Editorial cartoonist Steve Kelley Credit: Via YouTube

Earlier this week, I questioned the convictions of syndicated editorial cartoonist Steve Kelley. He’d just ripped Hillary Clinton over the question of whether she’d been fed answers at last week’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC. 

“Many believe you used an earpiece,” says a reporter to Clinton in Kelley’s cartoon. “I prefer to think of it as a private voicemail server,” Clinton replies.

I called Kelley’s language “weasel-wording.” Did Kelley believe she used an earpiece? If so, he should have said so. If not (Clinton’s camp denies she wore one, and photos don’t show any), he should have gone back to the drawing board.

“I found it believable that Hillary might have used an earpiece at the presidential forum on NBC,” Kelley says of his reasoning behind the editorial cartoon.

I wrote Kelley and asked him. Hours after my post went online, he got back to me. After brief pleasantries (years ago we collaborated on a panel discussion on cartooning at the Chicago Humanities Festival), he dealt with my question.

I found it believable that Hillary might have used an earpiece at the presidential forum on NBC (hell, she had a private email server installed in her basement) — that is why I drew the cartoon. The report I read included an email from Huma Abedin to Hillary (referencing another occasion) wherein she asks if Hillary had her earpiece or if Huma needed to bring it to her.

I don’t know what you mean when you ask if I should have “made it clear” that I believed Hillary had an earpiece. Generally, I think readers assume that an opinion journalist believes what he or she writes. There’s no need to make it explicit.

Subsequent to sending out my cartoon, I read that the Clinton campaign was denying that Hillary used an earpiece during the forum. Here let’s pause and reflect on the Clinton campaign’s record of truthfulness and candor. That didn’t take long, did it?

Cartoonists and columnists often comment on reports of events and behavior even as evidence is still being gathered. How many cartoons called out President Obama and Hillary for dissembling about the Bengazi attack even in its immediate aftermath? For weeks after the attack, the White House and State Department were still pushing the canard that it all resulted from an Internet video. Years and multiple investigations and reports later, the entire matter is unresolved.  

But there’s a big difference between finding an accusation “believable” and actually believing it. The “I wouldn’t put it past her” standard is good enough for most people, but it takes more than that to make an accusation stick. And in Kelley’s cartoon, the earpiece accusation sticks. Clinton doesn’t even deny it. She replies with a dismissive allusion to her private e-mail server—and the point of Kelley’s cartoon is that ethical indifference.

I have no doubt he believes in that. The earpiece charge was just his means to his end. But it’s a serious charge, and I’m still not sure if Kelley believed it when he drew the cartoon or believes it now.

Which is worse—swallowing a story being peddled by Donald Trump Jr. and the Drudge Report, or not swallowing it but exploiting it anyway?