Toles discusses political cartoons in journalism

Political cartoonist Tom Toles isn’t a public speaker by trade, but he once heard that Cicero advised to do it like sex: go slow at first, keep it short and sweet, and build to a climax.

He got the first and the third right while delivering the morning lecture, titled “Cartooning: The New Front Line of Self-Expression,” Thursday in the Amphitheater. But for the prolific artist who has almost 10,000 cartoons to his name, keeping his lecture short was a challenge.

He discussed the current state of political cartooning, particularly in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting that occurred in France on Jan. 7 of this year. Two gunmen attacked the satirical newspaper, which had published a political cartoon depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The shooting left 12 dead, five of whom were cartoonists.

“It changed the meaning of being a political cartoonist,” he said.

In the aftermath, numerous news organizations interviewed the Pulitzer Prize-winning artist. He said he had two answers over time: Initially, with the shock still fresh, he was outraged at the deaths of those who were doing the intrinsically human act of self-expression.

But as time wore on, his opinion became more nuanced. While he believes freedom of speech should have almost no limit as a legal right, the question for him became: What is appropriate to say?

“The question is, ‘What do you want to say, and what is smart to say?’ ” Toles said. “A friend of mine who is a writer put it best: ‘In this instance, the real enemy is hatred, and what you want to do is to move away from unnecessarily inflammatory hatred.’ ”

He provided context for his two answers to the tragedy throughout the lecture, peppered with his thoughts on D.C. politics, as he presented a variety of his cartoons

“[Cartoonists] like to make people laugh, but also like to be taken seriously. Most of all, we want to give you something to think about,” he said.

According to Toles, the power of the political cartoon comes from the simplicity of the image.

He gave a lecture to fellow cartoonists titled “Five Secrets of Editorial Cartooning,” which he shared with the audience. They were simple, direct rules.

The first was to learn how to draw. A cartoon is meant to be neither realistic nor sophisticated. It’s all about conveying a message, he said.

The second was to be funny, but never simply for the sake of being so. The third was to be fair, depicted with a stick figure holding the scales of justice. Toles had one caveat.

“I decide what is fair,” he said. “It’s fair that it’s my point of view. You’re getting one person’s point of view. What do they owe you [the audience]? They owe you careful thought, to be informed, and to not take arbitrary points or have overt ideological bias.”

The fourth was to the point: “Don’t be stupid.” It was accompanied by an image of a stick figure in a dunce cap. The fifth was even more pointed, saying “don’t be a whore,” complete with an image of a stick figure performing oral sex on another stick figure.

“The crux is: Please tell the truth as you see it,” Toles said.

Most of Toles’ criticism is reserved for the Republican Party and their presidential candidates because, in his opinion, they are most deserving. His issues with the GOP stem from their resistance to change and insistence on philosophical merit.

“They have, as ideological bedrock — in legislation and in policy — more tax cuts for the rich, backwards views of social progress and false promises of deficit reduction,” he said.

One of his cartoons depicted a teacher in a classroom telling the students, “In America, every one of you can grow up to be a Republican presidential candidate.” In the corner, the caption read, “As long as you fail science.”

That doesn’t mean he allows Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, off the hook. Another cartoon showed the Democratic frontrunner racing around a horse track, collapsed hurdles behind her, racing to the starting line.

While he derided the GOP attempts to make continuous issues of Benghazi and Clinton’s email account, he said the question of the Clinton’s speaking fees were a legitimate area of concern.

“For speaking fees, the question is: How much and who’s paying?” he said. “Is the speech really just a cover of payment for future considerations? They say actions speak louder than words and they also say money talks.”

Toles is extremely concerned about the rise of so-called “dark money” in a post-Citizens United world of unlimited, anonymous donations. One cartoon depicted the billionaire Koch brothers holding auditions for their preferred Republican presidential candidate with puppet-strings, with a caption reading, “They double as lines of credit.

