PARIS — It was a cartoon that set off a firestorm. On April 25, the international edition of the New York Times published an image of a blind man holding a leash, being led by his dog. The man is Donald Trump, wearing black glasses and a kippah. The dog had the head of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu with a Jewish star on his collar. "What an antisemitic cartoon!" declared Trump, joined by several prominent Israeli writers, New York Times readers and social media personalities. The New York Times responded with a bouquet of excuses, including an apology to Israel, promising to update its internal "unconscious bias" training.
But on June 10, the newspaper went much further, announcing that all political caricatures would soon be removed from their international print edition, while also dumping two in-house cartoonists in the process. As they hardly ever publish such cartoons in their national edition, one could say that an entire prestigious journalistic genre has been banished from the most influential newspaper in the world.
The author of the drawing is Antonio Moreira Autunes, 66, who works at Expresso, a well-known Portuguese weekly whose work was part of a bank of illustrations used by the Times and other outlets. He's a seasoned cartoonist with many awards who likes to provoke: In 1992, he drew a condom on the nose of Pope John Paul II.
The greatest threat to cartoonists has always been the very newspapers we parasitize on.
Go look at the April cartoon on the internet and make your own opinion. For us, it's not very good at all. The kippa and star of David are too much, and turning personalities into animals is bound to be problematic. But none of that makes it an anti-semitic cartoon. French cartoonist Plantu from Le Monde feels the same way, defending a cartoon he would never have made himself. The same goes for Patrick Chappette, a Swiss cartoonist who has published in many newspapers including the New York Times, who feels that "a cartoon can be ferocious if it's right on target, which isn't the case here."
A problematic cartoon is common. The New York Times' attitude, however, is unprecedented. Banning all debate on a subject that has its own readers — including those from Israel — in constant disagreement. The cartoonist community is outraged. (Another uproar occurred last week on the decision by a Canadian newspaper group to fire its long-time cartoonist who had depicted Trump playing golf alongside the bodies of drowned migrants).
One of the harshest critics of the New York Times is British cartoonist Martin Rowson, who wrote in The Guardian last month that the decision was a "combination of cowardice, pomposity, overreaction and hypocrisy."
Every media has made editorial mistakes in its articles, and still publishes them. The same goes for illustrations. On April 12, Le Monde published a cartoon by Serguei about the 25th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. It depicts two decapitated men fighting with machetes, their heads lying on the ground, one saying to the other, "What if we had a truce?" The image puts executioners and victims on equal footing. There was a cry of general indignation and apologies from the newspaper. But Serguei continues to be published in Le Monde. Plantu is on the front page.
The New York Times building in NYC — Photo: Nightstream
The New York Times, which should be setting the standard for excellence, is sending bad signals right at a time when the whole cartooning profession is under attack. According to a Washington Post article from June 11, the past 30 years have seen the number of political cartoons in North American dailies fall from hundreds to dozens. Two laureates of the Pulitzer Prize have recently been fired. The same punishment befell a cartoonist who dared to publish an anti-Trump drawing in a Pittsburgh newspaper. As Martin Rowson said, "The greatest threat to cartoonists has always been the very newspapers we parasitize on."
They didn't want to offend Muslim readers, but offended others.
This New York Times' cartoon also digs into the cultural crevice between the U.S. and Europe. A good political cartoon exaggerates, wields irony and its controversial nature should disturb readers — but to what point? That point is a pin on the other side of the map, in Europe — especially in France. Definitely not in America. Charlie Hebdo's famous caricaturist Cabu, a victim of the 2015 terrorist attack, published a cartoon on the weekly's cover that portrayed the prophet Muhammad saying, "It's hard to be loved by jerks." This would have been unthinkable in the United States. Charlie Hebdo could never exist there. In 2015, the New York Times refused to republish the front page of Charlie Hebdo after the horrific attack. It wasn't even so harsh: Muhammad held a sign saying "Je suis Charlie" with the title "All is forgiven." The newspaper didn't want to offend its readers, especially Muslims. But it offended others.
For Plantu and Chappatte, two mainstays of Cartooning for Peace, their profession is under threat. Within dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, the list of cartoonists who have been fired, imprisoned and exiled is getting longer. But within democratic countries, the support for corrosive irony is also waning thanks to pressure from political correctness, interest groups and social media. A recent sociological study found that 80% of 7,000 high schoolers, many from poor areas, think we shouldn't make fun of religion. Cartoons are becoming softer so as to not offend anyone. Still, as such an important barometer of freedom of opinion, satirical cartoons must be watched over more carefully than milk on a stove.
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