done more unfavorable cartoons against your opponent than I have you, consider that my endorsement. I have never contributed financially to a political campaign. And I never will. I'm too cheap and quite honestly, I'd like to see all candidates spend less money on their campaigns.”

Draughon returned: “Another example of the lack of industry-wide consensus on political donations. It would appear that this issue is far from resolved. I work freelance for two McClatchy properties. ... There seems to be plenty of ambiguity and ambivalence to go around on this issue.” Draughon then quotes an entire article on the question that was published in a McClatchy paper, the Herald-Leader of Lexington, Kentucky; to wit:

Herald-Leader's Copy Desk Chief Gave to 2004 Kerry Campaign

By John Stamper

The Republican Party of Kentucky called on the Lexington Herald-Leader yesterday to dismiss a newsroom employee because he donated to the presidential campaign of John Kerry. Brian Throckmorton, the paper's copy desk chief, donated $250 to Kerry's campaign in 2004. The donation, along with those of 142 other journalists across the nation, was disclosed in a recent report by MSNBC.com. Only 16 of the journalists donated to Republicans.

"The Herald-Leader is consistently outspoken in its sanctimonious pursuit of those it believes engage in the evils of influencing the political process," said state GOP Chairman Steve Robertson in a news release. "Perhaps it should turn the same judgmental eye toward Throckmorton as he ignored company policy and arrogantly sought to position himself above scrutiny."

The policies of both the newspaper and its parent company, the McClatchy Co., say political contributions are a matter of personal choice but cannot be represented as having been made by the newspaper.

"We have no plans to fire Brian," said Linda Austin, editor of the Herald-Leader. "He violated no existing policy. However, we are reviewing our policy regarding newsroom employees and political contributions."

As copy desk chief, Throckmorton oversees staffers who edit news stories and write headlines and captions.

"I now regret the contribution because it's important to avoid even the perception of bias," Throckmorton said in a written statement. "But I also regret that some can leap so quickly to perceive bias whether it's there or not."

Russell Hodin, another freelancer, joined in: “Do we get to choose which professional standards we are to be held up to? We either accept the established ethical standards of the workplace we are contributing to, which is the editorial/news department, or we create our own unique set of ‘editorial cartoonist exceptions’ to those accepted standards. If we choose to craft our own exceptions we'd better have a pretty good argument because we're going to attract a lot of heat for our attempts to lower the bar. I suspect we may be getting sloppy in this regard (present self not excepted) partly in response to the ethical relativity that threatens to become the norm in America. If we're not held to a higher standard, then we don't deserve the respect that comes with the role. It's very simple, and it's up to us individually. It's not up to our employers.

At about this time, Draughon added this: “Curiously, I cannot think of a single cartoon I have ever seen that I have appreciated on the basis of the cartoonist's credibility or objectivity, but that's just me.”

To which Hodin responded, first, by altering Draughon’s statement slightly: “‘Curiously, I cannot think of a single [opinion column] I have ever [read] that I have appreciated on the basis of the [commentator's] credibility or objectivity, but that's just me.’ Nor should you recall such a column,” Hodin continued. “But I'll bet you're attracted to certain commentators over others, and I doubt it's because of their hair. Likely they engender more trust than others, or more depth and clarity. Unless you have a sense of objectivity, and the respect of your readers for a sense of accuracy and fairness, I don't think you can do as effective a job forming and arguing an opinion. You can't get the depth and subtlety you need to do good work unless your eyes and ears are open to all sides of an issue, and all facets of character of those you're targeting.”

Ethics and Editooning

At the very moment of the release of the MSNBC report, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists was holding its annual convention, during which a session on “ethics” transpired. At Editor & Publisher, Dave Astor reported that one of the speakers, David Chartrand, syndicated by Universal Press, said of the newspaper codes of ethics he’s seen, none have any language about columnists—or, I assume, editorial cartoonists. Columnists, Chartrand said, “know they’ve gone too far only when they get into trouble.” Ethical guidelines are helpful, said another columnist, Suzette Martinez Standring, but a columnist’s own moral compass is the key to avoiding unethical behavior. Reported Astor: “Basic ethics for columnists, of course, include being factual and fair even when giving an opinion (although there can be somewhat different ground rules for columnists using humor and satire). And columnists at a number of papers have the leeway to advocate for causes—a leeway reporters usually don’t have in their stories.” Standring noted a few “recent ethical no-nos”: faking stories, making up events, masking paid-for opinions as your own, and writing about events before they happen. I’d say taking a bribe to express prescribed opinion is unethical behavior no one would dispute, but how about keeping silent in order to preserve a valued access?

One columnist said he might keep the gift of an unsolicited t-shirt from a musician he’d written about often but would be leery of keeping expensive items given by an individual or a company seeking coverage. “I want information, not stuff,” he said. Another columnist who has spent lots of time out in the desert along the U.S. southern border researching illegal immigration said if he came across a thirsty or scared person, he might give them a drink of water even though a journalist is supposed to be supremely detached as an “objective” observer.

How does that apply to an editorial cartoonist?

“We’re paid to take sides,” said editoonist Milt Priggee in Media Reports last March. “Editorial [news] content is supposed to be unbiased. Here you have a visual platform where it’s the complete opposite. That’s how we’re a little bit different from reporters, who are supposed to present both sides of a story.”

Some columnists, too, report facts as well as record their opinions. The opinions of David Broder, the dean of political columnists, are often based upon facts that he includes in his column. Did he get the facts right? Or did he twist them to suit his opinion? Objectivity as a standard seems viable only among such columnists and among reporters. Ditto credibility. How do editorial cartoonists express “objectivity” in their cartoons? Credibility? Is one cartoon more “objective” than another? More “credible”? Oddly, yes: one cartoon can be more credible than another depending upon its use of “facts.”

A reader’s letter published recently in the Denver Post lambasted the paper’s political cartoonist, Mike Keefe, for his “bias” against John McCain. “The McCain bashing even includes the use of unsubstantiated and untrue falsehoods proliferated in DNC attack ads,” said Joe Lechtanski, referencing an August 28 cartoon “of POW McCain showing a padlock with ‘95% agreement with Bush’ written on it. What is the data source for this falsehood?” Lechtanski was enraged by what he thought was a cartoon based upon falsehoods that were “untrue.” As it happens, most fact-checkers have found that McCain did vote in support of 95% of the Bush-favored legislation, but the point here is that the reader’s unhappiness derived from his perception that the facts Keefe was using were wrong. The reader was undoubtedly most angered because he is apparently a McCain supporter and he didn’t like Keefe attacking his candidate, but it was Keefe’s deployment of alleged “unsubstantiated” facts that the reader seized upon to criticize the cartoon. Facts, in other words, have a role even in opinion mongering: exaggeration is the editorial cartoonist’s stock in trade, but if he references facts at all, he must not exaggerate; he must get them right. Or approximately right.

In his Them Damned Pictures, historian Roger A. Fischer says great political cartoons display “a rough fidelity to fact,” quoting Allan Nevins and Frank Weitenkampf in A Century of Poltical Cartoons: Caricature in the United States from 1800 to 1900—of which Thomas Nast’s undoing of New York’s Boss Tweed is “a crowning example.” But Nast was scarcely factually “truthful” in all of his cartoons attacking William Marcy Tweed: Tweed’s actual middle name was Magear; Nast, in a flight of satirical fancy, had given him as a middle name the surname of William L. Marcy, the politician who supposedly coined the expression “to the victor belong the spoils.” It was Nast’s way of giving Tweed’s corruption its final lamination. Even if Tweed did not invent the spoils system, Nast wanted us to think he was at least its most successful practitioner. click to enlarge

And many of Nast’s anti-Tweed cartoons echoed what Fischer calls the “extravagant [exaggerated] charges” leveled by various “architects of the Tweed legend.” Many of those charges were only marginally true; some had been exaggerated to the point of outright distortion. Still, Fischer says, most of Nast’s Tweed cartoons passed, “if barely,” the test of integrity posited by Charles Press in The Political Cartoon: that “the aroma of genuine sentiment seems to be floating about in the air somewhere, instead of the more pungent stink of false emotion or false political morality covered with cheap perfume.” A few of Nast’s efforts, however, “reek with this noxious stench.” Fischer points to “one of the most powerful pieces Nast ever drew, arguably the most vicious cartoon ever created by an American artist, ‘The American River Ganges,’” in which Nast has transformed Catholic bishops’ miters into reptilian jaws, effectively turning the prelates into “crocodiles slithering ashore to devour helpless Protestant children.” click to enlarge Nast’s target was Tweed’s sympathizing with New York Catholics who were protesting mandatory Protestant religious indoctrination in the city’s public schools. And when, as a state senator, Tweed sponsored a bill that provided some funding for New York’s Catholic parochial schools, it seemed to Nast that the separation of church and state was doomed. Soon, good Protestants would be swallowed up by devoted Catholic clerics in a world-wide Vatican scheme. The ire in Nast’s cartoon was fueled not so much click to enlargeby the church/state issue as by Nast’s own fervent anti-Catholicism (the result, it is assumed, of some untoward happening in Nast’s Catholic upbringing in his native Bavaria). The danger was hardly as diabolical or as imminent as Nast’s cartoon depicted it. Said Fischer: the cartoon “provides an unparalleled example of ethical bankruptcy transformed into superb cartoon art.” Nast had strayed a little too far from “a rough fidelity to fact.”

