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US cartoonists under pressure to follow the patriotic line

Andrew Buncombe,In Washington
Sunday 23 June 2002 00:00 BST

They are largely black and white (and read all over) but George Bush wants to colour them red, white and blue.

Nine months after the attacks of 11 September, leading American political cartoonists say they are under intense pressure to conform to a patriotic stereotype and not criticise the actions of Mr Bush and his "war on terror". Those who refuse to bend to such pressure face having their work rejected, being fired or even publicly humiliated by the President's press secretary.

Last month the veteran TV anchor Dan Rather sparked controversy when he said the patriotism engulfing the country had stopped the media asking difficult questions of America's leaders, and admitted he personally was guilty of such self-censorship. Now cartoonists, often the most biting political commentators of all, say they are feeling the same pressures.

Excessive patriotic zeal exerted by editors and publishers means that many "progressive" cartoonists are having their work dropped. Some, especially those who work for smaller newspapers or who are freelance, are engaging in self-censorship to ensure their work gets used.

"There is immense pressure [from] readers and advertisers to toe the patriotic line as they define it," said Steve Benson, widely considered one of America's leading political cartoonists, who draws for The Arizona Republic and who syndicates his work. "I have had editors who have pulled my syndicated cartoons because readers have marched to their offices and demanded retractions. I have had death threats, efforts to silence me, people who have compared me to traitors."

As in Britain, America has a long tradition of editorial page cartoonists who use their skills to analyse, question and often ridicule their political leaders in a manner usually far more scathing than that of most writers. Some have huge followings, and the leading cartoonists publish collections of their free-thinking work.

But in the aftermath of 11 September, such free thinking is under threat. Many cartoonists say that for the first few days after the attacks, their natural reaction was to produce work that expressed little more than shock, outrage and anger. But it soon became apparent that the emerging patriotism was developing a political agenda, with anyone who merely questioned the government or its agenda being deemed unpatriotic.

The issue of such pressure is being highlighted this weekend by an exhibition of political cartoons from more than 30 cartoonists, including six Pulitzer Prize winners, whose work questions the administration's behaviour in one way or the other. One of the organisers, Mike Konopacki, whose work is syndicated to a number of newspapers and magazines, said political cartoons had become "dumber" since 11 September. "The emphasis is on humour rather than analysis."

Clay Bennett, a Pulitzer winner, said cartoonists had a duty of responsibility. He felt extremely strongly about the way the government's terror crackdown had reduced people's civil liberties. "A police state is just around the corner," he said. "If it's freedom the terrorists hate, than why are we doing away with freedom?"

On one occasion, Ari Fleischer, the President's spokesman, criticised a comedian who had suggested it was US pilots rather than the hijackers who were cowards, for dropping bombs from the safety of 15,000ft. Mr Fleischer said: "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say."

Mr Fleischer also publicly criticised Mike Marland, who had drawn a cartoon for the Concord Patriot newspaper illustrating what he considered Mr Bush's attack on the social security system by showing the president flying a plane marked "Bush budget" into the twin towers marked "Social" and "Security".

Though the paper ran the cartoon, following a deluge of negative phone calls the editor-in-chief wrote a follow-up column saying the paper had been wrong to do so.

Mr Marland, who initially apologised and even destroyed the original, said: "I am still bewildered by the reaction. As I said, call me stupid, call me naive, but I don't see it as [the] abomination that so many others do. I also experienced a lot of anger over the reaction to it, mostly along the lines of 'Who the hell are you to tell me what I can and can't draw?'."

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