Coffins, Entrails, Hitler Mustaches
Editorial cartooning is the art of the cheap shot. It's supposed to be unfair, which doesn't sit well with a lot of readers. "They think my cartoons are mean, and they have no idea!" says Nick Anderson of Louisville's Courier-Journal. "Cartoonists overseas are so much meaner and starker, and Americans have no tolerance for that."
When the 1,000th American military death in Iraq was reported a couple of weeks ago, Anderson turned in one of his nastier sketches. President Bush is watching flag-shrouded coffins roll off a cargo plane. The coffin marked "1000" passes by, and Bush remarks wistfully to the lugubrious vice president at his side, "I guess their daddies didn't know the right people."
Anderson's work is syndicated, and he tells me several of his usual clients gave this one a pass. Angry phone calls and e-mail poured in. The Chicago Tribune has picked up a lot of Anderson's cartoons and once seriously considered him as Jeff MacNelly's successor, a position still vacant four years after MacNelly died. But the Tribune didn't print the one with the coffins.
Anderson sent me to a Web site, cagle.slate.msn.com, that shows the "America bashing" cartoons of Stephane Peray, or "Stephff," identified as Thailand's top cartoonist. Here's one that caught Anderson's eye--George W. Bush in a ten-gallon hat pulling the entrails out of a writhing American soldier to fashion a rope to string up Saddam Hussein.
The art's linked to a blog where Stephff comments: "Visually, my cartoons can be shocking to the US public because in my culture of origin (France) we tend to put more blood (a clean 'Walt Disney' style does not describe enough the horrors of war). . . . For me, what is shocking is the way some American cartoonists (but it's not their fault, they have no choice) are describing the situation in Iraq in a super politically-correct and super-soft way so the US public have a clean view of what is going on."
If you saw the Anderson cartoon in Chicago you read Hoy, the Tribune Company's Spanish-language daily published in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Hoy is one of a handful of papers that carry Anderson in translation--a service provided by his syndicate, the Washington Post Writers Group. Cartoonists in the Sun-Times and Tribune didn't touch the 1,000th death. Hoy ran two cartoons about it, and the one on September 9 made Anderson's look like it was nuzzling Bush's cheek.
There's the president again, dead center in the drawing glaring at the reader as a line of numbers--"994 . . . 995 . . . 996 . . ."--approaches him from the left border. The "1000" sits exactly under Bush's nose. It looks more than a little like a mustache, and Bush looks more than a little like Hitler.
This cartoon was pointed out to me by Mark Fitzgerald of Editor & Publisher. Last April he wrote a story observing that Hoy's editorials on Iraq "differ sharply in tone and policy from the general line followed by other Tribune Co. newspapers." While the English-language papers preached the need to stay the course, Hoy--to quote from an April 1 editorial--asked, "How many more people are going to have to die before the administration realizes that Iraq is a mortal trap?" and asserted, "President Bush and the secretary of defense have no right to sacrifice Americans on the altar of their private obsessions."
President and editor Louis Sito set editorial policy at Hoy until a circulation scandal forced him out in July. Fitzgerald saw the mustache cartoon as evidence that Sito's tough editorial line had survived him.
The artist isn't from the U.S.--no surprise. Alfredo Garzon, like Anderson an Hoy regular, came to the States from Colombia and lives in New York. He's worried that his Hoy editors don't like his work. "It's not humor that makes you laugh," he says. "It's more images that make you think. I think they would prefer a cartoonist that makes the readers laugh. They make phone calls from time to time."
Garzon's brother Jaime made people laugh. A TV and radio personality back in Colombia, he was a popular political humorist. He also was a member of a commission that mediated between the government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN), and frequently found himself trying to negotiate the release of ELN kidnap victims. The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia sent him death threats.
In 1999 Jaime Garzon was murdered. "The paramilitary did it," says Alfredo Garzon. Soon after, Alfredo left Colombia. He continues to draw for a prominent Colombian weekly, El espectador, and he's been contributing to Hoy for three years.
Four years ago President Clinton pledged $1.3 billion to the so-called Colombia Plan, a strategy concocted by the Colombian government to attack the narcotics trade, defeat terrorism, and put the country's democratic institutions back on their feet. But Garzon says 80 percent of the money has been spent on military aid, "and through the armed forces that money lands in the hands of the paramilitary death squads. There's a very clear relationship between the military and paramilitary."
The link Garzon discerns between the American government and the forces that killed his brother helps explain his jaundiced view of the war on terror. "In New York you have to have your ID visible to be able to enter private and public buildings," he says. "These kinds of things were new to Americans, because the war was always somewhere else, not here." He says these "policies of the homeland security that are against civil liberties in the United States" remind him of home.
Paying for Access
On September 29 the City Council's scheduled to vote on diverting $2 million in cable franchise fees to Chicago Access Network Television to keep
public-access TV alive and healthy in Chicago. CAN TV has its aldermanic champions. But there isn't much loose change at City Hall this year, and Mayor Daley has made it clear he doesn't like the idea.
When CAN TV was created in 1982, Chicago's cable franchise holders were required by contract to pay it large annual fees. But one of the franchisees, RCN, declared bankruptcy this past August; it owed CAN TV $1.275 million and was obligated to pay it another $300,000 by the end of 2004. That's money executive director Barbara Popovic can't afford to kiss off--her 2004 budget is only $2.4 million. She says she'll have to drastically slash her operation if she can't find a new revenue stream. At the moment CAN TV operates five cable channels and broadcasts 140 hours of local programming a week.
Public-access television is a virtue that doesn't automatically explain itself. Hoping to get across to the city how important CAN TV is, Popovic tells the story of Frank Latin.