Bob Gorrell, editoonist at the Richmond News-Leader, argues that changing a reader’s perception by using falsehoods constitutes a corruption of the professional canon: If “we, like those we accuse, allow our power and its use to become ends in itself, neglecting our proper purpose of enlightening the public in favor of toying with our pictorial armament, [then] self-proclaimed protectors of truth, we become irresponsible dispensers of falsehood.” Nast, at the American River Ganges, had misused his gift for visual metaphor, creating an image too exaggerated to be supported by acknowledged facts. Powerful cartoon, though.

Not all editoonists believe that truth, facts, “or even fairness,” have much to do with effective editorial cartooning, said Fischer, quoting the Dayton Daily News’ Mike Peters: “Cartooning is not a fair art. You can never treat anyone justly.” Fischer also quotes Jules Feiffer, who believes that “outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a good political cartoonist than ill will.” Most editoonists, however, argue that their hope is to produce cartoons that have “impact.” They may not change minds, but they want to present ideas forcefully enough to make people think—and maybe even to discuss the issues. But facts undeniably have a role to play in an editoonist’s art: a good cartoonist does not change the facts to make his point.

Sometimes even facts can undermine a cartoon’s effectiveness. The facts of this year’s Presidential Election, for instance, present editorial cartoonists with some special hurdles—ageism, sexism, and racism. In a symposium of editoonists conducted last winter just after Super Tuesday by Pam Platt at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, an initial question was: How do you use exaggeration and caricature with Clinton and Obama without falling into sexist or racist traps? The short answer from all eight of the convened cartooners was that they didn’t treat either Clinton or Obama any differently than they did other candidates.

John Coles of Scranton’s Times-Tribune said: “I generally adhere to the ‘sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander philosophy in my cartoons. I can’t in good conscience soften a cartoon’s bite or humor to accommodate a few readers’ overly attuned race and gender sensitivities. Conversely, gratuitous and superfluous stereotypical images having nothing to do with the issues are needlessly offense and simply designed to tick off readers. That’s not why I’m here, and I don’t use them.”

Jeff Parker at Florida Today said: “There’s an obvious degree of caution that needs to be considered whenever it comes to rendering people of color, and Senator Obama, that a cartoonist wouldn’t generally think about when depicting a white personality.”

Lisa Benson, a conservative-leaning cartoonist syndicated with the Washington Post Writers Group, while saying that she is most influenced by “a candidate’s history and policies—baggage,” admitted that Hillary Clinton “comes with a good amount of baggage, mostly around the thighs.” She also thought that “Obama’s Muslim background is a dicier issue than his race.”

The cartoonists were asked why it’s okay to portray GeeDubya with simian physical characteristics but not a candidate of color.

Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle said he could caricature GeeDubya as a monkey “because we don’t have a pernicious, racist history of depicting rich, powerful white guys as monkeys; if we did, well, I’d have to reconsider.”

Tim Jackson, an African American cartoonist at the Chicago Defender, added: “A person/candidate of color being drawn ape-like comes with other deeply rooted connotations, which takes it to another place than what the artist may have intended.”

And that brings us back to Clinton’s thighs (by an admittedly circuitous route). Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post online, who said she is “sensitive to double standards when it comes to criticisms and media coverage of Hillary,” said: “We’re much more aware of racial bias than gender because gender bias can be so much more subtle and has been a part of our culture for so long. ... While I have no problem with editoons attacking Hillary for her policy stance or political tactics (which I have done and will continue to do), a majority of them only made the point that she was an aggressive type of woman, a witch and a bitch. ... If you want to make a strong point you also have to make sure the point [you make] is actually the one you intended to make. The problem with depicting an African-American candidate the same way (even if your criticisms are the same as you have of Bush) is that all the historical baggage comes with it—and the point you’re intending to make will be overshadowed. [The same with Hillary’s thighs.—RCH] That’s where your skills as an editorial cartoonist have to come in—you must make conscious decisions about what visual metaphor you’re going to use in order to get the point you want to make across.”

The governing consideration in the foregoing is not ethical but purely pragmatic: what point are you trying to make and are you distorting or undercutting your point by using visual elements that misdirect your reader’s attention or distract him/her? If you include a wholly incidental African-American character in a crowd of onlookers because you want to accurately portray the diversity of American society, will the reader wonder why that character is there? What is its significance? If the situation you portray is, say, a traffic accident, these questions probably won’t arise. But if the onlookers are watching the police question a robbery victim, your readers might wonder if the robber is the black guy in the crowd. Unreasonable, perhaps, but nonetheless a likelihood in a society as contaminated by racial sins as ours. Apart from practical considerations, the ethical questions remain.

The essential ethical questions in editorial cartooning are resolved in notions about integrity and independence. “Objectivity” and “credibility,” terms bandied about among the political cartoonists I’ve quoted, are not realistic ends in themselves: they are aspects of integrity, and integrity is vital to an editoonist’s craft just as independence is indispensable for integrity. An editorial cartoonist cannot monger opinions “objectively”; but he can avoid falsifying the evidence upon which he bases his opinion. He can make sure that his cartoons honestly reflect his opinions—that the cartoons are not trumped up in a hurry, disregarding momentarily the cartooner’s convictions, in order to make a deadline. Integrity, being true to one’s self, is the ultimate ethic, but its foundation is independence.

Donating money to a politician’s election campaign is, the Supreme Court tells us, an exercise of free speech, and while no one would, off-hand, say an editoonist should give up this fundamental right, a political commentator who gives money to his preferred candidate has created an appearance that tends to undermine his readers’ confidence in the independence of his thinking. Did the cartoonist arrive at his/her opinions by exercising purely rationale analysis of the political issues involved? Or are his/her opinions a reflection of personal involvement with a candidate? As a donor, the editoonist has gone beyond expressing an opinion: he now has a vested interest in the outcome of the election. His opinion without the monetary investment is just an opinion; but when he puts his money where his mouth is, he has gone from commentator to market manipulator in the minds of his readers. For them, he/she has lost his/her independence. And at a time when public confidence in news media is already low, the loss is crucial because it effectively confirms that public opinion.

Publicizing the political donations made by commentators or cartoonists doesn’t much change the situation when it comes to how a reader may perceive the column or the cartoon. If a reader knows a cartoonist supports liberal causes, then the reader’s reaction to a cartoon attacking some conservative delusion can be dismissed by saying, “Oh, well—he/she gives money to Democrats, so it’s understandable that he/she would be opposed to anything a Republican says or does.” The merits of the case for or against a particular issue are overlooked forthwith. The cartoonist has lost his/her function. For that reader anyhow. But then, that reader probably came to realize that the cartoonist in question was not on the reader’s side in the political argument and would, therefore, discount the cartoons whether he/she knew about any political donations or not. Disclosing political contributions doesn’t solve anything. And neither, probably, do political cartoons.

Political cartoonists generally don’t think their cartoons change the world, Doug Marlette’s tongue-in-cheek contention to the contrary notwithstanding. After a lecture he’d given, Marlette was approached by a member of the audience who earnestly asked whether he thought his cartoons had ever had impact enough to change anything. Marlette reflected silently for a few moments and then said: “Yes. I ended the Vietnam War.”

Most editoonists, however, don’t end wars and don’t expect to. They are usually in the position of preaching to a choir of like-minded citizens, who all agree with the points the cartoonist is making. Cartooners are cheerleaders rather than opinion formers. In the last analysis, an editoonist’s impact upon his readers depends upon his work’s presenting a reasonable point of view, one that’s supported by the known facts and one that the reader probably already agrees with (whether the reader knows it before seeing the cartoon or not). Still, one must be wary of doing anything that undermines the perception of his reasonableness, his independence of thought.

While donating to political causes undermines at least the illusion if not the fact of independence, that may not be as important to an editoonist’s ability to create powerful, pointed cartoons as another, related consequence of political engagement on this level. Once an editoonist becomes involved in a political campaign by investing in it, his/her judgement is clouded by his/her aspirations for the candidate. Russell Hodin put it memorably enough to bear repeating here: “Unless you have a sense of objectivity [I’d say ‘independence’—RCH], and the respect of your readers for a sense of accuracy and fairness, I don't think you can do as effective a job forming and arguing an opinion. You can't get the depth and subtlety you need to do good work unless your eyes and ears are open to all sides of an issue, and all facets of character of those you're targeting.” And if you are a committed supporter of a given candidate, your eyes are probably not as open as they once were.

In Paul Fell’s case—giving money to an old friend—such considerations don’t matter: Paul’s loyalties, like his friendship, had been formed long before the election campaign itself, and his loyalty determined his conduct. As a general rule, it’s probably better that an editorial cartoonist not donate money to politicians or political parties. At least then, the editoonist won’t learn that he’s “gone too far” by reason of the trouble he’s gotten into, only criteria that, so far, seems absolute enough to serve as an all-around, multi-purpose Dictum. Which is to say, not absolute at all.

