Cartoonists Get the Picture/The Pay's the Thing/Reluctant Witnesses/News Bites | Media | Chicago Reader

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Cartoonists Get the Picture/The Pay's the Thing/Reluctant Witnesses/News Bites

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Cartoonists Get the Picture

The most desirable job in American political cartooning opened last October when Herblock died after 55 years on the editorial page of the Washington Post. Two months ago the Post announced his successor: Tom Toles, of the Buffalo News, whose work is drier than Herblock's but just as wicked and unmistakable.

Before Herblock's death the most prominent opening in the business was the Chicago Tribune's. Like Herblock, Jeff MacNelly, who died in June 2000, won multiple Pulitzers and ranked with the gods. Like the Post, the Tribune took its time and studied the field. But the Tribune job has remained vacant for two years, and the paper's determination to go slow and get it right now looks more like disrespect and indifference. "Job openings are a main topic among cartoonists," says Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "but that job opening isn't discussed anymore. People have given up on it."

Six months ago cartoonists were telling me that the Tribune's editorial page editor, Bruce Dold, was down to a short list of three finalists and Luckovich was one of them. But Luckovich--who would have much preferred the Post job--says he hasn't heard from the Tribune in so long he has no idea where he stands and doesn't care. "I'm happy where I am."

The other two putative finalists were Nick Anderson of Louisville's Courier-Journal and Jack Ohman of Portland's Oregonian. (Syndicated cartoonist Doug Marlette is another name that comes up.) Like Luckovich, both say they're not in touch with Dold. "I've just kind of moved on with my life," says Ohman. "I E-mailed him I think it was last October, and he E-mailed me back saying this is the situation--they're in very severe budget constraints and no decisions have been made. I have to take that at face value. It's kind of existential. At some point it's either going to happen or not."

"God, I wish I knew," says Anderson, when I ask what's going on. "[Dold] wants to hire somebody really bad. He's as frustrated as I am."

Which is how frustrated?

"It's been 14 or 15 months since I interviewed. I feel demoralized," he says. "You can quote me on that. I can't help but feel demoralized."

MacNelly's great weakness was that he lived in Virginia and rarely turned in a cartoon that had anything to do with Chicago. Nothing asserts a paper's street cred like a cartoonist who kicks local butt, but the Tribune surrenders that ground to the Sun-Times's Jack Higgins. This year the Tribune has excoriated Governor Ryan (scandal), Michael Madigan (nepotism), and the Soldier Field expansion (hideous boondoggle), but only rhetorically. The paper's disapproval has always stopped short of the kind of ridicule possible only in an image.

Anderson says he pitched himself to Dold as someone who'd live in Chicago and tackle Chicago issues. "I almost always get a reaction from local cartoons," Anderson says. And Scott Stantis, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, says, "No one gives a rip what the Chicago Tribune says about bin Laden. But they will care mightily about the new expansion of O'Hare Field or Millennium Park."

Stantis says studies show that eight times as many people see the editorial cartoon each day as read the editorials. Stantis, who draws for the Birmingham News, isn't in the running for the Tribune job--though Dold occasionally picks up his syndicated cartoons--but he'd love to have it. "The Tribune needs a cartoonist real bad," he says. "There's no way in my view George Ryan should still be governor. What he did killed people. What do you have to do in Illinois to get impeached?" Stantis reads the Tribune every day and has gone so far as to offer to send Dold the occasional Chicago-based cartoon on spec. "He said thanks but no thanks."

Dold wouldn't comment to me about any of this, but he knows there's a need: a few weeks ago he asked the semiretired Richard Locher, a former Tribune cartoonist still working in syndication, to draw him some local cartoons on the side. "It's a privilege, an honor, and a hell of a lot of fun," says Locher. The trouble is, his work is too gentle to have much impact.

In 1995 Katharine Graham wrote a tribute to Herblock as he completed half a century at the Post. She recalled that in 1946, when he arrived, "The Post was struggling for its existence. Herb was one of its major assets....The Post and Herblock are forever intertwined. If the Post is his forum, he helped create it. And he has been its shining light."