He's a statistical researcher for the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Two years ago he decided to start a newspaper, Nitty Gritty News. His idea was a free monthly paper that would be distributed in neighborhoods across Chicago, spotlighting a different neighborhood each month but focusing on issues, such as schools and affordable housing, that were common to them all. He says he's found a readership but advertisers have been another story.
On September 19, when he happened to be at the CAN TV studio to be interviewed, Latin was feeling discouraged. "The frustrating part," he says, "is these groups and organizations and foundations that claim to be about the stated purpose. You almost have to know somebody. Everybody loves the project, but when it comes to funding they have some excuse."
When the interview was wrapped up, CAN TV began taping a tribute to the late Lu Palmer. "I'm in my early 30s," says Latin. "I was familiar with the name, but I didn't know the significance of Lu Palmer and the work he did." Curious, he hung around, and as black community elders told stories about Palmer's life in journalism and politics Latin got excited. He found out that at one point Palmer was so frustrated working for other publishers that he started a paper of his own. "It hit me, like whoa, maybe you are doing something," he says. A CAN TV producer came up to him and said, "Listen man, you've got to be one of those guys who continue to beat the drum."
Latin decided to write a story on CAN TV, and the next day he came back and interviewed Popovic. He told her he'd walked out revitalized. It might have been happenstance that CAN TV was where Latin had his epiphany, but Popovic is willing to take a piece of the credit.
Mary Rickard, a CAN TV publicist, wants to make the same case. She's now touting a passage in a book she just read, an influential book published 42 years ago called Four Theories of the Press. The background to this passage is a story in itself.
As this story goes, at an Encyclopaedia Britannica board meeting in the early 40s Henry Luce, the young editor of Time, passed a note to Robert Hutchins, the young president of the University of Chicago. It said, "How do I find out about the freedom of the press and what my obligations are?" Hutchins told Luce he didn't know. And Luce said, "Well, why don't we set up a commission on freedom of the press and find out what it is?"
So they did. Luce funded it, Hutchins chaired it, and philosophers such as William Hocking, theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, and poets such as Archibald MacLeish sat on it. No journalists were asked. Surely, Hutchins commented, the newspaper business isn't "so esoteric that intelligent men outside it cannot understand it."
The Hutchins Commission covered a lot of ground that has been covered many times since, never to any avail. They haggled over whether ultimate control of the press should rest with government, publishers, or a private board of concerned citizens, and each alternative seemed worse than the others. The cultural deficits of both the press and the public were noted and brooded over.
But sparks of wisdom were struck, and 16 years later one of these sparks inspired the authors of Four Theories of the Press: "The [Hutchins] Commission is concerned not just about freedom of those who own the media; it is also concerned about citizens who possess a merely negative freedom of expression. Freedom of the press, the Commission argues, is a somewhat empty right for the person who lacks access to the mass media. His freedom, too, must be implemented--by a press which carries viewpoints similar to his own; by media operated by government or nonprofit agencies to provide him with the required services which the commercial press does not provide."
The word "access" jumped out at Rickard with all its modern meaning--not simply as a citizen's opportunity to receive information but also as an opportunity to provide it. She wrote in the book's margin, "CAN TV."
In 2001 Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated wrote a column about Barry Bonds. He didn't think much of Bonds and neither, he wrote, did the other San Francisco Giants. "Bonds isn't beloved by his teammates. He's not even beliked."
On September 17 Rick Morrissey of the Tribune wrote a column about Bonds. He showed Bonds a little sympathy, but he also wrote, "Babe Ruth was beloved. Bonds is a lot of things, but 'beloved' isn't one of them. If 'beliked' were a word, Bonds wouldn't even be that."
I promptly heard from a reader, who told me to notice how Morrissey "rips off a line" from Reilly, appropriates it "without credit." I had a feeling I was expected to come down hard.
Instead, I have a piece of advice for Rick Reilly. If you don't want your language lifted, don't write so well. Don't turn phrases that stick like burrs to the subconscious of other writers. I asked Morrissey if he realized Reilly got there first. "I had no idea," he e-mailed me back. "I'd like to chalk it up to great minds thinking alike, but that would be an insult to Reilly."
A couple decades ago the reigning Chicago sports columnist of that era wrote a piece in which he described someone as "a mouse studying to be a rat." It was a brilliant phrase. And it had lost none of its luster since it was coined by lifelong rascal Wilson Mizner, who died in 1933. I thought briefly then about ratting out the columnist and decided that if I did I'd merely earn myself Mizner's description. No harm had been done. As perfect phrases always do, Mizner's had long since flown the coop.
The Tribune ran a curious story September 2 in which former governor James Thompson, head of the Hollinger International audit committee while the two company heads were allegedly helping themselves to $400 million, denied being a friend of chairman Conrad Black or even knowing him particularly well. It was an odd point for Thompson to insist on. By all accounts, Black is dazzling company when he wants to be; if Thompson was taken in, he wouldn't have been the first or last. If he wasn't, what accounts for his letting so much go by?
At any rate, Black wasn't the person Thompson dealt with. According to the scathing Breeden report on Hollinger's financial affairs, Thompson met time and again with CEO David Radler, by all accounts a vastly less charismatic personality.
How chummy did Thompson and Radler get? That's a question I wanted to pursue with Radler's daughter Melanie. A 1999 graduate of Northwestern's law school, she's a litigator for Winston & Strawn, the law firm Thompson chairs. She didn't return my calls.
I misidentified John Barron last week. For several months he's been executive managing editor of the Sun-Times and not, as I had it, the features editor.