Probably there are no good, hard and fast Rules that can work. Every case ought to be judged on its individual merits. In Fell’s case—considering his long friendship with the candidate of his choice—he should not have been fired. (Perhaps—just to introduce a wholly sexist sidebar—Fell was fired because his editor, a woman in a workplace traditionally dominated by men, had to prove that she was as tough as man, so she did what she imagined a man would do if a subordinate said he didn’t give a “rat’s ass.” See what I mean about insinuating possibly relevant but distracting considerations into a diatribe like this? By now, you’re so outraged by my blatant sexism that you’ve forgotten that I just said Paul should not have been fired because his independence was not at issue; his loyalty had already subsumed independence.)

The problem with judging such matters individually, case-by-case, is that it requires much too much work. Just as careful editing of newsstories with at least one eye on removing any taint of political bias takes time, thought, and an awareness that not many harried editors these days seem to have. What works under the circumstances is a Rule, an ironclad Dictum or Law. And so we get an intellectual shortcut that actually short-circuits the reasoning process in favor of a quick decision when what we should have is a Guideline that hints and nudges without making final pronouncements, leaving those to be arrived at by carefully considering the peculiar circumstances in every instance.

For the MSNBC report, scroll to the very end of this Opus; otherwise, continue immediately below for the Usual Gang of Idiocies.


Kerfuffle. I’ve seen this word in print at least three times in the last four months—which is many more times than I’ve seen it in, oh, fourteen years. So what’s going on? A revival in antique argot? It means “fuss,” and it perhaps originated, we are told, from the Scots curfuffle (from fuffle “to disorder”), or related to Irish cior thual, “confusion, disorder.” But I don’t care about its origins: I think it’s a nifty nomenclature to bandy about, and so I will.

The local Oktoberfest was described in the public prints as “a darn Teuton good time.” Wish I’d said it. There was also a “gut contest”: competitors stood in a line and lifted their shirts to display their cut. Prize went to the best “keg.”


The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping

Once upon a time—in fact, for almost all of the time of their existence—comic strips were vanilla confections. Not at first, but eventually with the advent of syndication. Syndication unhorsed political content. The whole idea behind syndication was to achieve great circulation, to appear in, and collect fees from, as many newspapers as possible. Expressing a political point-of-view might interfere with this objective: if a comic strip leaned Left, say, it would not be popular with newspaper editors who veered off Rightward. And vice versa. An editor might very well drop a comic strip that expressed a political view he didn’t agree with. So if a syndicated cartoonist wanted to keep his subscribers happy—and attract new subscribers, too— he avoided politics. And for the most part, this practice still prevails: most syndicated cartoonists keep their political opinions to themselves. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury is the defiant exception rather than the unrepentant rule.

But Trudeau is standing on the shoulders of some distinguished predecessors. Harold Gray is generally regarded as the first widely syndicated cartoonist to express a political point-of-view in his strip, Little Orphan Annie. Gray espoused self-reliance in his wandering waif: anything short of self-sufficiency for Annie would make it impossible for Gray to tell the kinds of stories he told; and self-reliance seemed in increasingly short supply during the Great Depression when Franklin Roosevelt wanted government to relieve the burdens of existence for vast numbers of citizens who were out of work through no fault of their own. Gray’s narrative tendency in opposition to the New Deal eventually emerged as a full-fledged political stance. Daddy Warbucks even died rather than live under the regime of FDR; he came back to life after Roosevelt died. Al Capp was next to jump the non-partisan ship: Li’l Abner seemed liberal because Capp’s satiric targets were institutions of the Establishment, malefactors of wealth and power, and the Establishment, then and now, is usually seen as conservative. But the political postures of Little Orphan Annie and Li’l Abner were determined more by the circumstances of their characters and the sorts of adventures they had than by the political views of their creators. Gray and Capp told stories first; if their tales seemed to acquire a political tinge, that was secondary to the chief function—to entertain with gripping narratives. But Walt Kelly’s Pogo was different: by the time the strip was ten years old, Kelly was producing strips the purpose of which was political satire not storytelling. And Trudeau would follow in Kelly’s footsteps.

Thanks to Trudeau, we can find a good deal more political comment in comic strips these days than ever before in the medium’s history. There’s still more Hi and Lois in the funnies than Candorville: the guiding principle is still to gain and keep subscribing newspapers. But the atmosphere is changing somewhat. More and more these days, thanks to Jay Leno and David Letterman among others, “entertainment” includes political commentary. Sometimes the comments are fairly bland. But they’re there. And they’ve become even more evident in this Election Year.

click to enlarge By the end of September, before Sarah Palin’s nomination was a month old, Trudeau had introduced the Sarah Palin Action Doll as a device to attack the Republican vice presidential candidate. Barbie in a Box but with utterances to utter. And for a week in October, Trudeau listed all the lobbyists that worked for McCain, implying forcefully that the erstwhile heroic POW has been corrupted by his associations. Robb Armstrong’s Jump Start seldom ventures into politics, but it did for a week or so in mid-September—not by choosing up sides necessarily, like Trudeau, but rather in finding a satiric racial target in the presidential preferences of the characters. The satire is essential social, not political, but that kind of satire couldn’t have existed before Doonesbury.click to enlargeDarrin Bell has never hesitated to take his Candorville where others have feared to tread. In late September, he began a sequence that attacked McCain for running scurrilous ads brimming with lies about Obama. McCain had apparently left his highly touted honor in North Vietnam, so Bell sent Lemont Brown, his protagonist, up the river in Vietnam in search of McCain’s honor. Upstream, Lemont encounters Anderson Cooper (or is it Cooper Anderson?) on the same errand. The sequence ran all of October. Political content frequently rubs elbows with social satire in Non Sequitur, and that’s quite understandable and even expected: Non Sequitur’s creator, Wiley Miller, has a couple past lives as a political cartoonist. But Wiley has yet to come out in favor of one party over another in the same way as Keith Knight has, or Michael Fry and T (no period) Lewis or, even, Patrick McDonnell. click to enlarge The week of October 15, McDonnell ran a campaign in Mutts in support of Proposition 2 on the ballot in California. The project is explained at muttscomics.com: If passed, Proposition 2 will “phase out the inhumane confinement of farm animals in tiny crates and cages where they can barely move for their entire lives on industrial factory farms. Veterinarians, consumer groups and California family farmers all support Prop 2 because animal welfare, food quality and food safety are enhanced by better farming practices. Factory farms cut corners and drive family farmers out of business when they put profits ahead of animal welfare and our health.” McDonnell has spoken out often on behalf of better treatment for animals, but this is the first time he’s ventured into the voting booth. Scott Stantis, a conservative editoonist by day, is overtly political in Prickly City although he gives liberals a voice in one of his characters, Winslow the coyote. But even Stantis finds Palin a bit much to take. In October 3's Beetle Bailey, which almost never talks politics, Mort Walker takes a long but still satiric view of war.

Knight—or, as most of us call him, Keef—is often much more pointed in his racial commentary than in the afore-displayed mass-circulation Knight Life strip. click to enlarge Keef also produces the long-running erstwhile self-syndicated K Chronicles strip and the somewhat newer panel cartoon, (Th)ink, both of which typically appear in alternative weekly newspapers. But they’re also syndicated by MCT Campus, which supplies college newspapers around the country. The K Chronicles release for the week of October 27 aroused ire among students at Montclair State University in New Jersey when it was published in the campus paper, The Montclarion. The editor-in-chief apologized, saying it wasn’t the intention of the paper to offend its readership. I can understand why some were angered: the very use of the N-word sets some people rampaging. I, on the other hand, admire Knight’s inventive and discreet deployment of the offensive word, hiding its last tell-tale syllable behind the panel border. Nice touch. The editors of the paper evidently published the strip without reading it, assuming, it seems, that it would be inoffensive because it was syndicated—a reasonably safe assumption for mainstream syndicated material but not for everything distributed by college-oriented syndicates like MCT Campus.

Keef was astonished by the brouhaha—astonished but jubilant. “Glory be!” he exclaimed in his blog at kchronicles.com, “—a full-blown Keith Knight cartoon controversy!” He found the excitement “interesting” because he hadn’t heard any objections to the strip from any of its other outlets. “It’s nice to know I’m in New Jersey,” he wrote. “I keep asking the college syndication service where my strip’s running, and I never get an answer. I now know of one place where it runs.” Keef also observed a “fun fact” about the strip: it is based upon a real incident. In fact, it visualizes exactly the incident reported at the election-projection website FiveThirtyEight.com, to wit: “So a canvasser goes to a woman's door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she's planning to vote for. She isn't sure, has to ask her husband who she's voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, ‘We're votin' for the n***er!’ Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: ‘We're voting for the n***er.’”

The website recited the incident to illuminate the apparent evaporation of racism as a factor in the election: “In this economy, racism is officially a luxury. How is John McCain going to win if he can't win those voters?” The voters in question are residents of “John Murtha's ‘racist’ western Pennsylvania district, where this incident took place ... some of the roughest turf in the nation. But Barack Obama is on the ground and making inroads due to unusually strong organizing leadership.” Presumably, Knight cartooned the incident to demonstrate how little race seems to matter in this election. He said he’ll be posting a statement about it in the next few days.