The most egregious area of the Republican Party that agitates Toles is in their denial of climate change, a global issue he views as central to the future of the human race. He illustrated this by showing a cartoon of a penguin floating on the last piece of Arctic ice and polar bears on Antarctic ice, meeting for the first time as species in the most depressing manner imaginable.

Overall, Toles showed almost 30 of his cartoons with topics such as education, film, marijuana legalization, women’s rights, police brutality and same-sex marriage. He spared no quarter for legislators like Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) who explicitly deny human-caused climate change.

He concluded on a cartoon he made in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, a play on the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword.” It depicted an assault next to a pen with the caption, “the pen will endure.”

“It’s all about free expression,” he said.


Q: Is there a difference between doing cartoons for the Buffalo News than for the Washington Post other than obviously the attention you may get from a larger audience?

A: Yes and no. Fundamentally, at first, it was exactly the same. This is probably a vivid example, but you could read about Chautauqua for 10 years, and you would not really know what if felt like without coming here. I mean, you don’t. It’s this special, wonderful place.

Washington is a little same way except it’s not always so wonderful. I was doing the same subject matter, but being in Washington, you just start to pick up the wavelength, how it feels, how it works, what the motivations of people play out as. It’s not just simple, “Oh I’m here, and I’m corrupt.”  I know it looks like that, but it’s a very subtle interplay between, “What’s good for me, good for my career, this is the way this town works, this is the way the game is played.” Everybody slides around, not everybody, but a lot of people slide around, and it all starts to look like a certain kind of normalcy.

The best thing for me is coming back. Being there a lot has taught me a lot, but every summer we spend up in Western New York, working from Buffalo, where we’re from, and just being able to see both inside and outside is actually the best thing for me because I get to see up close how it works, but I get to put it into some perspective too.

Q: Why do you feel a necessity to write a tag on to your cartoons? Shouldn’t the cartoon speak for itself?

A: Yes, I will stop doing that. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Actually it’s a great question, and the answer is, yeah, a cartoon should speak for itself. And actually, I construct every one, and I sketch it out. I ink it without that. And my feeling when I started it was I was new at it. I was experimenting. I thought, “Well, I did the other things.”

I saw in a book of early U.S. editorial cartooning that this was actually a quite frequently employed device, and I thought, “Well that could be interesting. I’ll just try it.” And the other thing I wanted to do was not to make my cartoons generic cartoons. I didn’t adopt any current cartooning style that was popular. I just reworked my own illustration style, and I started drawing myself down there. I just wanted to emphasize that it’s not just kind of a bodyless cartoon that exists out there on the page or on the Internet. I wanted to emphasize that this is one, specific person, and he’s thinking about this stuff individually, this is his opinion. I just started trying it out just on occasion, and I thought, “I like the way it works.”

And people said the same, for the most part, until that harsh question.

Q: Is there a cartoon you regretted after publication?

A: That’s also a great question. I don’t know if you spent time on Facebook this week, but I did a cartoon last week that got misinterpreted or got interpreted in a way that was unintended, and I just got what is not uncommon on the Internet — I got a firestorm, just totally vicious, personal denunciations, calling me things that, well, I just don’t like to think of myself that way.

But it was an instance where people who were reading it — some of them actually were on the same side as me, but they interpreted the way I went at the subject to be disrespectful. I was thinking about bringing the cartoon, but I actually want to think about what your question is some more. Do I regret doing it?

As of now, no, because far more people got the point. It was the kind of thing you do all the time in political cartooning. To be effective, you’ve got to get out there pretty close to the edge. If it’s so tame, if it’s a slice of white bread lying there on a porcelain plate with a pat of butter on it and no jam… it’s got to be something, it’s got to try for something. And when I drew that cartoon, I thought, “This is one of my stronger cartoons, I’m really happy and I’m going to be proud of this one.” And the original reaction to it was just that. I got a flood of really positive responses. But then somebody said, “No, this is an outrage, don’t you think so?” and this idea got out there, and enough people decided to, for whatever reason, view it that way, and man, I got massacred for it.

And so the question is, do I regret it? And the answer is no. There’s not a cartoon that I regret doing because I do the best I can, and I try the hardest I can, and I try to think those questions through the hardest I can. And that’s the only thing I can do. There are a few like this one where I would ask myself, “Would I do it again?” But that’s a different question, and that’s a harder question. But there’s nothing I’ve done because everything I’ve done, I’ve done with the best I can do.

Q: Has an editor or publisher ever killed one of your cartoons, and if so why, and what was your response?

A: Only once. I worked with three different newspapers, and it was not the Washington Post, which gets it down to two, but that’s still the safety zone. I did one cartoon that was critical, pretty indirectly — but directly enough — of the publisher.

That one got yanked, and I asked my editor, “I thought I had freedom to do whatever I wanted?” And his answer with regard to this cartoon, was “I just assumed you were kidding with that one.”

But at the Washington Post, I have the editor there, our agreement is that I can do what I want, he can ask me to change it, I can refuse, he can refuse to publish it. But at the Post, that’s never happened. We’ve had  a couple go-rounds, but they’ve published them all.

Q: Would you discuss cartoons like Pogo and Doonesbury, which were in the comic section of the newspaper but still were very political?

A: Yeah, to me that’s like a non-controversy. There were people that said “Well, that’s too political for the comic page, that’s inappropriate.” I don’t get that at all. To me, there’s a comic art form, there’s opinion, there’s reporting. These are all separate categories, and I think, mix them however you want to as long as you are finding readers who find it an engaging and challenging and satisfying way to put them together.

You can make a rule that no comics can ever be political, but that rule never existed. It’s kind of a tradition, but well, so what?

Q: Could you discuss the challenge of newspapers continuing with political cartoonists and the elimination of jobs similar to what you do?

A: I will be putting a hat for collections. Anybody that wants to drop by, small bills, change is welcome, large bills always welcome.

I shouldn’t make light of that, because it’s just wrenching. It’s just killing off to a degree an entire half a generation of journalists. It’s making getting into journalism harder. It’s caused the Internet, I would say, up until now, has amplified the amount of journalism being done, and the accessibility, but I would say at the nub of real, serious reporting. Overseas bureaus of newspapers, hard, in-depth local reporting.

I’d say so far, it’s been more hurtful than helpful. Political cartoonists, like many reporters, the ranks have been decimated, probably lost half since the Internet became a widespread purveyor of information. My answer — I was just over at the Chautauqua paper talking to the young journalists there, and they asked a similar question. I don’t know if this is hopeful, but I think it’s realistic. The forms now are under assault. They’re crumbling. Things are being just swept away like with the back of an overseer’s hand. Let’s talk about journalists first and then we’ll talk about cartooning.

You have to assume that people need information. That’s what journalism is based on. Society cannot exist without information, and it has to be good information, quality information, timely information. And one way or another, that’s going to be delivered, and one way or another, it can’t happen for free. It can happen for free for a while, but at some point, the demand will create a profession for delivering that information. I think it’s the same way for political cartooning only a little different. Political cartooning is actually a somewhat historically new phenomenon. It’s like, I don’t know, 150 years old depending on how you count it. In some ways, it already is and already has been an archaic form. It’s just this odd hybrid of things. When I was talking to the young reporters, I called it the platypus of journalism because it’s just drawing, it’s a little reporting, it’s opinion, it’s a little writing. But in it’s essence, it’s two things — well it’s three things — could be four or more. It’s based on real information. It’s opinion, and it’s graphic representation. Now, tell me which of those things is going to go away. Information is not going to go away. Opinion is not going to go away, and the effectiveness and impact of visual images is never going to go away. My contention and belief is that this current incarnation of political cartooning may in fact disappear. The daily newspaper-based editorial may disappear. I kind of think it won’t, but it might. But some form of some combination of graphics and information will always be there because it’s just an appealing and provocative and effective combination. So some way or another, something like it will always be there, I think.