Tim Hartman’s appreciation for the power of visual communication came from his dad, who was a talented artist and draftsman – and who enjoyed politics.
“My father loved editorial cartooning,” Hartman said.
“Some of my earliest memories of him include his use of cartoons to make sense of complex political issues to my immature melon. He had a small book on the history of editorial cartooning, and I used to leaf through that thing constantly, knowing I was learning a different way to communicate.”
These days, Hartman creates political cartoons that run in 20 different publications, including The Tribune-Democrat.
His images often challenge Gov. Tom Wolf and other state leaders over their decisions about programs, spending and taxes.
Hartman says the power of political cartoons is the combining of wit and humor with a social or political message.
And he laments decisions – such as the move announced recently by The New York Times – to abandon cartoon commentary, long a staple of the American news media, in this era of extreme political division.
Hartman believes the strength of cartoons is the artist’s “ability to say so much with very few words. Cartoons, in many ways, are a perfect tool to make the complex more understandable. After all, how many times have you heard the phrase ‘a picture paints a thousand words’?”
Cartoons have been a part of media commentary for centuries. But The New York Times recently announced that it would eliminate them from its international editions – following an earlier decision to do the same domestically.
The Times has been embroiled in controversy since April, when its international editions carried a cartoon depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog on a leash held by President Donald Trump. The cartoon contained religious imagery and was blasted as anti-Semitic – which, of course, it was.
The Times immediately discontinued the publishing of syndicated cartoons, and now has stepped away from its own contracted artists, joining a growing list of publishing companies that have cut loose talented – even Pulitzer Prize-winning – visual journalists.
Editorial Page Editor James Bennet said of the Times’ international product that “for well over a year we have been considering bringing that edition into line with the domestic paper by ending daily political cartoons and will do so beginning July 1.”
The New York Times was wrong to run that controversial cartoon in the first place, and dropping cartoons entirely is another bad decision.
Longtime Times cartoonist Patrick Chappatte, in his blog, said: “I’m putting down my pen, with a sigh: that’s a lot of years of work undone by a single cartoon – not even mine – that should never have run in the best newspaper of the world.”
He added: “I’m afraid this is not just about cartoons, but about journalism and opinion in general. We are in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. “
Daniel Saraga, a resident of Switzerland, penned a letter to the editor, beseeching the Times to bring back cartoons.
“Understanding a cartoon requires the same skills as to draw one: intelligence, criticism, sharpness of mind, humor, sense of context,” he wrote. “Of course some readers will not understand them properly, or will get wrongly offended. But this requires more cartoons, not fewer.”
Both the left and the right are too easily offended and quick to respond harshly to views they don’t embrace.
Cartoons – like all forms of editorial content – are designed to illuminate the issues of a community, challenge powerful decision-makers, and make people think.
But we no longer want to think. We want to stomp our feet and point fingers and move farther apart.
Political cartoons have been prominent in the most partisan of times in our nation’s history – especially during the American Revolution in the late-1700s and the Civil War era a century later – as competing views, and competing newspapers, fought for readers and influence.
Modern media – and social media – are filled with visual expressions, including memes, gifs and other animated images. People still like and respond to that form of discourse.
There has never been a more appropriate – or important – time for the work of political cartoonists.
Apparently, The New York Times has decided that stepping away from the responsibility of providing commentary is an appropriate response to a moment of controversy.
Here’s a better idea: Admit you were wrong to publish that particular cartoon, then promise to do better moving forward and actually mean it.
We in the mass communication industry understand that – despite our best intentions – not every decision is popular, and some turn out to be downright inappropriate in the full light of hindsight.
But the larger mission to illuminate issues and challenge those in authority remains a critical duty in a free society.
Political cartoons help fulfill that responsibility.
And let’s hope that we’ve not devolved to the point where we can no longer find even a splash of humor in our vast ocean of differences.
The next step is extinction.
We just need to lighten up – and open up our minds.
“When you can’t laugh about anything, you begin to think that no one else should laugh about anything, either,” Hartman said. “I believe that is a very sad, and dangerous, place to be.”