Another One Bites the Dust

Something shocking happened last week in the small world of editorial cartooning. A cartoonist quit. John Sherffius of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suddenly resigned, though he had no place better to go. Predecessors Daniel Fitzpatrick and Bill Mauldin had won Pulitzers during the 1950s and rank among the greatest cartoonists of the last century. Five years ago, after a blue-ribbon committee made a nationwide search, Sherffius was hired to do their job.

The liberal Post-Dispatch of Fitzpatrick and Mauldin exists today mostly as legacy. For most of the 20th century conservative readers–who abound in Saint Louis–had other daily papers to turn to. Those papers are history; the Post-Dispatch survives as a sort of utility, a local monopoly that must try to have something for everyone. In the eyes of readers and staff, if not her own, editor Ellen Soeteber has been moving her editorial page toward the center and prodding Sherffius to follow along.

“I love the rumor that John was too liberal for the Post-Dispatch editorial page,” Soeteber says. “That’s like being too communist for Fidel. We’re the only metropolitan-wide paper. We do have a special responsibility to serve up a menu of ideas. But I would never presume to alter the 125-year–as of today–tradition of what I call the progressivism of the Post-Dispatch. I was deputy editorial-page editor of the Chicago Tribune for three years. You can’t be making U-turns all the time.”

But “progressivism” can mean whatever a newspaper wants it to, and a U-turn isn’t the same as a slow but steady change of course. About a year ago, coworkers say, Sherffius’s bosses started getting after him to tone down his more liberal cartoons. “Everybody improves by editing,” says Soeteber. “I would put [cartoonists] in the same category as columnists–nobody is 100 percent sacrosanct. I don’t believe in messing [with cartoons] except in the most extreme circumstances, but I think we all get better by giving and taking.”

On Monday, December 8, Sherffius had the idea of drawing elephants whooping it up. They wore party hats and lamp shades, lugged bags stuffed with swag, and waved champagne bottles and fistfuls of cash. The caption: “The party of fiscal discipline.”

Sherffius was told the cartoon was unbalanced. “We had some disagreement,” says Soeteber, “about whether the cartoon captured what was going on in Congress.” So Sherffius added a donkey. It’s hard to say what this donkey was supposed to signify about the Democrats. An elephant was riding it, but there was a cigar in its mouth.

“An editorial cartoon is sort of a creative bubble,” says Matt Davies, cartoonist at the Journal News in Westchester, New York. “It takes hours to build, and if it’s right, it’s a perfect bubble. It’s unlike a column. A column you can tweak and mess with. In the ten years I’ve been doing this I’ve seen maybe three cartoons that could have been tweaked. ‘The party of fiscal restraint.’ Everybody knows that’s supposed to be the Republicans. If you put a Democrat in there you negate it. As soon as you try to dumb the thing down for the reader you kill it.”

Sherffius’s changes didn’t ruin his cartoon–the original idea was strong enough to survive the incongruity. But he told Soeteber and the editorial-page editor how upset he was, and before the day was over he resigned. He says, “I felt that ultimately my cartoons were not a good fit for the page.”

Davies, who’s president elect of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, can’t think of another cartoonist who walked out the way Sherffius did. “It takes a lot of courage,” he says. “It takes a lot more courage to quit your job than to put out a cartoon that gets you in a lot of trouble.”

Soeteber posted a statement online praising Sherffius’s work and wishing him well. But among cartoonists, the most important thing the statement said was said in passing: “Until we complete a search for his replacement, the newspaper will run a number of syndicated cartoons.”

It’s no longer a given at American newspapers that a departed cartoonist will be replaced at all, not even at papers with the traditions of the Post-Dispatch. Cartoonists at the Buffalo News have won two Pulitzers, but when one of them, Tom Toles, moved to the Washington Post last year the News decided not to replace him. Steve Breen won a Pulitzer at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey in 1998, and when he left for the San Diego Union-Tribune three years later he wasn’t replaced. The New York Daily News lost its cartoonist two years ago, began carrying syndicated cartoons, and recently redesigned its editorial page so that there’s no need to run a cartoon at all.

