Visual shortcuts, the ‘angry mob’ and the power of editorial cartoons

A picture, we all know, is worth a thousand words. But which thousand is often up to the individual viewer.

This can be especially true when it comes to editorial cartoons. As a form of expression, a single cartoon panel can have a unique power to make a viewer laugh in agreement or growl with displeasure. Interestingly, the reaction is immediate — a chuckle, a guffaw, a pounding of the fist on the table — but the effect, at least in the best of cases, is long-lasting, as the viewer naturally is induced to reflect on the meaning and intent of a particular issue’s visual portrayal.

Unfortunately, though, nuance is not usually the editorial cartoonist’s stock in trade, so in many, if not most, cases, an individual cartoon must be examined very narrowly, and in some cases, a lack of depth can leave a cartoon open to vastly different interpretations.

All this makes selecting editorial cartoons for publication an imprecise art, no pun intended, for newspapers like the Daily Herald that value presentation of diverse points of view on their Opinion pages. And it can lead to considerable controversy when readers are stung by an artist’s portrayal that they find offensive, wildly exaggerated or simply wrong.

We at the Daily Herald address this challenge by striving to present a wide range of points of view in the editorial cartoons we publish from day to day. The New York Times has decided to deal with it by ending publication of editorial cartoons altogether in its international editions.

The Times’ decision followed an outcry over an April cartoon that lampooned President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many critics found the image overtly anti-Semitic. The Times later agreed and apologized.                                                                                                                          The artist, it’s worth noting, insisted that he did not mean to promote anti-Semitism but just wanted to make a statement about what he saw as President Trump’s blind loyalty to the Israeli leader. He is finding — as legions of Twitter and social media commentators also learn from time to time — that the inherent power of an arresting image or clever phrase can be abused by clumsy presentation.

The Times has never been particularly fond of editorial cartoons and had already ceased publication of them in its domestic editions. In a blog reacting to his newspaper’s decision to cease publishing traditional editorial cartoons in all its editions, Times cartoonist Patrick Chappatte, who did not draw the offending panel, described cartoons as “visual shortcut(s) with an unmatched capacity to touch the mind” and said that quality is both “their strength, and their vulnerability.” He lamented that we live in an age when “moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm” to intimidate publishers and commentators.

In short, combine a moralistic mob and a visual shortcut and you have a formula for trouble. Chappatte thinks the solution is “to stop being afraid of the angry mob,” and I’m willing to side with him to a point. But I’ve also found that the degree of people’s objection to the “angry mob” often depends on which angry mob they’re a part of. So, I place my hope and faith in the willingness — even as grudging as it sometimes is — for citizens of a country that values free speech and a free press to, within certain broad boundaries, tolerate views and images they abhor as long as their own views can get a fair hearing.

Or, in the case of editorial cartoons, a fair viewing.

For our part at the Daily Herald, we’re constantly evaluating how we use editorial cartoons and how we select the ones we publish. Like Chappatte, we still think they have a unique capacity to compact a complex idea into an instantaneous picture, as long as we respect the sentiments and diversity of the readers transforming each image into those thousand words.