Meanwhile, back on pages of the nation’s mainstream comics sections, Darrin Bell and Theron Heir (mostly Heir because he writes the strip) took a couple jabs at the hypocrisies of presidential candidates in their joint venture, Rudy Park.

click to enlarge click to enlarge

And Mike Peters, who doubles as an editoonist in his off hours, took a swipe at other kinds of hypocrisy in his strip, Mother Goose and Grimm. In Zippy, Bill Griffith was obvious in his political choices, and in Get Fuzzy, Darby Conley illustrates how to twist words to achieve a meaning quite different from their lexical intention—a practice at which the McCain combine has become expert in recent weeks, as amply demonstrated by Adam Zyglis at the Buffalo News.

Amusing, even inciteful, as this tour of the funnies may be, it is also insightful. Newspaper comic strips offer a rough gauge of the temper of the times. As we observed at the onset of this diatribe, syndicated cartoonists don’t want to lose subscribing papers, so they are careful not to wander into places that their readers might find uncomfortable: discomfitted readers will assault the newspaper editors for any sins committed in the comics section, inspiring the editors to drop the offending strip. It is, as I’ve indicated, among the oldest of syndicate cautions. But the other side of the coin is instructive: whatever readers tolerate in comic strips is an indication of the readers’ convictions and inclinations. So if John McCain and his luxuriously garbed running mate are targets for ridicule in the comics, it probably means that the body politic, of which the newspaper reading public is a small but significant bellwether, doesn’t have a very high opinion of McCain and his team. While it’s true that there have been very few Barack Obama jokes on late-night tv or in the funny papers because it’s de rigueur to avoid anything that can be interpreted as racist, it’s also true that McCain and Palin have been the butts of a lot of jokes. And that can’t be good for their hopes of victory on November 4: if everyone’s laughing at you, no one’s taking you seriously enough to vote you into the White House.


“It’s sometimes easier to insist on being wrong than it is to admit being ignorant.” —Ashleigh Brilliant, self-syndicated wit with his Potshots, old clip art and bon mots

“The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.” —Willem de Kooning

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” —Kurt Vonnegut

“Any superhero outfit you see, I guarantee there’s been 50 hours’ discussion on how the crotch looks.” —Director Jon Favreau quoted in Entertainment Weekly (September 26) on comic-book-movie protocol.


Short & Quick Reviews of New Books (Some Longer than Most)

The world’s longest and therefore most tedious Primary Season yielded at least three notable political products besides Baracko Bama. Pelican Publishing, which has printed a volume of the Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year for several decades, coughed up two, so far, this year: The Race for the 20008 Republican Nomination and, in the interest of bipartisanship, The Race for the 2008 Democratic Nomination (both 160 8.5x11-inch pages in paperback; about fifteen bucks each). And Daryl Cagle, with a conservative assist, as usual, from Brian Fairrington, noting the ink-slinging excitement of an Election Year with its Primary Preamble and observing that “our files are overflowing with cartoons for our annual Best Political Cartoons book,” decided to do a second book this year “just about the campaign,” The Big Book of Campaign Political Cartoons 2008 (244 8x10-inch pages in paperback; $16.99). The Pelican collections each publish about 300 cartoons at the rate of two per page; the Cagle book, about 400-425 cartoons, cramming as many as five cartoons on a page but typically only three. As has been the case for some years now, the cartoons get better display in the Pellican books than in the Cagle volume. The big difference this time is that the Pelican books are not edited by Charles Brooks; instead, the editorial chores were performed by Eric Appleman, who is not, like Brooks, an editorial cartoonist himself; he is, rather, “the founder of Democracy in Action,” a website. Appleman has a degree in politics and communication from George Washington University and may even work there: it’s not easy to find out much about him, and Pelican, apart from confessing Appleman’s management of his own website, ain’t talkin’. But perhaps the two cartoon collections tell us all we actually need to know about him.

The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) was, as always, a party to the Pelican project, sharing in the revenues and putting the editor in touch with potential contributors. My guess is that AAEC members were asked to contribute a selection of their favorite cartoons, and from that, Appleman (assisted by Ted Rall, AAEC Prexy, and Nick Anderson, past Prexy, plus Matt Wuerker, who, like Appleman, lives in Washington, D.C.) picked the contents of the books. The cartoons in both volumes are mostly in the attack mode—the preferred posture of editoonists—showing no favoritism for any candidate: everyone gets his or her share of lambasting. Given the focus of each volume coupled the well-known ferocity of editorial cartoonists, who tend to level the playing field by shooting everything in sight, it is impossible to detect a political slant in either book. Every candidate is disparaged with equal exuberance. Conservative cartoonists bash Republicans, willy nilly; ditto liberal cartooners and Democrats. And the same can be said for the Cagle book. Which proves, if anything, that we can’t tell the cartoonist’s political allegiance from the thrust of his cartoons. Which, in turn, tends to suggest, as I said earlier, that “credibility” is not the basis of a cartoonist’s appeal: the seeming logic or reasonableness or plain persuasiveness of his/her argument is what counts with readers.

Both books are divided into sections, some of which focus on the major candidates (McCain, Clinton, Obama, as well as Thompson, Huckabee, Romney, Edwards) and others on various episodes in the marathon—Super Tuesday, Super Delegates, Also Rans, and the like. Cagle has a chapter on Obama’s Rev. Wright and one on McCain’s favorite (female) lobbyist, and while these topics are covered in the Pelican book, they don’t receive as many pages. Both books’ chapters are introduced with a short orientating essay, alerting the reader to the issues targeted by that chapter’s cartoons. And Cagle has a chapter on “How to Draw Hillary,” which soon runs amuck into caricaturing generally and which candidates cartoonists probably prefer; most like Hillary better than either Obama (too bland-looking) or McCain (after you’ve captured the “pudding” that is his face, what’s left?).

Cagle also includes a chapter on the notorious New Yorker cover that shows Mr. and Mrs. Obama dressed as Muslims and terrorists in the White House, “fist bumping.” Cagle explains his verdict, that it was a lousy cartoon, quite simply: “There is no frame of reference in the cover cartoon to put the scene into perspective. Following the rules of political cartoons, I could fix it. I would have Obama think in a thought balloon, ‘I must be in the nightmare of some conservative.’ With that, the scene is shown to be in the mind of someone the cartoonist disagrees with, and we have defined the target of the cartoon as crazy conservatives with their crazy dreams.” Bravo.

The Pelican books end before the conventions; Cagle includes both the Dem Con and the Repub Con, which, in turn, includes McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running, er, mate.

The Pelican books include more cartoonists—about 85, and most appear in both Pelican volumes; only 56 in the Cagle collection, recruited, I assume, exclusively from the gigantic Cagle website at MSNBC.com. Only about a half-dozen of the Cagle cartooners might be described as “well-known” nationally; Pelican scores higher in my wholly subjective assessment—maybe as many as two dozen. Oddly, there’s little overlap. Only about ten Cagle cartoonists also appear in Pelican; ditto the verce visa. Pelican’s annual collection by Brooks typically offers a selection of lesser-known cartoonists (perhaps unsyndicated staff artists who draw only an occasional editoon), a maneuver that gives the Brooks volumes a tinge of amateurism. Appleman’s selection also includes a few from this category, but most of the cartoons are by nationally visible (if not necessarily well-known) cartoonists—which gives both of his collections a professional nimbus akin to that in Cagle’s book.

So which one do you buy? If you’re like me, you buy all three. Since there’s virtually no overlap, you, like me, will be able to take sadistic pleasure in seeing our would-be “leaders” dismembered in public, a gratifying experience that no one should miss. And you’ll have a generous helping of the history of the world’s longest Primary Season on your bookshelf forever. Who could ask for more?


And if you’re looking for vintage classics, particularly those panel cartoons by J.R. Williams about cowboys and “the Bull of the Woods,” visit leevalley.com, and look among the listings of tools for titles in the Gifts department: two volumes of Classic Cowboys, one of Cavalry, six of Bull of the Woods, one “sampler” (new) of Out Our Way; even a collection of Gene Ahern’s Our Boarding House with Major Hoople. Yes, an unlikely place to find such rarities. But definitely worth a look if you want to relive bygone days.


Four-color Frolics

Comic strips aren’t the only cartooning venue in which cartoonists are expressing political preferences. “Four years ago,” says Randy Myers at the Contra Costa Times, “the likelihood of seeing George W., John Kerry or Dick Cheney on a comic book cover seemed implausible. Today, nearly all the candidates have been cartooned.” Erik Larsen in his Savage Dragon comic book backed one of the major candidates, Barack Obama. Sarah Palin achieved “the dubious distinction” of landing on the cover of Tales from the Crypt “as a spoof of the disputed claim she banned library books.” And in early October, IDW released Presidential Material, inspiring media buzz all over. A flip book featuring the cartooned biographies of John McCain and Barack Obama, the 28-page books—each of which can be bought separately—aim at an unbiased albeit brief portrait of both men. I thumbed a copy in the neighborhood Borders and agree that the creative team pretty much achieved its objective of sticking to fact rather than innuendo. “The writers [Jeff Mariotte on Obama and Andy Helfer on McCain] and researchers relied on verifiable quotes, and even scrapped the idea of creating a fictitious narrator to avoid taking any creative licenses.”

