WASHINGTON – It would be no surprise if Pittsburgh-based newspaper cartoonist Rob Rogers and others like him were re-thinking their chosen line of work after recently published Danish editorial cartoons incited riots around the world and the Pentagon singled out a Washington Post cartoonist for what they called a "tasteless" drawing.
But, in reality, it's quite the opposite, Rogers says.
"I think it emboldens us in one way, and that is if anybody thought that an editorial cartoon doesn't have an impact, I think that's pretty much blown out of the water — no pun intended," said Rogers, who works at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is set to become president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists in September.
"I think, if anything, it's going to invigorate us to strive harder to stand up for free speech," Rogers said.
Politically charged editorial cartoons have been a mainstay in the United States since before there was a United States, with the likes of Ben Franklin and Paul Revere among the first noted domestic cartoonists prior to the Revolutionary War. Since then, editorial artists have lambasted presidents, congressmen, business moguls, dictators, celebrities and popes, often drawing sharp reactions not only from their intended targets, but the enraged public, too.
But reactions in the last month, both to a cartoon by The Washington Post's Tom Toles and through a violent global response to 12 depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, appear to have raised the stakes for those making their paychecks on the drawing board.
Toles' Jan. 29 drawing showed a wounded, quadriplegic soldier on a hospital gurney with a bedside sign labeled, "U.S. Army," and a graph showing a downward trend. Next to the bed stood Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying, "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened,'" a play on remarks Rumsfeld had made earlier that week.
The Post on Feb. 2 printed a letter signed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that said, in part: "The Post and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to readers and to The Post's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who volunteered to defend this nation."
Both the cartoon and the letter drew strong public reaction, some criticizing Toles, others taking on the Iraq war. Media supporters argued the military was trying to infringe on free speech by writing the letter.
But the uproar in the United States wasn't about to compare to the unrest boiling over worldwide over a series of cartoons first published last year by a Danish paper and recently reprinted by newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries.
The drawings offered varying depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The most criticized may be the one showing the prophet with a bomb embedded in his turban, but another, itself almost prophetic, shows a cartoonist sweating with fear while sitting at a drafting table, drawing a tame face of what the prophet might look like.
Images of the prophet are banned in Islam, and by the beginning of the month, Muslims around the world took to the streets. Riots erupted in at least a dozen countries and have lasted for two weeks. U.S. officials said they believed extremists, including the governments of Iran and Syria, helped fan the flames of discontent.
On this side of the Atlantic, cartoonists are taking note.
"This has been kind of a planetary alignment for cartooning," said Matt Davies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for The (White Plains, N.Y.) Journal-News.
Davies, who won the Pulitzer in 2004, said just the nature of the work is always going to bring about charged reaction — some positive, some negative.
"Images, for some reason, because they can be quick and concise and they don't mince words, there's very little nuance," Davies said. That gives editorial cartoons their lighting-rod capabilities.
But sometimes it's not the message itself, but an unintended message that invites criticism, Davies added. For instance, he said he thought it was clear in the Toles cartoon that soldiers weren't meant as a target, but on second glance, others may not see Rumsfeld as the intended target.
"It was very easy for that cartoon to be misinterpreted," Davies said.
Trying to be as clear as day can get you in just as much trouble, Rogers said. A recent cartoon he drew on the Palestinian election showed a wild-eyed voter wearing a headband labeled "Hamas," a dynamite belt and a T-shirt saying, "I'm a terrorist and I vote."
Rogers said he half expected to get a negative reaction to that one, but a week later, he hadn't heard a peep. Part of the reason he said is his audience: Pittsburgh doesn’t have a large Muslim population and his syndication doesn’t go to Muslim countries.
He said he also thinks it might have something to do with tailoring the message. Rogers said he's careful not to over-generalize because he doesn't want to show a racist message. On the other hand, in the instance of the Hamas election drawing, he said he wants to show fear caused by terrorists.
"You kind of have to make him look scary. ... If you just had a nice guy smiling with a bomb on him, it wouldn't have the same effect," Rogers said.
Business As Usual
Rogers said that as he had hoped, it's basically been business as usual for him and everyone he's heard from in AAEC since the Muslim riots. He added that he hasn't heard any reports of editors asking cartoonists to lay off a subject or dumb-down a drawing. However, he said he raised his editor's eyebrows when he proposed doing a drawing about the Danish cartoons.
"I said, 'I'm doing something, on, you know, the Muslim — the Muhammad cartoons.' He said, 'You're not going to do anything that's going to get us blown up, are you?'" Rogers recalled.
Rogers said that while that conversation was partly the dark humor often found in newsrooms, it also contained a serious side to it.
"Clearly, there are cartoonists over there whose lives are being threatened. ... The truth of it is, he didn't want me to do anything inflammatory where it would just incite people," Rogers said.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil rights organization, said cartoonists, and journalists as a whole, "shouldn't reinforce existing stereotypes linking Muslims to violence," and it's important that cartoonists do their best not to stir up anger just for that purpose.
He called on media to help parse the peaceful Muslims from the violent ones, and said that while the riots are gaining a lot of attention, "You have to put it in context. ... Several thousand protestors in an inappropriate, wild manner ... I don't know that that is representative of the entire Muslim community worldwide."
Hooper — whose organization is opposed to the violent protests but also criticized the Danish cartoons — also said the American media by-and-large have been respectful. He noted that only a few newspapers have reprinted the Danish cartoons, and few other drawings could be called inflammatory.
"The media response in the U.S. has been quite good and responsible. ... I don't think they need to prove the freedom of the press. The fact that the majority [of newspapers] chose not to [run the Muhammad cartoons] shows the great restraint and responsibility by the American media," Hooper said.
The sharp contrast in reactions here to the Toles cartoon and abroad to the Danish cartoons is good news for cartoonists here, said Stephen Hess, a research professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and author of "Drawn and Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons."
"I didn't think much of it at the time ... [but while] other people are burning flags, burning buildings and shooting each other, what the Joint Chiefs did is almost an object lesson in democracy. I would have thought at the time they got too hot under the collar," Hess said.
Instead, the military leaders "called attention to something that offended them, so in a strange way ... that reminds us of the proper response, the proper way to show their ire," Hess said.
To some degree, Rogers agrees.
"I think it makes [the Joint Chiefs] look worse to actually have sent a letter ... . That said, it's far better than people filling the streets and burning down embassies. But it's still disturbing," he said.
If the Joint Chiefs look worse, maybe editorial cartoonists come out on top, thanks to a little opportunism and no shortage of material to work with, Davies said.
"This story's gotten so huge," Davies said. "It's almost like a cartoonist's dream to have such a huge reaction — to a point."
Davies points out one other way at least one cartoonist is benefiting from the situation. He said Toles — also a Pulitzer Prize winner — got an unintended bonus in the form of a souvenir few others have: a letter from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"That’s up there. ... That one gets framed and hung on the wall," Davies said.