Long-Distance Relationship

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s the picture, drawn by Doug Marlette and published March 14 on the Tribune editorial page, in which dogs snarl as three grinning Chicago firemen blast their hose at the backs of three helpless black people. A fourth fireman points in the opposite direction and shouts, “No, guys–the fire’s over there!”

A lot of readers found plenty wrong with this picture. Five days later Don Wycliff, the Tribune’s public editor, wrote a column addressing the uproar: “Doug Marlette isn’t black, but with his Sunday cartoon he effectively called some members of the fire department ‘racists.’…Some of our letter-writers have asked my personal opinion of the Marlette cartoon. I agree with him that the image of demonstrators in Birmingham being attacked with fire hoses and police dogs is ‘iconic,’ and I think such icons ought not be invoked often or lightly. I think the malevolent firemen with their hoses would have been sufficient to convey Chicago’s unique and serious problem. The dogs I thought were gratuitous. But hey, if I knew what makes for a good editorial cartoon I’d be drawing them instead of opining about them.”

Marlette did what good editorial cartoonists are paid to do: he pushed a raging story to its extreme and drew the extreme, letting the chips fall where they might. Since the basis of the raging story is a series of racist comments overheard on fire department radios, not fires in black neighborhoods that white firemen wouldn’t fight, it can be argued that in pursuing the extreme Marlette wandered dangerously far from reality. No matter. What’s indisputably wrong with his picture is something Wycliff didn’t address.

Marlette lives in North Carolina. He grew up in the south, and he finds his iconic images in the civil rights movement of the south. I suppose he understands Chicago in the same general way that a Chicagoan caught up in March Madness understands Duke University.

Why should a cartoonist who lives hundreds of miles away and doesn’t work for the Tribune be the one who makes the Tribune’s editorial statement on such a sensitive local issue? He shouldn’t.

But the fire department controversy begged for a cartoon, and the Tribune still doesn’t have its own editorial cartoonist. It hasn’t since Jeff MacNelly died in June 2000. Over the years editorial page editor Bruce Dold has interviewed plenty of cartoonists who wanted a chance to fill MacNelly’s huge shoes, and rumor’s had this name and that about to be hired. But no one ever got the job.

“We live in a time when cartoons are like daily cave paintings,” says Marlette. “You don’t have to have them.”

The cartoonists I’ve talked to over the years who were tantalized by the Tribune and then blown off believe that Dold, as well as editor Ann Marie Lipinski, wants to hire someone. They sense the invisible hand of bean counters who don’t think paying a cartoonist a salary is a prudent use of resources.

When former governor Ryan was indicted at the turn of the year Dold asked Scott Stantis of the Birmingham News in Alabama to draw the cartoon the moment demanded. I assumed Dold had commissioned Marlette too, but I was wrong.

Marlette, a Pulitzer winner, interviewed at the Tribune after MacNelly died. “I told them that whatever they did, I hoped they’d do honor to the great tradition of Chicago cartooning,” Marlette says. “It is a shame that one of the great pilot lights went out.”

What the Tribune did was nothing. Marlette says he stayed in touch with Dold and Lipinski even though they didn’t offer him a job, and when he was back in Chicago recently for the dedication of a MacNelly room in Tribune Tower he had dinner with Dold. “I don’t lobby,” Marlette says, “but I believe that the Chicago Tribune deserves good cartoons.” He and Dold came to an agreement: he’d start sending the Tribune Chicago-themed cartoons, and if Dold liked them he’d publish them.

Marlette’s racism-in-the-fire-department cartoon was the first one he submitted under that agreement. He’d seen the story reported on Good Morning America, done some research online, and set to work. “They didn’t squawk and say, ‘Oh, my gosh,'” he says. “They didn’t act like little old ladies. They acted like the Chicago Tribune, like they could tell a good cartoon when they saw one.”

Marlette says he has to work out some details with Dold, but he expects to be drawing at least one cartoon a week for the Tribune, hopefully more. (His second, a forgettable comment on violence against teachers in Chicago’s public schools, ran March 23.) “Doug’s account sounds accurate,” Dold wrote back when I e-mailed him some questions. “This is a work in progress. That’s about all I can say for now.”

Unless the Tribune decides to hire him, Marlette will be drawing for it on the side. Since July 2002 he’s been the staff cartoonist of the Tallahassee Democrat, in Florida’s state capital. He’s setting up a life where he can lampoon Jeb Bush one day and Richard M. Daley the next, without living in the same state as either, let alone the same city. Naturally, he thinks he can do it.

Alternative Universe

The Tribune presented journalists with doleful news on March 15 in a story headlined “Appetite for news on wane, study concludes / Traditional outlets losing audience.” The study–“The State of the News Media 2004”–had just been finished by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. It found, to quote the Tribune, that “the audience for most news media outlets is shrinking or stagnant, and investment in news-gathering among most traditional outlets is down….The study found that English-language newspaper circulation has declined 11 percent since 1990, while network evening newscast ratings are down 34 percent over the last decade….The median cable news audience has not grown since 2001.”

On the plus side, “corporate profits have increased or held steady while investments in news-gathering have declined.” The study provided greater solace to someone who regards the media as an investment than to someone who values an informed public and counts on the media to do the informing.

But the picture wasn’t completely bleak. “Bright spots” mentioned in passing by the Tribune included network morning newscasts, whose audience has increased over the past decade, “online news sites…and Spanish-language newspapers, which have more than tripled their circulation, to 1.7 million, since 1990.”

A bright spot the Tribune chose not to notice at all is the so-called alternative press, papers such as the Reader. Unfortunately the study celebrated these papers strictly as moneymakers. “In terms of growth,” said the study, “the only sector that may match the explosive numbers of the ethnic media is the alternative press. In the booming economy of the 1990s, the number of alternative weeklies grew rapidly, drawing national advertising…. Circulation and revenues skyrocketed.”

One problem with analyzing the alternative press as a media sector is that under a microscope the sector tends to fall apart. “To be clear, the alternative press as defined here has little to do with what many might describe as ‘alternative,'” said the study. “The term is mostly a catchall phrase used by the mainstream media, but these publications are not what some call the ‘dissident’ press in America….There are dissenting views in these papers, but they are not necessarily grounded in politics. Many are not particularly interested in politics at all. In fact, scanning the realm of what are usually called alternative weeklies across the country, it sometimes seems there are few things that hold them together as a genre beyond their tabloid format…and their advertising-driven revenue model (they are usually given away free).

“Perhaps the biggest myth about the alternative press is that it is read by and focused on young, pierced and tattooed 20-somethings. In fact in many of the nation’s larger cities, alternative weeklies have an audience primarily in their 30s and even their 40s.”

The study went on to observe that the alternative press has created an “increasingly corporatized world” for itself, in which two chains, New Times and Village Voice Media–neither associated with the Reader–between them control 17 papers and the principal weekly in half of the country’s ten largest cities. In short, the study paints a picture of the alternative press as an institutional press, thinly lacquered to look nonconformist.

“The State of the News Media 2004” barely nodded at the content of alternative papers and made no attempt to evaluate the state of these papers by the state of their commitment to serious journalism. That two chains control 17 papers becomes less ominous when one considers–as the study did not–that the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies has more than 120 members, many of them in hot local competition. The Project for Excellence in Journalism study had good news about the alternative press but a tenuous grip on its subject.