In the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, is a gallery filled with editorial cartoons from the era of Lincoln’s rise to power and presidential service with voices loudly whispering criticisms of him, his administration and the first lady.
The room not only captures some of the sentiments of the time but reinforces the role of editorial cartoons throughout history and their role in questioning the actions of decision makers. Drawings that illuminate and criticize are not a new phenomenon.
The New York Times’ recent announcement that it is dropping editorial cartoons from its international edition is an unfortunate blow to a healthy exchange of ideas. When editorial cartoons start disappearing, those who believe informed public discourse builds a strong democracy should be concerned and speak up.
The newspaper’s move was motivated by the publication of a syndicated cartoon in April that showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as a dog wearing a Star of David on a collar. He was leading President Trump, drawn as a blind man wearing a skullcap. Outcries of anti-Semitism followed and now Times management has decided to drop editorial cartoons altogether, firing its two in-house cartoonists, neither of whom drew that cartoon.
Editorial cartoons have a well-established tradition of presenting points of view visually that can capture a mood, a political crisis, flawed characters, power ploys and other numerous current events and their nuances in a clever illustration. That zeroing in isn’t meant to be comprehensive but instead is a thought-provoking tweak that demands people pay attention.
Every newspaper editor hears from readers who are critical of elements of the opinions page, including editorial cartoons. That’s the nature of this business.
The Free Press has over the course of its history published syndicated cartoons that in hindsight fell short of our standards, or the message wasn’t crystal clear, or the caricatures were not recognizable enough to make sense to a general audience. Sometimes you hit, and sometimes you miss.
The New York Times was correct to closely examine how an especially controversial cartoon was chosen for publication, but management went too far in trying to correct a flawed gate-keeping system.
Banning editorial cartoons in its international edition may steer the paper away from some criticism, but the action is a disservice to readers. They will miss out on opportunities to gain flashes of illumination or have their interest piqued to become more informed about subjects captured in drawings that stop them in their tracks.
Editorial cartooning shouldn’t be erased in a society that thrives on a free exchange of ideas.