They are largely black and white (and read all over) but George Bush wants
to color them red, white and blue.
Nine months after the attacks of 11 September, leading American political cartoonists
say they are under intense pressure to conform to a patriotic stereotype and not
criticize the actions of Mr Bush and his "war on terror". Those who refuse to
bend to such pressure face having their work rejected, being fired or even publicly
humiliated by the President's press secretary.
Last month the veteran TV anchor Dan Rather sparked controversy when he said
the patriotism engulfing the country had stopped the media asking difficult questions
of America's leaders, and admitted he personally was guilty of such self-censorship.
Now cartoonists, often the most biting political commentators of all, say they
are feeling the same pressures.
Excessive patriotic zeal exerted by editors and publishers means that many
"progressive" cartoonists are having their work dropped. Some, especially those
who work for smaller newspapers or who are freelance, are engaging in self-censorship
to ensure their work gets used.
"There is immense pressure [from] readers and advertisers to toe the patriotic
line as they define it," said Steve Benson, widely considered one of America's
leading political cartoonists, who draws for The Arizona Republic and who syndicates
his work. "I have had editors who have pulled my syndicated cartoons because readers
have marched to their offices and demanded retractions. I have had death threats,
efforts to silence me, people who have compared me to traitors."
As in Britain, America has a long tradition of editorial page cartoonists who
use their skills to analyze, question and often ridicule their political leaders
in a manner usually far more scathing than that of most writers. Some have huge
followings, and the leading cartoonists publish collections of their free-thinking
But in the aftermath of 11 September, such free thinking is under threat. Many
cartoonists say that for the first few days after the attacks, their natural reaction
was to produce work that expressed little more than shock, outrage and anger.
But it soon became apparent that the emerging patriotism was developing a political
agenda, with anyone who merely questioned the government or its agenda being deemed
The issue of such pressure is being highlighted this weekend by an exhibition
of political cartoons from more than 30 cartoonists, including six Pulitzer Prize
winners, whose work questions the administration's behavior in one way or the
other. One of the organizers, Mike Konopacki, whose work is syndicated to a number
of newspapers and magazines, said political cartoons had become "dumber" since
11 September. "The emphasis is on humor rather than analysis."
Clay Bennett, a Pulitzer winner, said cartoonists had a duty of responsibility.
He felt extremely strongly about the way the government's terror crackdown had
reduced people's civil liberties. "A police state is just around the corner,"
he said. "If it's freedom the terrorists hate, than why are we doing away with
On one occasion, Ari Fleischer, the President's spokesman, criticized a comedian
who had suggested it was US pilots rather than the hijackers who were cowards,
for dropping bombs from the safety of 15,000ft. Mr Fleischer said: "There are
reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say."
Mr Fleischer also publicly criticized Mike Marland, who had drawn a cartoon
for the Concord Patriot newspaper illustrating what he considered Mr Bush's attack
on the social security system by showing the president flying a plane marked "Bush
budget" into the twin towers marked "Social" and "Security".
Though the paper ran the cartoon, following a deluge of negative phone calls
the editor-in-chief wrote a follow-up column saying the paper had been wrong to
Mr Marland, who initially apologized and even destroyed the original, said:
"I am still bewildered by the reaction. As I said, call me stupid, call me naive,
but I don't see it as [the] abomination that so many others do. I also experienced
a lot of anger over the reaction to it, mostly along the lines of 'Who the hell
are you to tell me what I can and can't draw?'."
© 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd