Ever dream you were dancing on a volcano or standing with a stick of dynamite near a crackling camp-fire? Editors who work with talented editorial cartoonists are known to have those nightmares.

When I hired Bob Englehart as The Hartford Courant’s editorial cartoonist 24 years ago, I expected him to light the fuse more often than not. I believed that our state, Connecticut, affectionately known as the land of steady habits, needed stimulation from this art form. Fireworks from newspaper cartoonland would add a kick to the colder medium of editorials. If Bob got out of hand occasionally, I would be able to tame his wilder side, or at least to keep it on a leash. So I thought. After all, I was his editor and had veto power.

Today, much older and a bit wiser, I confess to the sin of overconfidence. Working with a talented cartoonist is much more complicated than giving a simple yes or no answer to his daily offering. Schools teach copyediting and writing, but none to my knowledge instruct would-be editors on editing cartoons. It’s not just fixing syntax and correcting spelling in taglines and balloons. In cartoons, the editor deals with ideas expressed starkly, brutally, through an art form for the masses. The opinion is expressed in caricatures, relies on satire, and indulges in exaggeration, sometimes wildly so.

A cartoonist’s world is black and white, while an editor’s universe is imbued with shades of gray. The best cartoonists are an independent-minded breed. Rebellious is a better description. They are far more likely to question and even denounce their bosses for “censoring” their masterpieces.

Editors ordinarily are comfortable making changes in copy, but who among the gatekeepers is able to redraw a cartoon? When a suggested cartoon needs more work, it always means asking the creator to rethink, refine, clarify or restart. In other words, an editor doesn’t really edit a cartoon, he or she works with its creator in shaping images and messages.

What this means is that if an editor is the type of person who abhors volcanic eruptions from a cartoonist over the editing of his or her work, don’t hire one. Instead, rely on syndicated cartoonists over whom you have far more effective control through the process of choosing one from many purchased inexpensively. But syndicated cartoonists do not give newspapers the local flavor that they must have in fully engaging audiences. They never connect directly with their readers as a good local cartoonist does. Bob says his favorite cartoon commentaries are on state and local issues. He gets instant and substantial feedback, positive and negative. His voice mail is never empty.

Questions Editors Ask

Editing cartoons involves mostly asking questions. Editors must reflect on a series of questions instinctively and do so in a matter of seconds after examining the sketch. On a few occasions, an editor might sit on the proposed idea for an hour or two and even “test” the sketch on a colleague in the office. But it’s most fair to let the cartoonist know as soon as possible. Otherwise, the presumption is that the cartoon is a go and the creator proceeds with the final drawing.

Here are some of the questions I ask:

  1. Would the proposed cartoon be easily understood by most readers?

  2. Does it deal with a big subject that’s very much in the limelight instead of a footnote in one of the news-roundup pages that tickles the cartoonist’s fancy?
    Answers to these questions should not strain the editor. If I don’t get the point, I will not run it.

  3. Does it state the obvious in ho-hum fashion or introduce a provocative thought and use a powerful and instantly recognizable metaphor or allegory?

  4. Is it intended merely to draw a laugh, as in comics, without necessarily making a point?
    These questions are a bit more problematic. A ho-hum idea? Funny just for the sake of getting a laugh? What cartoonist who labored on the sketch would cede those points without an argument?

  5. Does the cartoon indulge in offensive racial and ethnic stereotyping?

  6. Is it within the boundary (albeit porous) of fairness?

  7. Is it in reasonably good taste or does it go over the edge?
    These are more subjective questions since they relate far more to the editor’s core values and familiarity with community mores. Taking into account the sensibilities of loyal editorial page readers, who generally are better informed and more sophisticated than other newspaper readers, would be wise. Put another way, going for the jugular is fine, but hitting below the belt is not.

  8. Would I be able to easily explain and defend the cartoon the next day?

  9. The editorial page editor’s judgment isn’t impeccable, of course. But editors who cannot defend a cartoon on the day after shouldn’t have run it in the first place. It’s not convincing to argue, “Well, that’s not the newspaper’s opinion. It’s Englehart’s opinion. His name is on the cartoon.”

Local cartoonists, whose work appears next to the masthead, cannot be totally separated from their newspapers. Many readers regard cartoons as quasi editorials expressing the newspaper’s opinions. That’s one reason publishers often ask to see the cartoon before its publication.

The Role Editors Play

Editors must buffer the cartoonists from readers and from the nervous publishers. So it’s an editor’s job to say no to a cartoon when it must be said and to also leave the keepers of the steel-tipped, poison-dipped pen a wide swath to create great work.

To encourage a healthy working relationship with the house cartoonist, a few ground rules would help. For example, Bob knew from the start of our association that depicting bodily functions and using epithets in cartoons would trigger my nervous twitches. I’m also skittish about cartoons that deal with religious symbols, especially when caricaturing Jesus, Mary, Muhammad or the pope and using the cross, the Star of David, or the Muslim crescent.

