feature (2007-13)

DRILLED IT: Paul Conrad’s read on Republicans talking about reaching across the aisles while pushing for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment was tossed out by the Los Angeles Times in 1999. Copyright 1999 by Paul Conrad reprinted with permission of Paul Conrad.

Reflecting on government in 1840s England, Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle noted that lawmakers might not be the most essential representatives of the people. That distinction might instead fall to "a Fourth Estate" walking the halls of power: the free press.

"Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable," Carlyle wrote. "Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority."

While Carlyle's assessment might seem generous today, the idea that a free press is essential for democracy was cemented into our Constitution through the Bill of Rights and has become a cornerstone for contemporary discussion of the role of media in our lives. That is, when the press itself will allow it to be.

Despite its high calling, our free press can also be a gutless one--and not just when it comes to words, argues David Wallis, founder of the FeatureWell.com news syndicate and author of the new book Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression .

The book contains nearly 100 editorial cartoons and other works of art that American newspaper editors refused to publish.

Images of Jesus carrying an electric chair up Calgary hill, a suicidal Christmas elf, Hitler serving as a Nixon adviser during the bombing of Vietnam, a corpulent Statue of Liberty, Bush saying his famous "Bring 'em on" taunt in front of flag-draped coffins, and Pope John Paul II ascending into heaven inside his iconic Popemobile are among the ideas once deemed too hot or too uncomfortable to print.

Cartoons are killed for various reasons, most of them wrong, Wallis contends.

Newspapers are certainly charged with keeping their artists and reporters from breaking libel laws, flouting journalistic ethics, and gratuitously offending people, but, he writes, too often compelling work is scrapped because editors and publishers fear offending sensibilities about sex or religion or race, or because it addresses scary topics like abortion or terrorism, or in some cases simply because the target of a joke is friendly with news organization higher-ups.

"Cartoonists are arguably the most incendiary journalists. They're the ones who hit us in a primitive place," Wallis explains by phone from his office in New York. "Part of their job brief is to offend, and that makes editors increasingly uncomfortable."

At a time when newsroom staffs are being cut all around the country, fewer newspapers are independently or locally owned, and circulation is stagnant if not falling, one of the more powerful signs of a Dark Age in journalism is a collective fear to offend.

Media self-censorship undercuts its ability to express important ideas--see "Spy vs. Spy" artist Peter Kuper's take on the Abu Ghraib scandal--and it can also suck the fun out of reading the newspaper.

At the Hartford Courant , veteran staff cartoonist Bob Englehart has had plenty of controversial works published, but editors felt queasy about one cartoon that suggested Michael Jackson should lead the scandal-tainted Catholic Church.

"Cartoons are almost always killed on taste issues. Every cartoon I've ever had killed was for that reason," he says.

Englehart believes that in trying to capture the widest possible audience, newspapers also force themselves to be oversensitive when gauging reader response. Too often, trying not to offend means that the most effective cartoons have to go. But when showing his work to audiences around the country, Englehart gets some of his biggest laughs from the cartoons that never saw print.

So, just as it hampers political expression, internal newsroom censorship often hurts artists whose only mission is to provide a laugh.

One of them is John Callahan, a syndicated artist and quadriplegic who also created the Nickelodeon show Pelswick . The 56-year-old is the subject of a new documentary, Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel , titled after a song he wrote and sang on his 2006 CD, Purple Winos in the Rain .

Callahan is known for being politically incorrect, targeting everyone from feminists to Alzheimer's patients. But it was when he poked fun at Martin Luther King Jr., who he described last week as "one of my heroes," that he got banned from a major American newspaper. After accidentally printing the cartoon, the Miami Herald destroyed and reprinted an entire day's issue before dropping Callahan, who stands by his work but has apologized for any hurt feelings.

He's had other cartoons killed--one with a large female bookstore clerk screaming: "This is a feminist bookstore. There is no humor section!" But he is more worried now than ever when addressing hot political topics. Callahan recalls that, while recently working on a cartoon that addressed government-sanctioned torture, "For the first time in 20 years I hesitated to draw something."

Even so-called "alternative" newspapers have been known to kill cartoons, writes Wallis in his book, which contains one axed in 1991 by Minneapolis's City Pages . The image referenced a news report stating that local police officers had returned a bleeding and naked gay minority teen to the home of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer--while joking that the incident was a "boyfriend-boyfriend thing" and that they would have to get themselves "deloused." The drawing featured a police car with writing on its doors that read "To Protect Heterosexuals" and "To Serve White People."

The artist, Pete Wagner, believes that, while most daily papers operate with different politics than that of alternative weeklies, neither show much conviction in what they're willing to publish. Both, in his experience, are ready to pull their punches when it means risking the bottom line.

Wallis sees yet another built-in hurdle to cartoonists getting some of their more controversial work published. "Editors are often taught in journalism school to worship at the altar of objectivity. Cartoonists who are objective suck," he says. "Fairness makes for lousy cartoons."

Reprinted with permission of the Los Angeles City Beat .