The pictures, by Tom Morgan and Stephen Thompson respectively, employ the angular illustrative mannerism. The covers, by J. Scott Campbell, seem more in the Morgan-Thompson mold than in Campbell’s distinctive style, and, in keeping with the publisher’s desire to produce “objective” and “unbiased” books, McCain and Obama are depicted in exactly the same wooden, lifeless pose. Altogether, words and pictures, a professional and thoroughly adequate job, but nowhere can you detect a flash of inspiration or simple artistic pleasure that the producers of this gambit might have experienced. So I conclude that they just did the job, like punching a time clock, without any particular enjoyment or, even, distaste. Burdened with presenting only agreed-upon “facts” in as objective a mode as possible, the books are heavily verbal, the captions carrying the narrative, the pictures merely illustrations at random. Of the sort of storytelling comics excel at, not much evidence. In short, not very exciting cartooning. The only excitement, apparently, is in the very fact of having published comic book biographies of the two major candidates—and that excitement is entirely external to the books. Larsen’s Savage Dragon issue, on the other hand—with Obama on the cover—went into three (at last count) printings. Asked if taking a political position might alienate fans, Larsen said he’s not worried. But what about if his man loses? “I actually considered having John McCain win regardless,” Larsen said, “—it makes for a more interesting comic."

Still, Mary Stegmeir at the Courier in Cedar Falls, Iowa, reports that the local comics shop is selling out of the Obama/McCain book. "A lot of people requested them, so we got them in," said Robert Rodgers, manager at Limited Edition Comics in Cedar Falls. "We had about 100 of each—100 of Obama, and 100 of McCain—and they all sold out." Sales at another local comics store have likewise been swift, according to The Core owner Mike Blanchard. A few middle school teachers have bought copies of the flipbook for their classes, he noted. Writes Stegmeir: “The book shows Democrat Obama struggling to find his identity as a multiracial youth, and recounts the time Republican McCain spent as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, North Vietnam. Both the good and the bad is on display ... Readers revisit Obama's stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and learn about his drubbing in a 2000 U.S. House of Representatives race. McCain's bipartisan work on campaign finance reform is highlighted, as is the legislator's involvement in the Keating Five ethics scandal.”

Reviewing the book(s) for the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, elementary school teacher Jeff Dyer felt the books were “fair and balanced. ... For example, the Obama comic book includes recent controversies such as Obama's associations with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and also Michelle Obama's comment, ‘For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,’ which stirred debate. The McCain comic does not shy away from the Keating scandal in the late 1980s, in which McCain was involved. The book also addresses Cindy McCain's addiction to painkillers in the mid-1990s.”

The idea of doing presidential candidate comics came to Scott Dunbier, special projects editor at IDW, as a “lark,” he told Stegmeir. "I just kind of tossed it out there as a joke," he said. "But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense and it seemed like these were people with interesting stories to tell." But, once again, the story itself trumps the manner of its telling in these books. Dunbier hopes the comic books will whet the appetite of readers to learn more. "The greatest compliment I can get is for someone to read this book, and decide to dig deeper—to do some more research on the issues that are important to them," he said.

Hillary Clinton lost her bid for the Democrat nomination but she’ll get her own comic book biography in January from Bluewater Productions in its Female Force series, saith the Bellingham (Wa.) Herald. Bluewater's production staff was pondering numerous candidates for the next Female Force figure, including influential women such as journalist Barbara Walters, Hewlett-Packard's CEO Carly Fiorina, and Geraldine Ferraro, the Democrats' first female nominee for vice president in 1984. One or more of them may well find her way into the series, but Sarah Palin is next, said Darren Davis, the publishing company’s president. He wasn’t sure about Palin at first, but after watching the vice presidential nominee deal with sudden political stardom and cope with her teen daughter's pregnancy, Davis changed his mind. "We just had to do her,” he said. “I just had to; her life is like a comic book." The Palin pulp will appear in February.

So far, no comic book about Joe Biden. Too bad: he’s the most likely candidate for a sitcom title. Moreover, he likes cartoons—one, in particular, that he mentioned during a rally at Ohio University. Drawn by Daryl Cagle, it depicted despondent people jumping off a bank building while an oblivious John McCain and Sarah Palin are saying: "Barack Obama pals around with a terrorist, you know." According to CBSNews.com, Biden’s reaction was: "I think it best captures anything I have seen. While the economy is going to hell in a handbasket, while people are losing their jobs, while things are going under, they're running the most scurrilous campaign in modern history."
Comic books with a political agenda are not at all scarce. Almost all of them reek with it, but we don’t notice because the politic in question is “truth, justice, and the American way.” Superheroes embody this ethic; ditto Donald Duck. In a free enterprise, capitalistic society, the consumer is king, and if a publisher wants to sell product, he must, perforce, appeal to the consumer. The consumer, meanwhile, is a product, too—a product of his upbringing in the aforementioned capitalistic society; and his upbringing imbues him with the “values” that will perpetuate the society itself: belief in “the American way,” free enterprise and the profit motive, certainly, but also “truth” and “justice” and “individual liberty.” Consumers will buy products that reflect and promote “the American way,” and so funnybooks inevitably do just that, whether their casts wear longjohns or the upper half of a sailor suit. For this special Politickle Edition of Rancid Raves, however, we are not so much interested in comic books that promote the general, over-all political message of the sort that both political parties can tout (namely, “the American way”). Instead, I looked for comic books that, under the umbrella of “the American way,” advanced the values peculiar to one political party or another. Democrat or Republican. Of these kinds of funnybooks there is a veritable paucity. Almost nothing.

I thought I might find it in Oni’s new 5-issue series, Tek Jansen, which purports to present the exploits of the space opera hero whom Stephen Colbert often invokes so affectionately. Since Colbert is so deft at ironic political satire, wouldn’t a comic book about his hero engage in the same shenanigans? Apparently not. Tek Jansen is no more political satire than the early Mad comic book: genre is the object of the satire, not political doctrine. Tek Jansen bears a not-altogether-vague resemblance to Colbert, but that’s where the subtleties of Colbertian irony ends. In one of the two stories in the first issue, Jansen, in the grip of his usual wrong-headed stubbornness, decides to disobey his superior and save Alphalon-7 from the invading hordes of Optiklons, who want to cure the Alphalons of all physical ills and psychological disorders, converting their society to a utopian enclave of “love and beauty and perfection.” Jansen, gripped, as I say, by his customary contrarian impulse, detects in this plan something that “stinks” and resolves to interfere with it, which, ultimately, he does. Awakening suddenly one morning after an all-night romp in the hay with “a hot Skelatahn babe,” Jansen realizes that he’s “late for interferring,” adding, in one of the issue’s best pseudo-sf lines, “no time to radioshower, lasershave or autodress.” So he dashes off to “do good” in what is later, in the other of the issue’s best lines, described as a “naked act of unprovoked aggression.” Yes, Jansen is wearing only his birthday suit as he defeats the Optiklon mission, which, in turn—inevitably— precipitates an intergalactic war. Tek Jansen, in other words, is that threadbare comedic device, a fatuous oafish bumbler, destroyer of worlds, motivated to commit mindless errors by his own exalted opinion of himself, which proves, time after time, impervious to even the slightest modification despite the supposed lessons of reality that, time after time, defeat and deflate Jansen’s arrogant self-esteem. The satiric target is the heroic space opera hero as a generic type. The other story is a variation on this theme: in it, Jansen grows horns as a disguise to infiltrate an alien society of horned humans but, predictably, Jansen disregards his assignment (to create an opposing political party) and instead destroys the ruling party all the while lusting after a bountiful horn-less beauty. (He is, after all, horny.) Tek Jansen is exactly the sort of comic book hero that the Colbert of “The Colbert Report” would admire extravagantly; in that sense, then, the comic book is a successful perpetuation of the tv show’s ambiance. Jansen is Colbert: convinced of his own rightness, he ignores any contradictory realities. But compared to the triumphant subtlety of the sustained irony of Colbert’s adroit on-the-air political satire, the comic book—written by John Layman and Tom Peyer and Jim Massey—is tepid tea. All remnant of subtlety is gone. And nothing much political at all. Mad shtick throughout. And do we need another Mad? Illustrated by Scott Chantler and Robbi Rodriguez, the visualization is wholly adequate; I prefer the somewhat bolder linework and angular style of Chantler, but neither artist manages a manner than is particularly distinguished. We’re now up to the third issue of the title, and not much has changed since the first—except for more emphasis upon Tek’s sexual appetite.

