Succor, sting: The role of 'them pictures' in engaging opinion

 
 
Updated 11/4/2021 4:09 PM

The political cartoon is a newspaper feature with a rich history and a shaky future.

In the 1870s, Thomas Nast built a career around caricatures of William M. Tweed, the famously corrupt "Boss" of New York City politics. Nast's work helped coalesce public opinion against "Boss" Tweed and his Tammany Hall operation so much that Tweed reportedly once bellowed, "Stop them pictures." He groused that it didn't matter what a newspaper wrote about him because "my constituents can't read," but a political cartoon could bring him grief because "damn it, they can see the pictures."

 

Over the next century and a half, increasingly literate Americans became nearly as capable of reading about politicians as of seeing their images, yet political cartoons remained a popular staple of newspaper Opinion pages for their unique ability to present an opinion and stir emotions in the flash of a moment. It would not be a great stretch to suggest that the work of native Chicagoan Herbert Block, who drew cartoons as Herblock, helped turn American public opinion in favor of entering World War II or against the presidency of Richard Nixon. Similarly, the legendary Pat Oliphant surely played a role in the demise of President Jimmy Carter.

"Them pictures," in other words, have the power to engage. For that reason, the Daily Herald continues to offer daily cartoons in hopes of delighting readers who agree with a particular image, stirring those who disagree to consider a contrary look at the issue and engaging readers more deeply in the debate, whatever their stance.

In this regard, we are to a degree bucking trends in the industry. Many newspapers have decreased their frequency or even, as in the case of The New York Times, eliminated them altogether. Their concerns are easy to understand. While a visual image can make a strikingly powerful statement, it is not as capable of portraying nuance. So, a cartoon's entertainment value can overshadow and distort its potential to engage.

For that reason, we make a concerted effort to provide as wide a range of views in the political cartoons we choose for our Opinion page as we do in the written commentaries we publish. Our intent is not that cartoons reflect the Opinion of the Daily Herald, but that they present a variety of ideas that will make readers think more deeply about issues. To this end, a few years ago, we added a cartoon syndicate with a large field of artists to ensure a diversity of points of view. We've been pleased to supplement that recently with cartoons of more local interest drawn by artist Dan Ackley.

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The goal of providing multiple points of view on a wide range of issues comes with inherent challenges. Sometimes, it feels like all of our cartoonists want to draw about the same topic, often with only slight discrepancies of message, and frequently, both from the right and the left, artists are only too happy to rely on offensive portrayals or cliché to make their point.

Fortunately, in general we have a strong enough field of options to overcome such challenges, so as long as we're confident we can continue that, we expect cartoons to have a role in the mix of opinions we share.

"Them pictures" might not wield the influence they once did, but they can still offer some entertaining sting or succor. We hope that readers who follow our Opinion page over time will find some of both.

jslusher@dailyherald.com

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