Editorial cartoonists like to think of themselves that way, as not simply working at a paper but presiding over and branding it. Graham recalled that John Kenneth Galbraith once said of Herblock, "While Herb appreciates virtue, his real interest is in awfulness." And Graham added, "His mind turns to the rascals, the phonies and the frauds. He has pursued them for 50 years without ever flagging." Graham valued that, but cartoonists wonder how many of today's publishers do. The Tribune's unwillingness to spend money on a cartoonist when times are tough reinforces a depressing message: that much as cartoonists wish to see themselves as the heart on their papers' sleeve, to the papers they're decoration. That's not a message the Tribune is alone in sending.

As president of the AAEC, Stantis composed an unprecedented letter the other day. He wrote the publisher of the Buffalo News to protest the paper's decision not to replace Tom Toles.

"A cartoonist's work has been an important part of the Buffalo News' voice and conscience for many decades," he argued. "Two Buffalo News cartoonists have been honored with the Pulitzer Prize. In addition, it has served as an important platform for commentary in Buffalo, Western New York and Albany. All of this will be lost due to your decision.

"Especially disappointing is to make this decision at this time in history. When New York and the United States face a great struggle and great issues editorial cartooning is more important than ever."

At least that's what cartoonists want to think.

The Pay's the Thing

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a muddled article about "confusion" between the Sun-Times and Chicago's theaters. It seemed Sun-Times executives might have sent an "unintended message" during meetings with Marj Halperin, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres. What Halperin thought she heard: if theaters want more coverage they should buy more ads. But vice president for editorial John Cruickshank told the Times's Felicity Barringer that's not what his people were saying. Barringer left her readers not knowing what to think.

I'd say, go with Halperin. Chicago theaters spend four times as much on advertising in the Tribune as they do in the Sun-Times, and it wouldn't be like a Hollinger paper to just smile and put up with that.

The definitive event--mentioned briefly by Barringer--was April's world premiere of the Goodman's Hollywood Arms, which Carol Burnett wrote with her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, who died in January. The Tribune played up the opening, interviewing Burnett, director Harold Prince, and star Linda Lavin. Aside from the Hedy Weiss review, the Sun-Times ignored it. Cindy Bandle, the Goodman's press director, told me at the time that Burnett was reluctant to do any publicity but "was kind enough to say, 'I'll do interviews with the two major newspapers I understand are important to you and cover you on a regular basis.' The Tribune was very excited about the opportunity and sat down with the three of them. The Sun-Times just declined."

Bandle asked Weiss and two entertainment writers. "Nobody seemed to be interested."

Weiss, as careful a conversationalist as she is a writer, told me the story of Burnett and her daughter was by then an oft-told tale. She added, "My instincts are not a gossip columnist's instincts. Unless I'm doing a really in-depth story and I have time to get to know the person and the person time to get to know me, there's something unseemly about it."

But nobody else Bandle approached at the Sun-Times wanted to write the story either. "There are probably issues much further up the line than me," Weiss allowed. "One thing's not tied to another for me, but obviously it's a theater with a fairly decent budget, and the powers that be aren't sure that the coverage we've given them consistently over the years--I guess it comes down to the fact that if you believe the editorial coverage really has an effect on the box office, then why would you think those same readers would not respond to an ad? I guess the aim is to have some consistency."

Reluctant Witnesses

We should thank the Sun-Times for the indictment charging R & B singer R. Kelly with multiple counts of child pornography. In February the Sun-Times, already looking into allegations that Kelly had been involved with minors, received a 26-minute videotape of Kelly with a 14-year-old girl. "As soon as we got the tape, we called the police," reporter Abdon Pallasch told Editor & Publisher. "They picked it up and started their investigation."

The relationship between journalism and law enforcement can be hard to track. In April I wrote about how and why the Sun-Times was resisting a subpoenaing of Lucio Guerrero--the "Why Is He Driving?" reporter. The state's attorney's office wanted Guerrero to testify against a motorist he'd seen lose his license in the Bridgeview courthouse and then drive off without it. "Newspapers have their own logic," I explained then. "They are nobody's investigative tool. They don't enter alliances. They establish facts as an end in themselves, not as a means to the ends of others."