Still on the lookout for politics in comic books, I returned to Liberality for All, a title I reviewed soon after it first appeared in the fall of 2005; I’m astonished to see that this trumped-up screed has reached a fourth issue, dated February 2007, which, alas, I ran across a copy of only last winter. This publication may well serve as an example of how to do a horrendously bad comic book. Setting aside for the nonce my intense dislike for its simple-minded political message indiscriminately championing neoconservativism and lambasting liberals, it is badly drawn and badly written. Donny Lin, who did the drawing, chisels anatomy, and the faces are so stylized that we can tell one character from another only by their costumes or facial scars. Mike Mackey, who has (pardon the expression) “written” this book, has attempted a sort of tone poem to freedom in captions that are accompanied by pictures that seem, from time to time, to be telling a different, perhaps parallel, story. If I knew who the characters were and their relationships to each other and to the over-all scheme of the book, assuming, for the nonce, that there is one, it might make for an interesting exercise in creating a thematic tension between pictures and prose. But since nothing in the book orients me to the characters and their relationships, or to the supposed plot, the whole enterprise falls as flat as roadkill. Not an altogether inept metaphor at that. A woman wanders around the book, carrying a sick eagle, and Ollie North shows up and a guy with an eye patch and Gordon Liddy. That’s about it, aristotle.

Rummaging through the stack of un-reviewed comics in quest of something “political,” I came across Liberty Comics and picked it up, thinking, because of a similarity in titles, it might be another manifestation of the misbegotten impulses of Liberality for All. Oooops! I hasten to apologize all around: I could not have been more mistaken. Still, the book is political, outrageously, commendably so: Liberty Comics, published by Image, is produced in support of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a heroic enterprise dedicated to protecting the First Amendment rights of publishers and comic bookshop operators from the ravages of the Righteous Religious Right. The book includes several short vignettes by various distinguished funnybook creators. Darwyn Cooke and Dave Steward, adopting a style that evokes Harvey Kurtzman, examine the deadly power of a book, something all good right wing-nuts must fear. Arthur Adams, assisted by James Rochelle and R. Starkings, supplies a two-page spread of a single-panel “cartoon” of looming Monkeyman and a muscular and bare O’Brien, pondering the wherefores of the human (sic) sapien’s inexplicable obsession with the supposed evils of nudity. In “No One Rides for Free,” Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips and Val Staples present a short morality play in which a reporter is intimidated enough to abandon his professional integrity and remain silent instead of publishing the truth. In “The House of Dracula,” Mark Millar, John Paul Leon, , Jeromy Cox and John Workman give us five pages of the old Count whose immortality he finds utterly boring. Why it took four people to produce this trifle and what it has to do with the First Amendment, I dunno; but there it is. Others—Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson, Tonly Avina, Simon Bowland, Moritat and J.G. Roshell, Rick Veitch, J. Bone, Scott Dunbier, and Shawn McManus contribute their talents, but the most sustained message in the issue is by Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier, who team up to present several single-page interludes under the heading “Tales of Comic Book Censorship,” beginning with the “raid” on EC Comics in the wake of the “blasphemous” first issue of Panic in which Santa Claus (a saint, remember—Saint Nicholas) is sacrilegiously depicted as “Just Divorced.” This episode is followed by one in which a comic bookshop operator is arrested for selling a copy of Zap Comics to a minor. Then Sergio wonders why the Decency Police concentrate on comics shops instead of hotel room porn-tv, and Mark says: “It’s a lot easier to get a conviction when someone can’t afford to put up much of a fight,” implying—nay, asserting baldface—that hotels have the money to fight for their freedoms while scruffy comic book guys do not. On the back page, Frank Miller supplies the illustration atop the coupon you can clip to send money to CBLDF, but you don’t need the coupon: Just mail your donation to Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 271 Madison Avenue, Suite 1400, New York, NY 10016; and/or visit the website, CBLDF.org. If that’s not political in the grandest traditions of the Republic, I dunno what is. Join up, tovarich.

And with that, we conclude our once-every-four-years foray into blatant, unabashed politics. And what a campaign it’s been. We aren’t likely to have this much fun again any time soon. Sob. Before we go, though, here’s this to remember the experience by: Theron Heir’s coining of “a new word to describe just how terrified you should be and why you need the media to save you.” The word? Supercalifragilisticextrapocalyptic. Wonderful. We live in fascinating if terrifying times. So do the happy dance and go out and vote.

And now, that MSNBC report we’ve been talking about.



News Organizations Diverge on Handling of Political Activism by Staff

By Bill Dedman, Investigative Reporter

Updated 3:07 p.m. MT, Mon., June. 25, 2007

A correction has been added to this article

A CNN reporter gave $500 to John Kerry's campaign the same month he was embedded with the U.S. Army in Iraq. An assistant managing editor at Forbes magazine not only sent $2,000 to Republicans, but also volunteers as a director of an ExxonMobil-funded group that questions global warming. A junior editor at Dow Jones Newswires gave $1,036 to the liberal group MoveOn.org and keeps a blog listing "people I don't like," starting with George Bush, Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition, the NRA and corporate America ("these are the people who are really in charge").

Whether you sample your news feed from ABC or CBS (or, yes, even NBC and MSNBC), whether you prefer Fox News Channel or National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker, some of the journalists feeding you are also feeding cash to politicians, parties or political action committees.

MSNBC.com identified 143 journalists who made political contributions from 2004 through the start of the 2008 campaign, according to the public records of the Federal Election Commission. Most of the newsroom checkbooks leaned to the left: 125 journalists gave to Democrats and liberal causes. Only 16 gave to Republicans. Two gave to both parties.

The donors include CNN's Guy Raz, now covering the Pentagon for NPR, who gave to Kerry the same month he was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq; New Yorker war correspondent George Packer; a producer for Bill O'Reilly at Fox; MSNBC TV host Joe Scarborough; political writers at Vanity Fair; the editor of The Wall Street Journal's weekend section; local TV anchors in Washington, Minneapolis, Memphis and Wichita; the ethics columnist at The New York Times; and even MTV's former presidential campaign correspondent.

If someone had murdered Hitler ...’

There's a longstanding tradition that journalists don't cheer in the press box. They have opinions, like anyone else, but they are expected to keep those opinions out of their work. Because appearing to be fair is part of being fair, most mainstream news organizations discourage marching for causes, displaying political bumper stickers or giving cash to candidates.

Traditionally, many news organizations have applied the rules to only political reporters and editors. The ethic was summed up by Abe Rosenthal, the former New York Times editor, who is reported to have said, "I don't care if you sleep with elephants as long as you don't cover the circus."

But with polls showing the public losing faith in the ability of journalists to give the news straight up, some major newspapers and TV networks are clamping down. They now prohibit all political activity — aside from voting — no matter whether the journalist covers baseball or proofreads the obituaries. The Times in 2003 banned all donations, with editors scouring the FEC records regularly to watch for in-house donors. In 2005, The Chicago Tribune made its policy absolute. CBS did the same last fall. And The Atlantic Monthly, where a senior editor gave $500 to the Democratic Party in 2004, says it is considering banning all donations. After MSNBC.com contacted Salon.com about donations by a reporter and a former executive editor, this week Salon banned donations for all its staff.

What changed? First came the conservative outcry labeling the mainstream media as carrying a liberal bias. The growth of talk radio and cable slugfests gave voice to that claim. The Iraq war fueled distrust of the press from both sides. Finally, it became easier for the blogging public to look up the donors.

As the policy at the Times puts it: "Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides."

But news organizations don't agree on where to draw the ethical line.

Giving to candidates is allowed at Fox, Forbes, Time, The New Yorker, Reuters — and at Bloomberg News, whose editor in chief, Matthew Winkler, set the tone by giving to Al Gore in 2000. Bloomberg has nine campaign donors on the list; they're allowed to donate unless they cover politics directly. Donations and other political activity are strictly forbidden at The Washington Post, ABC, CBS, CNN and NPR. Politicking is discouraged, but there is some wiggle room, at Dow Jones, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. NBC, MSNBC and MSNBC.com say they don't discourage or encourage campaign contributions, but they require employees to report any potential conflicts of interest in advance and receive permission of the senior editor. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft; its employees are required to adhere to NBC News policies regarding political contributions.)

Many of the donating journalists cover topics far from politics: food, fashion, sports. Some touch on politics from time to time: Even a film critic has to review Gore's documentary on global warming. And some donors wield quiet influence behind the scenes, such as the wire editors at newspapers in Honolulu and Riverside, Calif., who decide which state, national and international news to publish.

The pattern of donations, with nearly nine out of 10 giving to Democratic candidates and causes, appears to confirm a leftward tilt in newsrooms — at least among the donors, who are a tiny fraction of the roughly 100,000 staffers in newsrooms across the nation. The donors said they try to be fair in reporting and editing the news. One of the recurring themes in the responses is that it's better for journalists to be transparent about their beliefs, and that editors who insist on manufacturing an appearance of impartiality are being deceptive to a public that already knows journalists aren't without biases.

“Our writers are citizens, and they're free to do what they want to do," said New Yorker editor David Remnick, who has 10 political donors at his magazine. "If what they write is fair, and they respond to editing and counter-arguments with an open mind, that to me is the way we work."

The openness didn't extend, however, to telling the public about the donations. Apparently none of the journalists disclosed the donations to readers, viewers or listeners. Few told their bosses, either.

Several of the donating journalists said they had no regrets, whatever the ethical concerns.

