The cartoon shows a bandaged quadruple amputee propped in a hospital bed. The chart at the bottom of the bed identifies the figure as "U. S. Army." A downward arrow graphs a bleak prognosis. At bedside, a doctor, with the tag Dr. Rumsfeld, scribbles in a file. "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened,'" says the doctor.
The drawing was based on previous remarks from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who had rejected claims that the Iraq war was weakening the Army. Rumsfeld had said the U.S. military was "battle hardened." (At the bottom of the cartoon, in smaller type, Rumsfeld appears again, saying, "I'm prescribing that you be stretched thin. We don't define that as torture.")
Drawn by Tom Toles, the Washington Post cartoon drew an immediate, high-level response. The six ranking members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote an incendiary letter to the Post, attacking the cartoon as "reprehensible" and "beyond tasteless." "We believe you and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to your readers and your paper's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation, and as a result, have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds," the chiefs wrote.
"While you or some of your readers may not agree with the war or its conduct, we believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency to not make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices." The Joint Chiefs of Staff protest made the cartoon a national issue. Toles and Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt were forced to defend the cartoon for weeks in the Post and other news outlets.
To be sure, editorial cartoonists have angered and annoyed the powerful since the creation of the craft. It's central to the job. High-level carping and complaints come with the territory.
But it's important to note: Cartoonists have never worked under the pressures they face today. Cartoonists (and their supporters) now have an essential and ethical duty to defend and support their traditional role or else accept the very real possibility that the editorial cartoon will soon be transformed into an inoffensive, impotent comic strip of current events.
Two recent developments have tremendously heightened pressure on cartoonists and threatened their position.
First, severe and ongoing cutbacks across American newspapers have made the editorial cartoonist an endangered species. As I argued in the Spring issue of MEDIA ETHICS, the cartoonist position is under siege. At the turn of the 20th Century, when many cities had multiple newspapers, an estimated 2,000 cartoonists were at work in American newsrooms. By the 1980s, this number had dropped to 200. Today, according to the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, the number is less than 80.
Publishers cut both costs and controversy by cutting cartoonists. Editorial cartoonists now work knowing that their positions could be terminated and likely not refilled. Under such conditions, editorial cartoonists can easily be tempted to avoid controversial topics that might rile readers, advertisers, editors and publishers.
The second development threatening editorial cartoonists is the intense, hypersensitive, polarized, political context of the modern world and the inflamed rhetoric and passion that accompany it. Editorial cartoonists no longer simply receive complaints. They receive death threats. A provocative cartoon no longer engenders heated political debate. It engenders rallies, protests, vilification and condemnation.
This explosive political context was in full view, of course, during the murderous reactions to Danish editorial cartoons on the Prophet Muhammad. Protests were held worldwide, mobs set fires to embassies, and more than a dozen people were killed. A bounty was offered for the murder of the cartoonists.
Faced with such times, editorial cartoonists and their supporters need to answer each and every attack. The protests by the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the Toles cartoon should have been met by counter-protests that pointed out the weakness of the chiefs' (and the Secretary's) interpretation, ridiculed the posturing, and questioned the chiefs' dedication to free speech and democratic discourse.
Cartoonists have shown themselves capable of such responses. Last December, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists organized "Black Ink Monday," on which more than 100 cartoons were posted and/or published decrying the loss of cartoonist positions around the country. Perhaps such protests can be an annual affair.
Only 100 years ago, editorial cartoons anchored the front-page of American newspapers, providing publications with energy and identity, and fueling debates around the country. Cartoons are still capable of infusing journalism with such passion. It would be truly "reprehensible" to lose the power of editorial cartoons to carping, cutbacks, politics and fear.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.9,39.