And of course the Chicago Tribune’s still looking for a successor to Jeff MacNelly, a three-time Pulitzer winner. MacNelly died three and a half years ago, during the Clinton presidency.

“With the job outlook as thin as it is,” says Davies, “the idea that you would be so unhappy with overt editorial control that you would be willing to subject yourself to the unhappiness of unemployment–to me that says a lot about the value of editorial freedom. And maybe that’s why the Chicago Tribune doesn’t want to hire a cartoonist. They might understand that.”

Davies is suggesting that the most important reason the Tribune hasn’t replaced MacNelly isn’t budgetary. “A big salary for a cartoonist is a rounding error for a paper like the Tribune,” he maintains. It’s that a cartoonist worthy of the Tribune would demand more freedom than the Tribune might be willing to give. “Do they really want to deal with that?” he says.

“I want somebody who really provokes people,” Soeteber says. “A cartoonist should be provocative. He should make you laugh, make you cry, make you think. I’m more concerned about that than the politics.” That said, before she can replace Sherffius she has to define the job she needs to fill, and she volunteers that she’s not sure how she’ll do it. “One, you say it’s their viewpoint, and you label it as such. Two, some newspapers take the stance that the cartoonist should be an extension of the editorial page and their positions should match. I’m not sure where I land on that.”

Either way, an editor is asking for trouble. A cartoonist who brings many more readers to the editorial page than will ever read the editorials hijacks the page. Even if he’s not, he’s assumed to be speaking for the paper that’s given him such a conspicuous platform–why else would he have it? As for the cartoonist who’ll take his cue from the editorials–advertise the job that way and take your pick of mediocrities.

“I don’t want to say anything that will deter really talented cartoonists from applying here,” says Soeteber. “I’m pointing out the philosophy out there at some papers.”

I asked Bruce Dold, editor of the Tribune editorial page, his concept of the job his paper’s been in no hurry to fill.

He e-mailed me: “I would expect a cartoonist to live with the same kind of scrutiny as a columnist, but I don’t expect columnists to follow the Tribune editorial line. They are entirely free to disagree with the editorial views of the paper….The op-ed page, though, presents a clash of columnists. There is only one cartoon. So I would like a cartoonist to be a good fit philosophically with the Tribune, as Jeff was. By a good fit, I mean a cartoonist who disagrees on some issues with the editorial page, but who is not constantly at war with the editorial page.”

Robert Ariail of the State newspaper in South Carolina thinks he’d be a good fit with the Tribune. Six months ago he talked to Dold and got the idea Dold was very interested. But instead of an offer, silence followed. Other cartoonists before Ariail who thought they were close to a job experienced the same thing.

Ariail has the impression that it’s people above Dold who won’t let him act. “I have spoken to Bruce as recently as last week,” Ariail told me a few days ago. “I had sent him a cartoon for his eyes only kind of gibing them–just as a release for me. He called me back. I think he’s interested in me. But I say that and I don’t really know.”

Ariail wanted to hear about Sherffius. When I said why he’d quit, Ariail responded, “Well, good for him.” Ariail has a properly gloomy outlook on the trade he’s in. “A decade ago there were 200 full-time editorial cartoonists,” he said. “Now there are only 100. Make it 99.”

Partying With the Enemy?

“That’s so beyond the pale,” says Red Streak’s Susanna Homan, on learning she’s been accused of drinking RedEye’s booze. “The bartender made me a tiramisu cocktail. It wasn’t even an item on the free-drink menu.”

And what about the complimentary red Instamatic she was seen leaving Gaslight with on December 4, the night of the RedEye party?