"Probably there should be a rule against it," said New Yorker writer Mark Singer, who wrote the magazine's profile of Howard Dean during the 2004 campaign, then gave $250 to America Coming Together and its get-out-the-vote campaign to defeat President Bush. "But there's a rule against murder. If someone had murdered Hitler — a journalist interviewing him had murdered him — the world would be a better place. As a citizen, I can only feel good about participating in a get-out-the-vote effort to get rid of George Bush, who has been the most destructive president in my lifetime. I certainly don't regret it."

Conservative-leaning journalists tended to greater generosity. Ann Stewart Banker, a producer for Bill O'Reilly at Fox News Channel, gave $5,000 to Republicans. Financial columnist Liz Peek at The New York Sun gave $90,000 to the Grand Old Party.

A few journalists let their enthusiasm extend beyond the checkbook. A Fox TV reporter in Omaha, Calvert Collins, posted a photo on Facebook.com with her cozying up to a Democratic candidate for Congress. She urged her friends, "Vote for him Tuesday, Nov. 7!" She also gave him $500. She said she was just trying to build rapport with the candidates. (And what builds rapport more effectively than $500 and a strapless gown?)

'You call that a campaign contribution?'

Sometimes a donation isn't a donation, at least in the eye of the donor.

"I don't make campaign contributions," said Jean A. Briggs, who gave a total of $2,000 to the Republican Party and Republican candidates, most recently this March. "I'm the assistant managing editor of Forbes magazine."

When asked about the Republican National Committee donations, she replied, "You call that a campaign contribution? It's not putting money into anyone's campaign." (For the record: The RNC gave $25 million to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004.)

A spokeswoman for Forbes said the magazine allows contributions. Briggs also is listed as a board member of the Property and Environment Research Center, which advocates "market solutions to environmental problems." PERC has received funding from ExxonMobil, and tries to get the industry's views into textbooks and the media. The organization's Web site says, "She exposes fellow New York journalists to PERC ideas and also brings a journalistic perspective to PERC's board. As a board member, she seeks to help spread the word about PERC's thorough research and fresh ideas."

Americans don't trust the news or newspeople as much as they used to. The crisis of faith is traced by the surveys of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. More than seven in 10 (72 percent) say news organizations tend to favor one side, the highest level of skepticism in the poll's 20-year history. Despite the popularity of Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann, two-thirds of those polled say they prefer to get news from sources without a particular point of view.

My readers know my views'

George Packer is The New Yorker's man in Iraq. The war correspondent for the magazine since 2003 and author of the acclaimed 2005 book The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, Packer gave $750 to the Democratic National Committee in August 2004, and then $250 in 2005 to Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, an anti-war Democrat who campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in Congress from Ohio. In addition to his reported pieces, Packer also writes commentary for the magazine, such as his June 11 piece ruing Bush's "shallow, unreflective character."

"My readers know my views on politics and politicians because I make no secret of them in my comments for The New Yorker and elsewhere," Packer said. "If giving money to a politician prejudiced my ability to think and write honestly, I wouldn't do it. Fortunately, it doesn't."

His colleague Judith Thurman wrote The New Yorker's sympathetic profile of Teresa Heinz Kerry, published on Sept. 27, 2004. Ten days later, the Democratic National Committee recorded Thurman's donation of $1,000. She did not return phone calls.

Their editor, Remnick, said that the magazine's writers don't do straight reporting. "Their opinions are out there," Remnick said. "There's nothing hidden." So why not disclose campaign donations to readers? "Should every newspaper reporter divulge who they vote for?"

Besides, there's the magazine's famously rigorous editing. The last bulwark against bias slipping into The New Yorker is the copy department, whose chief editor, Ann Goldstein, gave $500 in October to MoveOn.org, which campaigns for Democrats and against President Bush. "That's just me as a private citizen," she said. As for whether donations are allowed, Goldstein said she hadn't considered it. "I've never thought of myself as working for a news organization."

Embedded in Iraq, giving to Kerry

Guy Raz does work for a news organization. As the Jerusalem correspondent for CNN, he was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq in June 2004, when he gave $500 to John Kerry.He didn't supply his occupation or employer to the Kerry campaign, so his donation is listed in federal records with only his name and London address. Now he covers the Pentagon for NPR. Both CNN and NPR forbid political activity.

"I covered international news and European Union stories. I did not cover U.S. news or politics," Raz said in an e-mail to MSNBC.com. When asked how one could define U.S. news so it excludes the U.S. war in Iraq, Raz didn't reply.

Correction: One of the names was included in error in the list of newspeople who contributed to political campaigns on June 21. Joe Cline, a graphic artist at the San Diego Union-Tribune, is in the advertising department, not in news. His name has been removed. Because Cline had given to Republicans, the adjusted tally is 143 journalists: 125 giving to Democrats and liberal causes, 16 to Republicans, and two to both parties.)

Covering the war, opposing the war
Margot Patterson not only covered the war and gave money to stop it — she also signed a petition against it. Patterson has covered the Iraq war and anti-war movements for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper in Kansas City. She gave to anti-war Democrats: $2,100 to Sen. Claire McCaskill, $1,000 to Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, $250 to Howard Dean and $800 to the Democratic Party. And she signed a petition and paid to have it published as "KC Metro Citizens Oppose War On Iraq!" Patterson said the danger isn't the journalist who reveals a bias by making a campaign contribution, but journalists who quietly hold to their biases.

"I feel my responsibility as a journalist is to be fair to the people and issues involved and to be as accurate as possible," she said. "When I see my country embark on a course of action that I think disastrous to its future and fatal to its citizens, I think it my duty to do my utmost to stop it."

She didn't disclose her political activities to her readers, or her editor, Tom Roberts. He said he wasn't sure about campaign contributions, but "a reporter signing a petition crosses the line to activism."

'The Ethicist'

At this point, we need a journalism ethicist. How about Orville Schell? He favorably reviewed Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News. And this Feb. 9, while he was still dean of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, Schell gave $1,000 to Sen. Hillary Clinton. Or we could ask Randy Cohen, who writes the syndicated column "The Ethicist" for The New York Times. The former comedy writer gave $585 to MoveOn.org in 2004 when it was organizing get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat Bush. Cohen said he understands the Times policy and won't make donations again, but he had thought of MoveOn.org as no more out of bounds than the Boy Scouts.

"We admire those colleagues who participate in their communities — help out at the local school, work with Little League, donate to charity," Cohen said in an e-mail. "But no such activity is or can be non-ideological. Few papers would object to a journalist donating to the Boy Scouts or joining the Catholic Church. But the former has an official policy of discriminating against gay children; the latter has views on reproductive rights far more restrictive than those of most Americans. Should reporters be forbidden to support those groups? I’d say not." (Update: The newspaper in Spokane, Wash., the Spokesman-Review, decided on Thursday to drop Cohen's column, which had been scheduled to begin running in the paper on Saturday, because of his donation. The editor explains that if Cohen had been employed by the paper when he made the donation to MoveOn.org, he would have been suspended, at least.)

Tom Rosenstiel hasn't given anyone a dime. The former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, he co-wrote the classic book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. Journalists have sometimes gone too far, Rosenstiel said, in withdrawing from civic life. "Is it a conflict of interest for the food editor to be the president of the PTA? Probably not," he said. "You don't want to make your journalists be zoo animals."

Planet Journalism

But giving money to a candidate or party, he said, goes a big step beyond voting. "If you give money to a candidate, you are then rooting for that candidate. You've made an investment in that candidate. It can make it more difficult for someone to tell the news without fear or favor.

"The second reason," Rosenstiel said, "it would create — even if you thought you could make that intellectual leap and not let your personal allegiance interfere with your professionalism — it creates an appearance of a conflict of interest. For journalists, that's a real conflict. Giving money, you're not doing the profession of journalism any good. All of the ethics of journalism are about trust. They don't come from Planet Journalism. They come from the street."

Rosenstiel said that even opinion journalists, such as columnists and arts critics, should not make donations, because there's a difference between having opinions and being captive of a particular party or faction. Major newspapers, he said, have mostly gotten the message. You won't find any journalists in the recent FEC records from the Washington Post, where executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. is so famously politically agnostic that he doesn't vote, though he doesn't prohibit his reporters from doing so. At least, you'll find no Post journalists other than Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, who gave to the Republican Party in 2004. (The film critic at The New York Times, Manohla Dargis, gave to Democrats when she was at the L.A. Times. She finds Michael Moore's new film "persuasive.")

Is it legal for companies to restrict donations? After all, the U.S. Supreme Court has classified campaign contributions as a form of speech. In the best-known case, in a state court, the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma, Wash., reassigned to the night copy desk its education reporter, socialist and gay-rights activist Sandy Nelson, after she helped launch a ballot initiative for a nondiscrimination ordinance. In its 1997 decision (Nelson v. McClatchy Newspapers), the Washington state Supreme Court said the newspaper can enforce conflict-of-interest codes to preserve "the appearance of objectivity." The reporter's right to free speech, the court wrote, was trumped by the newspaper's right to freedom of the press, to control its own news operations.

The San Francisco Chronicle transferred the editor who handled letters to the editor, William Pates, after his donations to Kerry were disclosed by a Web site in 2004. The Newspaper Guild objected, and after a time on the sports copy desk, he's back in charge of deciding which letters get published.

