Old-school reporters count the big shots they’ve met on one finger. The cosmopolitan Ranan Lurie studied at a different school. This helps explain why there’s a major new journalism prize in his honor–and why the proles of his trade say it’s ridiculous.

“I was approached in 1995 by an organization called the United Nations Society of Writers and Artists,” Lurie recalls. Would he lend his name to an international award honoring a distinguished political cartoonist? “I said to them–and I repeated the question to the secretary general when he brought it up–‘If you don’t think I should die first.'”

Lurie says that when he spoke these words to Kofi Annan–they were chatting in Annan’s chambers in the UN building–the secretary general fell silent, as if considering the importance of Lurie dropping dead. Then he answered grandly, “There is no need for it.”

Badinage with the UN’s CEO is all in a day’s work for Lurie. And so it is that at 67–and still the picture of health, save a maimed pinkie finger–he can bask in the United Nations Correspondents Association Ranan Lurie Political Cartoon Award, which this October UNCA will bestow at a dinner at the UN “in the presence” of Annan. The panel of judges is a bizarre A list chaired by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and including, among others, Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, author Norman Mailer, actor Jeff Bridges, pitcher David Cone, First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, and UN ambassadors from Canada, Spain, and Algeria.

But this group is no more unlikely than Lurie himself. An Israeli by birth and a New Yorker by destiny, he’s recognized twice in the Guinness Book of Records: (1) as “the most widely syndicated political cartoonist in the world”–appearing in more than 1,000 papers in more than 100 countries; and (2) for a lineage that has been traced back 30 centuries to the house of David and that identifies as his kinsmen Freud, Marx, Mendelssohn, and the prophet Isaiah.

Lurieunaward.com, the Web site for the new prize, is a font of information. We read that Lurie has interviewed 72 world leaders one-on-one and been hailed as “the most influential political cartoonist in the world” by Clare Boothe Luce, as “olympian” by Time, as “the dean” by Bill Moyers. A former editor of the London Times, where Lurie made a career stop, fondly recalled his “shrewd contributions [and] courtesy and insight borne of his wide international experience.”

The 57 lines devoted to Lurie in the International Who’s Who reveal he belongs to Mensa.

Most political cartoonists are made from lesser clay. You’re not far wrong to think of them as the Bowery Boys of journalism, as the kids who sat in the back of the classroom doodling with a black crayon and giving the teacher and class suck-up the evil eye.

“I think that is not an entirely inaccurate stereotype,” says Tom Toles, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the Buffalo News. “I think irreverence is not the cornerstone. I think the cornerstone is analysis. But irreverence is an integral part of the process. A reverent cartoonist–what have you got there?”

A Ranan Lurie perhaps? I ask, to be provocative.

Toles responds carefully. “I tend to aim for a different result than I think he does.”

And what is his?

Toles’s response, however brief on the page, consumes the next ten minutes of his life. “I…I…aw, man…I. [He laughs.] I…just don’t know…what I want to say here. I’m trying to picture this quote in print. And I’m trying to say something…I won’t be sorry…I said. I think…his work…tends to be…illustrative and…soft-focused… and it tends to have a…mass-production feel to it. I think…that’s as far as I want to go.”

He’s in Guinness, I say.

“I’m not entirely sure that’s the goal,” says Toles, who appears in a mere 200 papers. “Guys who swallow knives are in there too.”

The Boston Globe ran a story last week about the Lurie award. “Ranan Lurie is a huge self-promoter,” cartoonist Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News grumbled to the Globe. “No one sees his cartoons, but he manages to convince everybody he’s the best cartoonist in the world.” She called him “inconsequential.”

She was sorry she did. “I sounded like a whiny bitch,” she says. “I don’t wish Mr. Lurie ill. Insofar as he has promoted our profession, it’s good for all of us.” Besides, says Wilkinson, a Pulitzer winner herself, who is she to call him inconsequential? What cartoonist isn’t? She proposes a “Signe Wilkinson Prize for Best Cartooning in the Universe.” It’s just as silly.

The Lurie affair has brought to light one sharp distinction between the cartoonists who ridicule the award and the cartoonist for whom it’s named. Lurie isn’t a bumbler. As for his naysayers…

The award was announced in an ad in the New York Times last September, and within days they had a letter of protest circulating. But weeks went by before this letter was actually sent off, at which point it had been signed by a number of cartoonists that no one seems to know. Copies were addressed to Kofi Annan, to Elie Wiesel, and to the president of UNCA. But none of them has replied to the letter and apparently none of them ever received it. Now Lurie questions whether the letter actually existed.

