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May 4, 2013
Stuart Leavenworth: Again, cartoonist sparks national conversation


(May 4) Oh, did I mention that cartoons have power?

We were reminded of this, once again, with the national and international response to Jack Ohman's April 25 cartoon on Gov. Rick Perry's attempts to lure businesses to Texas with promise of minimal regulation. Ohman juxtaposed this with an image of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. A good number of folks - hundreds and hundreds, actually - thought it was distasteful, or worse.

The cartoon ran on a Thursday, and that day it triggered some, but not much, local response. But it really took off on Friday, when conservative blogs picked it up and their readers shared it on Twitter and Facebook. By noon, critics - mainly from Texas - were inundating The Bee with calls, letters, emails and tweets.

People have asked me what it was like to be at the center of a viral tsunami. My response: I have no problem with criticism. We hand it out every day and should expect to get it back, sometimes in waves.

What I had a problem with was the willful misinterpretation of the cartoon.

Ohman was not "making fun of the Texas disaster," the phrase Andrew Johnson used in a National Review blog post. He wasn't "gloating over dead bodies," as Twitchy claimed. At a time when Pro-Publica, the New York Times and Texas newspapers were examining Texas' workplace safety record, Ohman was raising a question about whether this tragedy could have been prevented if Perry had embraced different policies.

I attempted to make this point to numerous callers and people sending us emails, but by that point, the narrative had been set. Several people started their conversation with me along these lines, "I support the First Amendment, but ..."

Then they would call for Ohman to be fired.

Fortunately, by Friday afternoon, our efforts to push back against the misinterpretation received help from an unlikely source - Rick Perry himself. The governor sent us a letter demanding an apology and stating, "I won't stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans."

At that point, it became clear that, in addition to general public reaction, there was an organized effort by Perry and his backers to distract the public from focusing on Texas' regulations, or lack thereof.

So we published his letter, along with a response by me that called the governor out on what he was doing. As of Friday, it had received more than 1,400 comments online.

Why did this one cartoon generate such a buzz? We will probably never fully know. Other cartoonists, notably Jeff Danziger of the New York Times Syndicate and Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake City Tribune, drew cartoons with similar themes and images even before Ohman's cartoon was published. Why didn't their cartoons trigger a similar reaction?

Timing and geopolitics are surely part of the answer. Ohman's cartoon appeared the same day a memorial was being held in Texas for the victims. Ohman, in addition, works at a newspaper in the capital of California, a state where Perry has aggressively attempted to recruit businesses. That interstate rivalry undoubtedly elevated the profile of Ohman's cartoon - and the message he was sending.

Every form of opinion is open to misinterpretation, but cartoons can be particularly vulnerable. In a 1,000-word column, I can be careful making clear what I do mean, and what I don't mean. Yet no matter how careful a cartoonist might be, his or her work can be like a Rorschach blot to some observers, open to multiple interpretations.

This potential increases exponentially after a fatal tragedy. Following the 9/11 attacks, The Bee published a series of powerful cartoons by our late cartoonist Rex Babin. The first was sympathetic, depicting the photographs that people were posting along New York streets to find missing loved ones. The second showed Lady Liberty weeping, head in hands.

The third went in a different direction. It depicted a set of children running horrified through the streets of New York, mirroring the famous Nick Ut photograph from the Vietnam War that captured the aftermath of an U.S. napalm attack. Babin was trying to remind Americans that, during a period of national outrage against foreign terrorists, the United States should remember its own history of violent interventions abroad. The message, as you might suspect, was not well received. Pre-Twitter and Facebook, Babin nonethless experienced an avalanche of angry emails and phone calls.

In his new book, "The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and their Enduring Power," Victor S. Navasky examines some of the most tumultuous cartoons through history. In particular, he notes the outrage triggered by Great Britian's Philip Zec with his 1942 cartoon of a shipwrecked sailor clinging to the wreckage of a ship, which apparently had been torpedoed by a German submarine. Zec, who worked for the Daily Mirror of London, had intended the image to remind his countrymen not to waste fuel at a time when seamen were risking their lives delivering it. His original caption was labeled, "Petrol is dearer now," but an editor persuaded him to change it to, "The price of petrol has been increased by one penny. Official."

Zec's cartoon immediately was castigated by Winston Churchill, who interpreted it as accusing the government of colluding with war profiteers.

Churchill had the government investigate Zec, and Parliament even deliberated on whether or not to shut down the Mirror. Years later, after Zec had continued to prove his patriotism with powerful cartoons about Nazi atrocities and the heroism of Allied forces, the government officials apologized to him.

Here within The Bee, some have asked me if Ohman could have drawn his cartoon in a way to avoid the negative reaction. Certainly. He could have sketched it in a way that would have softened his essential point and drawn less attention.

As a result, the message he was sending would have ... drawn less attention.

I'm proud that we published Ohman's cartoon, and equally pleased to see editorials, cartoons and a recent outpouring of personal notes and emails in support of the stand we took. That said, it is also important to recognize the unforeseen impact cartoons can have, because, as Navasky puts it, "they speak in image language other than words."

And we learned three things about Perry during this episode:

1) He knows how to rile up his base.

2) He is clever at deflecting attention.

3) Hmmm ... I can't seem to remember the third one.

Follow Stuart Leavenworth on Twitter @SacBeeEditBoard.

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