Networks of influence

Fox News Channel is alone among the four major TV networks in placing no restrictions on campaign contributions. But there were surprises in the records for those who think everyone at Fox is a Republican. Researcher Codie Brooks, of Brit Hume's "Special Report," gave $2,600 last year to the Senate campaign of Harold Ford Jr., the Memphis Democrat. She said she raised much of the money from friends. "A lot of Fox employees have contributed to Democratic candidates," she said. "I know I'm not the only one."

At the Fox station in Washington, WTTG, anchor Laura Evans gave $500 in August to Democrat John Sarbanes, who was elected to the House from suburban Maryland. She initially told MSNBC.com that the donation was made by her husband, lobbyist Mike Manatos. But the records show that her husband had already given the legal limit to Sarbanes. When asked about those records in a follow-up interview, she said, "I hadn't talked to my husband. He reminded me that he had actually talked to me about this, because he had maxed out, could we write a check in my name. I said, sure. Now I remember having this conversation. It's within Fox policy, it was OK for me to do it."

Evans has also taken stands in line with Rep. Sarbanes' votes opposing President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq. On her blog on WTTG's Web site, she commented recently on the congressional debate: "Everyone's trying to save face here ... all the while people are dying. Didn't voters in November speak loud and clear, saying they're tired of the fighting and want an end in sight?"

At ABC News, "Primetime" correspondent Mary Fulginiti gave $500 this February to Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate. The legal correspondent had been a white-collar defense attorney until she joined ABC in November. She said the donation "is not a reflection of my political views," although she had given regularly to Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry.

"Look, I've made a mistake here," she said. "I'm a legal analyst — this is all new to me. I have been politically active in the past. This is when I was just starting out at ABC. I was still thinking as a lawyer."

At NBC News, which says donations require approval of the senior editor, “Dateline” correspondent Victoria Corderi gave $250 in 2005 to Democratic Senate candidate Josh Rales in Maryland. "In a word, yikes!" she said when asked about the donation. Her husband wrote the check, she explained, when a friend threw a fundraising party. "I'd not even thought to consider that since my name is on our checks that I would appear in public records as a contributor."

MSNBC TV host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican member of Congress from Florida, gave to a Republican congressional candidate from Oregon last year. In addition to anchoring an evening newscast, "Scarborough Country," and a morning talk show on MSNBC, he provides political commentary for MSNBC, CNBC and NBC's "Today Show."

At CBS News, "Sunday Morning" correspondent Serena Altschul gave $5,000 to the Democratic Party in 2004. And producer Edward Forgotson gave $1,000 to Patrick Kennedy last June, two weeks after the Rhode Island congressman pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. Until September, the CBS policy discouraged, but allowed, contributions; now it forbids them, a spokeswoman said.

An ABC anchor in Wichita, Susan Peters, gave $600 to America Coming Together. At the CBS station in Memphis, anchor Markova Reed gave to a Democratic House candidate. And in Boston, host and former anchor Liz Walker gave $4,000 to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats; the station said this was allowed, because at the time she was hosting a public affairs show. Now that she's back doing news segments, she can't donate.

At the Fox TV station in Omaha, reporter Calvert Collins learned that there's no such thing as a private, personal donation. And there's no such thing as a personal page on Facebook, either.

‘Vote for him Tuesday, Nov. 7!’

Collins, a 23-year-old reporter for Fox station KPTM in Omaha, said that her father actually wrote the check for $500 to Jim Esch, the Democrat who lost a House race last fall. "I had told my dad that I was friends with this man. He said, 'Would you like me to make a donation?' I said, 'That's up to you, but don't do it in my name.'"

The reporter also posted a photo of herself with Esch on her Facebook page, with the note, "Vote for him Tuesday, Nov. 7!" After the photo was posted on a Nebraska political blog, she apologized but explained that "it is part of my job to build rapport with candidates and incumbents during election season. I foolishly wrote, in jest, to vote for him, and forgot completely that that was on there," Collins told MSNBC.com. "When my boss heard about it, I immediately removed it. In a way, I'm glad this happened to me at age 23, and not 33," Collins said, "and I will learn from it." (Update: TV reporter who supported candidate is out.)

If you don't trust the mainstream media, perhaps you prefer to get your news from, say, MTV News. The concept of staying off the field of battle was a completely new one to MTV's "Choose or Lose" presidential campaign correspondent in 2000 and 2004. Gideon Yago, whose first appearance on MTV was on the game show "Idiot Savants," gave $200 to Wesley Clark's 2004 presidential campaign, $500 to the Democratic Party, and $500 to America Coming Together. MTV advertised his reports as unbiased.

"I don't understand. Things that I do as a private citizen?" Yago asked. " I mean, what the f---, man?"

Yago said he always tried to be fair. "We're not a traditional news network in the sense of NBC or Fox or CBS," he said. He said his reporting in Iraq for MTV prompted him to give $250 to VoteVets, which is running ads criticizing President Bush's handling of Iraq. "After my second trip to Iraq in 2004, I felt the conventional news media was not doing a good enough job of conveying the horrors and the failures of the war in Iraq," Yago said. "I was never told by my boss or anyone that we couldn't give to a campaign."

‘People I don’t like’

Although donations are banned for journalists at Dow Jones — if they would be considered newsworthy, the policy says — several staffers at the Wall Street Journal made donations. Senior special writer Henny Sender said she was just back from Asia and didn't know the Journal's rules when she gave $300 to Kerry in 2004. The editor of the Weekend Journal, Eben Shapiro, gave $1,000 to Democratic Victory 2004. He said the donation was actually the purchase of art at a fundraiser, and when he was reminded of the paper's policy, he got a refund. Credit markets editor Billy Mallard at Dow Jones Newswires gave $200 to MoveOn.org in October and said he "thought MoveOn.org was OK because it wasn't the Republican Party or Democratic Party." Once MSNBC.com called, Mallard said, he realized that it was a partisan group and asked for a refund.

The tally of donors doesn't include a group that gave money to defeat President Bush by paying to hear the Boss. In 2004, Bruce Springsteen and other musicians raised money for MoveOn.org and America Coming Together at a series of 34 concerts billed as "Vote for Change." The ticket buyers included an MSNBC.com producer and more than 20 other journalists. Although all of the purchase price went to the effort to defeat Bush that fall, the intent may have been entirely musical, so those donors are not on our list unless they made other contributions.

One of the Springsteen fans appears to be a blogging editor at Dow Jones, Samuel J. Favate Jr., who gave $1,036 to America Coming Together in 2004. He didn't return phone calls. Favate rewrites press releases for Dow Jones Newswires in New Jersey, which may explain his views that corporate America is "really in charge." On his personal blog, Favate rails against the Iraq war, for gun control and for a tax audit of Christian psychologist James Dobson. After MSNBC.com left him a message asking about the blog and his donation, Favate's name disappeared from the blog. A previous blog listed Favate's "people I don't like," starting with George Bush. ("You can be sure that I will be adding to this list from time to time, so try not to piss me off.") That blog went dark the day after MSNBC.com called.

Dow Jones spokesman Howard Hoffman said it doesn't monitor employee blogs, "and we're not overly concerned about what Sam did or didn't do on his blog exercising his free-speech rights."

On the job at Newsday, which forbids donations, section designer and artist Rita Hall tried to slip an anti-Bush line into a personal column she wrote. Hall gave $210 to Hillary Clinton in March 2006. "Dig deeper," she said. "I gave $2,000 to Kerry. I'm not allowed to do this. I know it's against the rules. I'll probably get fired. They're looking for any excuse to cut staff here."

Hall said she wrote a column about her son, who won the "Top Chef" competition on the Bravo network. "In passing I mentioned that I was interested in finding people who hated Bush as much as I did. They took that out. My view is: You're still going to have an opinion whether you admit to it or not. If you don't admit to it, you're being dishonest. Let's be transparent."

Hall didn't disclose her donations to her editors — or the readers of Newsday.

The new bumper sticker

Several of the journalists reasoned that their activism is acceptable precisely because the public would not know — unless they go to the trouble to search the FEC records.

"A lot of us want to be politically active. But marching in a war protest isn't an option, being a recognizable person, so we give with our checkbook," said Alix Kendall, the morning anchor for Fox station KMSP in Minneapolis, who gave $250 in September to the Midwest Values PAC, which passed the money on to Democratic candidates. "I don't think that working for a news organization I give up my rights. I interview plenty of people that I don't agree with, but I also ask questions to get the other side."

Senior editors, who every day are accused of a bias one way or another, may be more sensitive to appearances. Several editors said they are thinking of tightening their policies, lest they keep handing ammunition to critics.

At the Muskegon Chronicle, a daily newspaper in Michigan, reporter Terry Judd gave $1,900 to the Democratic National Committee in six contributions from 2004 through 2006; and $2,000 to Kerry in March 2004. "You caught me," Judd said. "I guess I was just doing it on the side."

His editors said they're not sure there is an "on the side."

"This information makes us want to think farther and more deeply about what we encourage and discourage in reporters," said the metropolitan editor, John Stephenson. "We have always historically said, you guys can have any political beliefs you want. Just don't wear your hearts on your sleeve or your bumper. Truthfully, this sort of thing may be the new bumper."

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