When Ted Rall's cartoon "Terror Widows" appeared on the New York Times website on March 6, angry letters of complaint poured into the paper. The cartoon, depicting the wives of 9/11 victims as media hungry exploiters, was quickly yanked off the website and replaced with a statement from the newspaper explaining that the caricature's "subject matter was inappropriate." A week later, Rall responded to the controversy in an Op-Ed circulated widely on the Internet, writing: "Since Sept. 11, the list of 'permissible topics and opinions' [in political cartooning] has been shrinking faster than a typical 401(k)."
At a June 24 fundraising event in New York City for True Majority, a nonprofit organization that uses the web to foster civic activism, Rall spoke out again in defense of free speech in political cartooning, this time with a panel of five other prominent political cartoonists. The panel, which included Dan Perkins, a k a Tom Tomorrow, Stephanie McMillan, Joel Pett and Matt Wuerker focused on the new challenges facing left-of-center cartoonists since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Political cartooning has been on a steady decline generally, but that decline has become a sheer slope since September 11. "A major American newspaper hires an editorial cartoonist about as infrequently as the President of the United States hires a Chief Justice,'' said Thom Gephardt, longtime Cincinnati Enquirer editorial page editor in an April 24 interview. His words seem prophetic in light of the recent decision by New York's Buffalo News not to replace Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Tom Toles. Such disregard for political cartooning, contends Joel Pett, editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, will be the demise of a form of communication unique in its capacity to instantly inspire critical thought. "Every time you look at a political cartoon, just understand that it's there to make a point," he reminded the audience at the June 24 event.
But not everyone is receptive to the critical approach to controversial political subjects that these cartoonists are famous for. Tom Tomorrow, cartoonist for the Bay Guardian, observed that getting work in The New Yorker after 9/11 has been significantly more difficult. When this question was put to The New Yorker itself, a spokesperson declined comment. Political cartoonists are dependent on the mainstream media for their livelihood, but the papers that previously relished a provocative cartoon no longer want to see a satirical critique of a government the people are desperate to rally around.
Yet, perhaps now more than ever, there's a need for the critiques that political cartoons can offer. McMillan observes that "what strikes me about the post-9/11 atmosphere is that the government doesn't even make any pretenses anymore." One of her cartoons echoes this sentiment. It depicts Uncle Sam explaining to a young girl that "since September 11th what's really changed is that you can no longer protest or organize against anything we do without being accused of being sympathetic to terrorism!"
At the risk of being labeled terrorist sympathizers, The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists protested the backlash against Rall's "Terror Widows," without endorsing the questionable taste of the strip: "While the AAEC doesn't comment on individual cartoonists' viewpoints," the AAEC stated, "we strongly condemn any type of press censorship." Another alarming instance of a new intolerance for dissident views occurred last November, when an antiwar cartoon by Steve Benson was disavowed by two newspapers after a spate of reader complaints. Todd Persche, a weekly cartoonist for the Wisconsin Baraboo New Republic, had his spot pulled after a succession of critical post-9/11 comics. He did not share the same coverage as better-known cartoonist Aaron McGruder, whose weekday spot was cancelled by the New York Daily News after the September 11 political fallout.
In light of the struggle for hard-hitting political commentary, Rall's removal from the New York Times website seems to be another example of the mainstream media's post-9/11 penchant for censorship. It's hard not to be sympathetic to those widows who wrote to the Times in their own defense. Their grief cannot be comprehended by most of us, including Rall. But one also cannot stand behind the editors of the Times. Whisking away controversial material is no answer.
In the middle of the True Majority panel presentation the projector switches off, leaving the stage dark. From the front Ted Rall smirks and snidely remarks, "Thank you Mr. Ashcroft." At the end of the day these are difficult times. Silence does not offer much comfort.