Of all the angry comments and calls we get related to the Opinion page, it seems like most of them somehow involve the daily editorial cartoon.
Perhaps it is that the visceral punch of a single image hits harder with people than even the most overwrought block of text. That, of course, is why editorial cartoonists exist at all – a picture is worth a whole bunch of words, as they say.
We’ve had plenty of complaints from conservatives lately, upset at the depictions of Donald Trump, but we’ve also gotten criticism from the left on cartoons related to climate change and, most recently, an objection that a cartoon critical of the state’s minimum wage increase was an affront to workers. We’ve gotten complaints about less neatly partisan political issues over the years as well, including a furor back in 2014 over cartoons by the legendary (but now retired) cartoonist Pat Oliphant, who was no fan of Israel.
We even have one faithful reader who calls me every time we run a cartoon by the Washington Post’s Tom Toles. It isn’t so much that he doesn’t like Toles’ politics, but rather he insists that every time we run one of his cartoons, his stock portfolio drops. We have subsequently stopped running Toles cartoons, but for technical reasons, not for his doleful effect on the stock market.
It’s worth talking, therefore, about where our cartoons come from and how they wind up on our pages.
We do have a local cartoonist – Roberto Tinoco – who has produced some very funny and insightful work on Napa County issues over the years. Usually, Roberto sends me some ideas a few days in advance; he and I discuss what would be most interesting and timely, then he works up six or eight sketches. I tell him which one seems to work best, with some very rare suggestions for changes, and he delivers a finished cartoon.
But Roberto is a busy freelancer and family man, so he only sends us cartoons every other week, just two or three cartoons a month.
The rest come, like the national opinion columns we have discussed before, from one of several syndication services, either the Washington Post Writers Group or one called Universal. It used to be that we ran only cartoons from Universal, but our contract with them allows us to use the images only in print, not on the website. Adding those cartoons to the website would add considerable extra expense.
So as we’ve worked to improve our website in the last three or four years, we’ve gravitated far more often to the Washington Post Writers Group, which allows us to use images in both print and online for one price. Despite the name, these are not cartoonists who work for the Post, but rather for smaller papers from all across the country, including several here in California. They associate themselves with the Post to use its robust syndication service to get their cartoons out to the rest of the country.
They represent a diverse assortment, from conservatives such as Mike Lester, Tim Campbell, and Lisa Benson (the California-based artist of both the Climate Change and Minimum Wage pieces that got liberal readers steamed), to very left-leaning, particularly Los Angeles-based Darrin Bell.
How do I pick a cartoon? I usually get two or three a day, sometimes more, to choose from. I usually use one of the fresh ones, but I will use older ones if they are still timely. I tend to gravitate to images that are humorous or insightful, avoiding cartoons that are excessively mean. Sometimes I don’t have much of a choice, just because there aren’t many timely or relevant submissions coming in from the syndication services, but where I have the option, I’ll lean toward a more gentle humor.
That is, for example, why I am more inclined to run Lisa Benson than I am Mike Lester. Although Benson’s work is somewhat more conservative-leaning than most of our readership seems to be, it is well-drawn, humorous, and usually not cruel. Mike Lester is also conservative, but he tends toward the shrill and mean. On the left, meanwhile, I rarely pick Darrin Bell’s cartoons because he tends to be too strident and provocative.
Sometimes the cartoonists change over time. Before the 2016 election, for example, Clay Bennett was one of my favorites, partly because he is funny but also his cartoons tend to be beautifully illustrated. After the election, however, his critiques of President Trump struck me as excessively personal – jokes about small hands and babyish behavior, typically. His frequency on our pages has dropped as a result.
You can actually see all of the cartoons from which I am choosing, including the mean, shrill, dumb or dated ones that don’t make it on the daily opinion page, in our “Week in Cartoons” gallery that runs on the website every Saturday afternoon. I post everything we get, even if I don’t personally like or approve of a particular cartoon.
If you’re interested in playing Opinion page editor, have a look at that gallery and let me know what you think. I’d like to know if I’m meeting the general tastes of our readers or if you think I am giving short-shrift to work that deserves to be featured more prominently on our daily pages.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or email@example.com.