Which is true, except when it isn't.

Pallasch observes that in both Guerrero's case and R. Kelly's, visual evidence possessed by the Sun-Times was made available to the state. It published a photograph of the scofflaw at the wheel that a state's attorney could buy for 35 cents. Hardly in a position to publish the videotape, the paper gave it to the police. "Someone drops evidence in your mailbox, there's a duty to turn it over to the cops," says Pallasch. (If you don't think so, construct an argument that gives the Sun-Times a right to sit on its tape but the Catholic Church no right to withhold knowledge of pedophilia.)

But if it comes to that, Pallasch believes the Sun-Times won't be any more willing to testify in court against R. Kelly than it was against Guerrero's scofflaw. In short, journalism willingly enters alliances with the state--but only on journalism's terms. The state has never entirely followed this.

News Bites

All that columnists want from newspapers is space to sprinkle their wisdom and spew their venom. They don't ask the papers to endorse what they write, and most would prefer the papers didn't--they don't want to look like house pets. That's why an anonymous reader was startled as well as offended by page 38A of the June 2 Sun-Times.

The page had Mark Steyn lacing into "environmentalism," which in his view has become a cult "mostly unrelated to the environment." The Sun-Times illustrated the column with a large photograph of a bearded young man holding a pine branch. The caption: "Environmental wackos, like this one in San Francisco in February, once again asks us to believe our heavy consumption is destroying the planet. Just the opposite is true."

The faulty grammar wasn't what startled the reader--it was the paper's willingness to echo Steyn by gratuitously labeling a stranger a wacko (a word Steyn himself didn't use). Is this normal? he wondered.

No, it isn't. One reason is that papers don't like to find themselves on the wrong end of a libel suit.

"I think of CityTalk as the canary in the coal mine," says Tom Valeo, who until the other day was an associate editor of the biweekly. "If CityTalk fails, the whole concept of Network Chicago doesn't have legs."

"Network Chicago" is the brand that marks a TV station (WTTW), a radio station (WFMT), a Web site (www.networkchicago.com), and a magazine (CityTalk) as collectively something or other. Perhaps simply as a corner of this hurly-burly world where aesthetes can feel safe and find company and advertisers who understand them. At any rate, synergy's the watchword, and CityTalk's the evidence you can hold in your hands that Network Chicago exists.

"The one directive we got was, 'Yeah, we'll put listings in there, but we don't want a program guide,'" says Valeo. "We could never quite get a handle on what we were supposed to be doing, and Dave [Wieczorek], the editor, finally figured, 'Since nobody's giving us any guidance or cares what we do, why don't we try to make it the best magazine we can dream up?' So that's what we were after."

CityTalk was launched by Window to the World Communications, Inc., in November 2000 as a weekly mailed to WFMT and WTTW subscribers. It spent a lot of money very fast--a chunk of it on extravagant freelance rates--and last July was scaled back to a primarily staff-written biweekly. But last week the parent company cut 15 jobs and in the process CityTalk took another hit: Valeo and art director Steven Bialer were both laid off, and editorial assistant Miriam Littell was shifted to human resources. A staff of ten became seven. "Our production director is one of our writers," says Wieczorek. "Two of our designers are also doing all the ad work. We don't have a copy editor--but I think if people read us closely they wouldn't know that."

So is this the beginning of the end for the canary? Wieczorek and publisher Parke Richeson sound surprisingly sanguine about the future. Costs, Richeson says, are "way less" than a third of what they were in the beginning, while advertising, Wieczorek says, "has improved significantly." Wieczorek is willing to think about returning to weekly publication. "They have put no limits on what we can do if the money continues to come in."

In short, the layoffs came, as layoffs often do, just as things were looking up. Richeson tries to explain. "We are nearing the point where we are covering all the costs," she says. "As we approach it, we've decided to maximize efficiencies so we can get there. Part of our mission is to serve readers. It's also to provide revenues to the company, and that's easier to do if there's a better profit."

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