Is the Editorial Cartoonist Dead?

Is the Editorial Cartoonist Dead?

My first introduction to newspaper reading was the Sunday comics. Stretched out on the floor beside my Dad, both of us propped up on our elbows, we read everything from Andy Capp to Ziggy. But my first introduction to reading a newspaper like an adult was the editorial cartoon. Pat Oliphant, Jeff MacNelly, and others soon became heroes as big to me as Spider-Man and Batman. Alas, with the death of the American newspaper comes the collateral damage of the demise of the editorial cartoon. The Golden Age for Editorial Cartoonists at the Nation’s Newspapers is Over, a report recently presented by The Herb Block Foundation (founded by legendary editorial cartoonist, Herbert Block, aka, Herblock), gives the grisly details and sad statistics behind the extinction of that now rare animal, the flourishing editorial cartoonist. Is the editorial cartoonist really dead? What does that mean for American politics and culture, today and tomorrow?


The numbers are truly stunning. “At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 editorial cartoonists employed by newspapers in the United States,” the introduction to the report states. “Today there are fewer than 40 staff cartoonists, and that number continues to shrink.” The report tries to soften the blow by promoting the brave new world of online editorial cartooning, but can’t find a convincing way to make the job appear promisingly profitable. “It’s never been easier for anyone to find a wide audience for their self-expression,” the report quotes a nationally recognized cartoonist (who refused to be named), “the tough part is getting paid for it.” When an official of one of the nation’s leading editorial cartoon syndicates was asked how much value newspaper publishers place on editorial cartooning, he curtly replied, “Not much.” Money talks, so the editorial cartoonist walks… right out the door, taking his or her talents and valuable, challenging voice into the silent void.

Mark Potts, who titles his blog Recovering Journalist, offers a helpful primer on technological changes for the editorial cartoonist and holds Mark Fiore and Ann Telnaes up as examples of cartoonists who have adapted (by creating animated online editorial cartoons) rather than died. Chanting the modern “mantra of technological change: [f]aster, smaller, better, cheaper,” Potts calls on cartoonists to “[think] beyond traditional pen and ink, because “[t]he day when a journalist or cartoonist could expect a long-term, stable career, with a pension from a longtime employer, are over.” If I were a young artist hoping to enter editorial cartooning and have a home and family, that last sentence would send me running.

The most interesting section of the report, for me, was the short essays by (non-)working editorial cartoonists. Mark Fiore strikes a note of hope, writing that the current situation, although “depressing,” can also “be somewhat liberating.” Fiore challenges his fellow cartoonists to change their “mindset from the days of staff political cartoonists and look at ourselves as free-agent personalities. We are in charge, not the publishers.” “Sure, the safe stability of a small raise at your annual review is gone, but you can aim higher on your own,” Fiore concludes. “In short, the stakes are higher: You can lose more and you can win more.” Fiore, unfortunately, is the exception among the field.

At the other, darker end of the spectrum, you’ll find the always brutally honest and controversially direct Ted Rall. Rall calls the situation “bleak, bordering on hopeless.” He doesn’t fear that editorial cartooning will die as much as it will lose all professionalism and be left in the hands of amateurs who, no matter how skilled or committed, can never reach the top tier. “It takes years of trial and error to become a good cartoonist,” Rall rails. “Name a giant like [Bill] Mauldin or [Charles] Schulz or [James] Thurber and you will discover years of youthful experimentation that precedes the cartoons for which they are now remembered.” The exodus of young, talented editorial cartoonists such as Chris Kelly, Kaz, Lloyd Dangle, Mikhaela B. Reid, Tim Kreider, and David Rees from the business troubles Rall more than anything else. “Unless something dramatic happens, I expect that there will be fewer than a dozen professional editorial cartoonists left in the near future (10 years or less),” Rall fortells. “All will be old (over 60).” These old cartoonists will then draw in “an old-fashioned style that does not resonate with younger readers,” thus marginalizing the genre itself from future generations and relegating it to the status of “an esoteric throwback… like classical theater, experimental dance and fusion jazz.” Editorial cartooning will then die what seems to be a fitting death—extinction with the last of its dinosaur professional practitioners.

I believe that editorial cartooning serves an important role in American society, and one that I want my sons to experience in the future. What would America look like today if Herblock hadn’t drawn the cartoon titled “YOU MEAN I’M SUPPOSED TO STAND ON THAT?” on March 29, 1950 and coined the word "McCarthyism" (detail shown above)? When so many others refused to stand up to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s scare tactics and witch hunting, Herblock took on what he later called “a national affliction” and offered a cure through cartooning. Laughter (and ridicule) soon proved to be the best medicine.

The Herb Block Foundation’s mission statement states that, in addition to encouraging the art of editorial cartooning, they are “committed to defending basic freedoms, combating all forms of discrimination and prejudice and improving the condition of the poor and underprivileged.” For Herblock, cartooning and a commitment to humanity were inseparable. If editorial cartooning dies, part of that commitment to humanity dies as well—robbed of a form of expression that takes down the powerful and points out the cruelly absurd. Some day our children will need their own Herblock, their own Mauldin, their own Rall. I hope one is there.

[Image: Herblock. “YOU MEAN I’M SUPPOSED TO STAND ON THAT?” (detail). A 1950 Herblock Cartoon, copyright by The Herb Block Foundation.]

[Many thanks to The Herb Block Foundation for providing me with the image above.]

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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