But those are not ironclad rules. They’re guideposts. Alas, sex scandals involving the clergy require biting cartoon commentary. So do church lobbying and pronouncements on abortion, gay marriage, birth control, and stem cell research.

Predicting how readers will react to a tough cartoon is a hopeless exercise, although editors try anyway. There were days when I came prepared to deal with a deluge of denunciations and nothing happened. There were also red-letter days when hordes of readers challenged my decency, common sense, and patriotism for approving the “outrageous,” “beyond the pale,” “racist,” “sexist,” “incompetent,” and you name it, cartoon. Day in, day out, nothing else in the newspaper draws as many threats of litigation and bodily harm than a cartoon on a touchy topic.

The editor’s biggest cartoon challenge is to encourage edgy work without the cartoonist and his boss falling off the cliff. A successful cartoonist challenges conventional thinking, stimulates thought, skewers misbehaving figures, deflates self-righteous, pompous characters, and flushes out hypocrites. A successful editor coaches, indeed cheers, the cartoonist—up to a point.

What follows are examples of cartoons that caused fireworks:

  • At a meeting with the editorial board, Hartford’s police chief complained that fighting crime in the city is all the more difficult because of a lack of cooperation between law enforcers and citizens. Bob’s caricature was that of an uncooperative black couple telling a black officer that they would be “acting white” if they gave up the names of known criminals in their neighborhoods. I asked Bob to soften the racial caricatures in his images, but otherwise thought the cartoon was within bounds. Not so with many readers, especially African Americans, who let us know.

  • One of Bob’s most celebrated/denounced cartoons targeted Connecticut’s biggest electric power provider Northeast Utilities (N.U.) after it asked state regulators for a substantial rate hike. Responding to the request, Bob drew N.U.’s logo with the image of a screw next to the U. Screw you? Hundreds of readers demanded that the editor and the cartoonist be fired for tolerating such “crude” and “vulgar” work in the oldest newspaper (1764) in the nation.

  • Bob went after state bureaucrats following the death of a 3-year-old boy from a broken family who was choked by his prospective adoptive father. Stories described sloppy supervision of the boy by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF). Bob drew the boy standing before an angel at the gates of heaven saying, “Connecticut DCF sent me.” Social workers were furious. So was former Governor John G. Rowland, a regular critic as well as target of the cartoonist, who accused Bob of sinking to “new depths” because the cartoon “made fun of the death of the boy.”

Tough cartoons? Yes. Borderline on taste? Maybe. Defensible under the circumstances? Yes.

There are editing misfires, of course. Early in the presidential campaign, Bob proposed a cartoon showing a low-IQ type who says, “Kerry Doesn’t Have a Chance!” Bob attached a button on the man’s shirt that read, “Morons for Bush.” I thought the button wasn’t needed because it’s obvious from the caricature that the man is a moron. Bob agreed, although reluctantly. The next day, many readers called to ask for a translation of the cartoon. Keeping the “morons” button would have made the cartoon clearer, although the message that only morons are for Bush would be harsh and fundamentally untrue.

Cultural Misunderstandings

Some of the most hurtful misfires are rooted in cultural misunderstandings. Responding to the climatic churn associated with the warming of the Pacific Ocean, Bob drew a cartoon with a character shouting, “Curse you, El Niño!” Many Hartford Latinos (at least one-third of the city) were shocked and angry because El Niño in Spanish refers to the infant Jesus.

Years ago, when Hartford’s first-ever black mayor announced his intention to seek reelection, Bob drew him as a janitor sitting in city hall’s broom closet. The cartoonist used the metaphor to show the ineffectiveness of Hartford’s weak-mayor/strong city council government system. The intended message: Why does anyone want to be mayor in this city? But African Americans didn’t see it that way. Picturing the mayor as a janitor, they told us, reinforced stereotypes of blacks capable only of menial work.

Muslims were enraged in 2002 when a cartoon linked Islam to 9/11, the murder of Daniel Pearl, and the incineration of a trainload of Hindus. Catholics were similarly outraged when a cartoon told Pope John Paul II that he is all wrong on stem cell research.

Bob doesn’t believe in special dispensation to any group or individual. His targets have included Native Americans, Israeli leaders, gun control opponents, people with physical handicaps, labor union bosses, and corporate leaders. When asked by the Courant’s reader advocate if he is “an equal-opportunity hater,” Bob didn’t mince words: “Yes. I don’t like anybody. I think everyone is prone to corruption and foul play ….”

There is no such thing as safe dancing between editorial page editors and good cartoonists.

John Zakarian, a 1969 Nieman Fellow, recently retired as editorial page editor and vice president of The Hartford Courant.

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