“I do remember taking that with the intention of bringing it back to the Sun-Times and showing it to them,” replies Homan, hostess of the “Susanna’s Night Out” page in Red Streak and the Sun-Times. “But I ended up throwing it away. It sounds to me like it was very contrived when someone handed it to me. It sounds like they were paying very close attention to me there.”

No doubt they were. Homan is, as she says herself, a public figure. And RedEye asks no quarter and gives none in its struggle with Red Streak for dominance of the coveted 18-to-35, attention-deficit-disorder market. After two weeks of intense hype, RedEye threw a party at Gaslight, the new bar on Racine near Fullerton–and Homan was spotted on the premises.

Homan has a compelling explanation. “I was there for a birthday party for my friend the same night,” she says. “It was very obviously a birthday party going on. There was a group of 30 or 40 people at one part of the bar and a giant birthday cake.”

No matter. A circling RedEye photographer snapped a couple of pictures of Homan that showed up Friday, December 12, in a full-page RedEye ad celebrating the event. Said the ad, “RedEye knows how to throw a grand-opening bash. Three hours of open bar brought to you by Ketel One, Pilsner Urquell and Fosters Lager, great food and a packed house made for one ‘had to be there’ night. Just ask SUSANNA HOMAN from Red Streak. Guess they know a good party when they read about it too.”

“I think it speaks volumes that in order to validate their own party they need to turn to me,” says Homan. “I’m the only reason their party can be cool.”

Red Streak’s editor, Deborah Douglas, called RedEye coeditor Joe Knowles and Tribune communications manager Patty Wetli to protest. She got no satisfaction.

When I called on Monday, Knowles said he had nothing to do with the institutional advertising, and Wetli failed to regard the matter with the gravity Homan believes it deserves. “There’s no way a person wouldn’t have known it was a RedEye party,” Wetli said. “We even gave her some gifts.” She mentioned the open bar as well. “Certainly there won’t be a retraction,” she said. “It was in an advertisement, not editorial content.”

But to Homan, the fact that her photo was in an advertisement is the point. She called Wetli herself Monday, then called me. “It was a brutal conversation. I hate her,” she said. “She was completely in denial. She was completely rude. She completely refused to make any concessions. She was being a complete bitch. I just can’t believe in this society people can get away with this. I wanted to know who did this. I want to know this. I said to her, ‘You can’t take a picture of Richard Roeper standing next to the Tribune and say “Richard Roeper reads the Tribune.” That’s illegal. You can’t use someone’s likeness for financial gain.'”

Homan came up with a plan. She would bill the Tribune $2,500 as an “appearance fee.” Her sister, a lawyer, wrote her a cover letter. It said, “Note that I have never authorized the use of my likeness for any advertisement in RedEye or the Tribune, and that any future attempt on the part of either publication (or its advertisers) to derive economic gain from my image or cast me in a false light will be met with appropriate legal action.”

She told Wetli to expect an invoice.

How did that news go over? I asked.

“That one got her,” said Homan. “It was awesome.”

News Bites

Behold the modern newspaper in all its amplitude. The Tribune of December 14.

Perspective section: “Indeed, looking over the increasingly desperate holiday effort at renewals of faith, the ironic end of all this delirium is to prevent us from remembering God. Society is essentially the sum total of souls seeking redemption, but today, in these United States–with the holidays approaching–we preoccupy ourselves with consumption, mimickry and empty ritual.”

The Q section, from a story listing “perfect kiss-off” lines when you need to blow off the “date from hell”: “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you again. You’re nowhere near as slutty as the bathroom stall says.”

About 50 pieces of artwork by Jeff MacNelly go on permanent display next month in the Tribune Tower. “It’s a reflection of the esteem in which Jeff was held here,” John Twohey, a vice president of Tribune Media Services, told Editor & Publisher.

Other cartoonists think a living memorial would be more appropriate. The president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Mike Ritter of the suburban Phoenix Tribune, told me, “Putting up a cartoon show as a permanent exhibit but not hiring a new cartoonist comes off as a tombstone more than anything else.”