Mark Jurkowitz, who wrote last week’s Globe story, insists he laid eyes on a draft and quoted from it: “You should not lend your name or organization’s reputation to [a contest] fated for ridicule. Regardless of your most honorable motives, to most of us you look like you don’t know what you’re doing.” But Jurkowitz doesn’t have it any longer. Syndicated cartoonist Jeff Danziger says he wrote the original draft but can’t show it to me because it was supposed to be kept private. Jurkowitz says there were about a dozen names on the copy he saw; Danziger says he understands some 30 cartoonists from as far away as Australia signed it. But only three names have actually surfaced–those of Danziger, Wilkinson, and Jules Feiffer.

Tom Toles didn’t sign the letter. He says Signe Wilkinson called and asked for his E-mail address so she could forward him a copy, but it never came. He’s not sure he would have signed even if Wilkinson had sent it and he’d agreed with every word. “The UN–it’s their business,” he reasons. Joining crusades isn’t exactly what cartoonists do.

Danziger’s theory is that the letter got to Annan’s office and the UN is too scared to reply: “They’re just frightened out of their boots.” Lurie’s theory? “We have simply some aggravated-slash-jealous cartoonists who are pissed off, and they didn’t have the guts to say, ‘This is what we think,’ so they found a friend in a reporter who misrepresented the whole thing.” He accuses Jurkowitz of “twisting the truth in very blunt ways.” On January 17 his office sent the Globe a two-page single-spaced letter of protest.

The letter was signed by T.R. Fletcher, publisher of Cartoonnews, a current-events magazine for students that Lurie puts out, who is also director of the Lurie award committee. “I have no problem with the ‘ire’ of some cartoonists,” said the letter over Fletcher’s name. “Chances are that if Mother Theresa would have been a cartoonist and had gained the professional recognition that Mr. Lurie has gained, other cartoonists would have found fault in her character, moral behavior and credentials.” And that’s their right, the letter went on. But Jurkowitz didn’t balance their ire with “dry facts” about Lurie’s eminence. “Mr. Jurkowitz also refuses to confront the fact that during Mr. Lurie’s career which, thus far, has spanned over 51 years, you will not find one quote by him that takes the liberty of being self-promoting.”

After a week had gone by and there’d been no response from the Globe, Lurie let me see Fletcher’s letter. With her permission, of course.

What most aggravates other cartoonists about the competition isn’t the self-promotion but the rules. According to UNCA, the point of the competition is “to promote the highest standard of excellence in political cartoons depicting the spirit and principles of the United Nations.” Entrants should submit two cartoons drawn in the prior 12 months “reflecting the importance of human dignity, friendship among nations and economic and environmental responsibilities towards other nations.” Here’s the rub: “Cartoons should not malign member nations or their leaders.”

With $10,000 to the winner.

“If their impetus was to help out people who are in countries where you really do get a knock in the middle of the night if you do critical cartoons, I support that,” says Danziger. “But they should just say, ‘Send in your cartoons and we’ll judge them.’ Not that we’re trying to set up a standard. How can there be a standard that you can’t portray a negative leader in a negative light? That’s what turns it into a joke.”

Toles says, “That seems like a very peculiar honor for a cartoonist to seek or for anyone to bestow.”

Danziger and his ilk aren’t the only ones troubled. The award was originally proposed a few years ago by Hans Janitschek, a UN correspondent for a Vienna tabloid who’s president of the United Nations Society of Writers and Artists. After Lurie agreed to lend his name, Janitschek passed the award on to UNCA. “I’m very good at launching ideas,” says Janitschek, whose ambition is to become president of Austria. “I’m not very good at actually carrying them out.”

What do you think of the ground rules? I ask him. He asks what they are. I tell him.

“I must tell you, I was not aware of that,” he says. “I have serious reservations. It doesn’t in any way diminish my support for the award, but this imposes a very significant limitation. That raises questions of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. I would have objected. I am not fully in the picture.”

Neither, apparently, is Noberto Svarzman, a correspondent for Mexican television and a former president of UNCA. When I ask Svarzman about the rules he replies, “I am not aware of that. I will personally accept no censorship.”

The Fletcher letter to the Globe meets these concerns head-on. “Mr. Lurie made it abundantly clear to your good journalist that he can name about 32 cartoon competitions in which every one of them has a custom made theme, and some of them, indeed, put the emphasis on ‘hard-hitting’ and aggressive cartoons,” the letter argued. “Our purpose…is the need for cartoons reflecting the spirit of the United Nations, that encourages the small person of the world to know that there is an organization that wants to look after him (or her). We want the small person of the world to learn through sharp, wise political cartoons, that the environment belongs to all of us, not just the corporations or governments. We want the small person of the world to feel that he is not small anymore” (the letter writer’s emphasis).

