Political cartoonists are out of touch – it’s time to make way for memes

The New York Times came under fire after a political cartoon appeared in print on April 25, 2019. In it, a blind President Donald Trump, wearing sunglasses and a yarmulke, leads, with a leash, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s depicted as a dog with a Star of David around his neck.

The Times later issued an apology, called the cartoon “anti-Semitic,” and announced that it would discipline the editor and enhance its bias training. The newspaper also indicated that it will no longer use the syndication service that supplied the cartoon.

To some, this might appear to be a significant move. But it fails to address larger problems with editorial cartooning – namely, the ranks of cartoonists are too white, too old and too male.

As a scholar who studies social media and memetics, I wonder if political cartoons are the best way to connect with today’s diverse readership. Many crave searing, cutting political commentary – and they’re finding it in internet memes.

What if internet memes were elevated – not only as a serious art form but also as an important form of editorializing that’s worthy of appearing alongside the traditional cartoon?

Behind the times

Newspapers and magazine editors still rely on political cartoons to capture readers’ attention and to deliver some lighter material alongside heavier news stories. The need for this content isn’t going away, nor is the need for forms of communication that challenge governments and open up important public discussions – a role the political cartoonist has long held.

Political cartoons have long been used to criticize – and mock – those in power. Everett Historical/Shutterstock.com
But in many ways, political cartooning can seem like a relic of a bygone era.

A 2015 Washington Post report also underscored the lack of diversity among political cartoonists in newsrooms, noting how not a single black individual was employed as one.

Then there’s journalism’s top prize, the Pulitzer.

An extensive 2016 study by the Columbia Journalism Review unveiled how the ranks of editorial cartoon Pulitzer winners have been largely dominated by white men. Since 1922, only two women have received a Pulitzer in this category, and it wasn’t awarded to an African American until this year, when syndicated cartoonist Darrin Bell became the first to receive the award.

One roadblock to diversifying the ranks of political cartoonists is that the potential pool of candidates is limited. Few have the technical skill to draw pen-and-ink drollery, the common style for political cartooning.

Another has to do with industry trends. A 2017 study found that many newspapers don’t even employ an editorial cartoonist anymore. Instead, they’ve come to rely on less expensive syndication services.

A more democratic form

Given the important function of the political cartoon, simply discontinuing their use serves no one, including publishers.