Why Political Cartoons are Losing Their Influence

Oliphant, Patrick
December 2004
Nieman Reports;Winter2004, Vol. 58 Issue 4, p25
This article discusses why political cartoons are losing their influence in the U.S. If one compares, in this time of national crisis, the years of the George W. Bush presidency with those of the Richard Nixon presidency from the perspective of the political cartoon, one thing becomes apparent: the influence is missing. It is only 30 years since the glory times of Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and all the other stars of the supporting Watergate cast. There was drama, detective work, skullduggery, secret tiles, and paranoia. Cartoonists need villains and, in those happy times, there were villains galore. The political cartoon responded to this circumstance by producing satire of exceptional quality. It is no stretch to claim that the political cartoon had a distinct influence on the termination of the Nixon presidency. In retrospect it all seems like comic opera, for what was thought of as a national emergency in those days pales when compared with what people now face. The villains are all in place again, but this time both foreign and homegrown, with the latter as scary and menacing as the former. But that once-potent galvanizer of opinion has been allowed to atrophy from disuse, and is in great jeopardy of fading away altogether. There are manifold causes of the disuse and dismissal. The idea of newspapers becoming corporate entities that existed to serve the stockholders rather than the public was not seriously considered. When the competition was removed and the newspaper fell into the hands of chains, and the like, bottom-line journalism was born. This heralded the beginning of the death of controversy. Controversy, that life force behind the political cartoon, is of course completely anathema to those nursing the books. Those graphically challenged are firmly entrenched in newspapers now and they occupy the roles of editors and political cartoonists in too many papers.


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