Lurie understands jealousy. Yes, he’s vexed at Wilkinson–“a cartoonist hardly syndicated in a few newspapers”–for the aspersions she cast on his fame. But he takes most of the grousing in stride. “If Mother Teresa would be a cartoonist and would achieve some recognition, I think that her character would be attacked, her knowledge would be attacked, her behavior would be attacked. It’s natural,” he says. “Cartoonists in general are pretty talented people–excluding, of course, myself here–and as such they’re sensitive and alert. Look, if someone would describe another cartoonist as saying he was the best in the world, I don’t know how I would feel about it. Probably it would aggravate me. Probably, I say.”

I’ve heard mention of Lurie’s injury. How’s your pinkie? I ask.

“I’m suing the surgeon and the hospital,” he replies. “I was in Seoul, Korea, in July 1997, where I received the key to the city and town hall was offering to name a plaza after me called the Lurie Cartoon Plaza. I left Seoul very la-di-da, and at the airport someone came against me and innocently rammed his suitcase into my finger.”

It was a nagging injury, and the doctor decided to operate. “He is, by the way, the doctor my friend David Cone recommended to me–I understand he treated him also. And I came out of the operation much worse than I came into it. It’s in my right hand, the hand I draw with for 51 years. And when I told him the finger was curving in and in and in, he used expressions like ‘Holy banana, mackerel, cow,’ and he said the best thing for drawing was to amputate.'”

That clears up the mystery of what the Yankee right-hander is doing on board with Norman Mailer and Elie Wiesel. I ask Lurie which other judges he personally named.

“The United Nations chose the ambassadors. I am also responsible for the king of Yugoslavia–who’s a good friend. And so on.”

News Bites

Quality is nice, but it isn’t box office. The cover of the Sun-Times’s Weekend Plus last Friday was all about the new movie Play It to the Bone. “A Winning Combination?” asked the punning headline, under photos of bare-chested Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas with their mitts on and their dukes up.

Inside, Roger Ebert dished out one and a half stars to the film, which he called “an assembly of ancient and familiar prizefight cliches.” By Ebert’s measure it was the week’s worst new movie: Topsy-Turvy and American Movie each got four stars, Titus three and a half, South three, and Angela’s Ashes two and a half. But Bone had the big names. I shouldn’t complain. Given the crowd that showed up anyway to see Topsy-Turvy Friday night, if it had got the main-event treatment it deserved there wouldn’t have been any tickets available at all.

If you fondly remember Dave Kehr from his salad days as the Reader’s film critic, or his later tour with the Tribune, you’ll be able to read him now at the Internet site CitySearch. Kehr left Chicago in 1993 for New York and the proletarian Daily News, an unlikely home for the cerebral University of Chicago product, and in late 1998 the News fired him.

“He belongs at the New York Times, the New Yorker, someplace like that,” Roger Ebert told me at the time. But that didn’t happen. Though Kehr’s been writing essays for the Times and the paper had an opening to succeed Janet Maslin, the Times filled it with two other critics. Fortunately CitySearch–which is an Internet survivor, a nationwide urban guide that’s absorbed Ticketmaster Online and Microsoft’s Sidewalk–takes its cultural criticism seriously.

The Tribune filled some space last Saturday with a “snowfall frequency” chart. Said the weather page, “75% of Chicago’s biggest snow storms (10««+) since 1960 have been in January…” What followed was a list of the 12 biggest snowstorms since 1960, with the ones in January in bold type–all 5 of them.

Consider this lead: “During 21/2 hours of dramatic, sometimes-tearful testimony, Chicago Police Officer Serena Daniels told the Police Board…that she shot and killed an unarmed woman after a car chase” (Tribune, page one, January 21). Congratulations to Dennis Byrne for his admirable Sun-Times column two days later on the odd fact that these police-board hearings, called to get to the bottom of the LaTanya Haggerty shooting, weren’t actually attended by the members of the police board.

The absence of board members from board hearings is both legal and common, Byrne reported–which only adds to the scandal. Jury duty wouldn’t be nearly so unpopular if jurors could stay home and let someone brief them on the trial so they could return a verdict.

From that same Tribune article: “A lawyer for the city, John Gibbons, suggested that the officers had ‘pursuit-fixation syndrome’ after having chased the car Haggerty was riding in for 31 city blocks.”

And from Inc. the same day: “With four police officers this week fighting to keep their jobs after the fatal shooting of LaTanya Haggerty, we thought we were hearing things when one of their lawyers explained why the cops kept up the auto chase after a supervisor had ordered them to stop. It was ‘pursuit fixation syndrome’ which made them continue.”

So whose side is Gibbons on? The city’s, the Tribune article made clear. Which is not the side of the cops the city wants to fire.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.