2020 was an interesting year with Trump’s last stand and its resulting shenanigans, the Supreme Court nominee kerfuffle, Black Lives Matter protests, and I’m missing something, oh yes, COVID. It seemed the world was descending into chaos, which is bad for people but pretty rich ground for editorial cartoonists.
I have done the Sunday local cartoon for the Beaumont Enterprise for more than 25 years and I was never at a loss for a topic in 2020, whether it be COVID lockdowns, re-openings or surges, and that was without local politics or controversy over racially insensitive mascots. Editorial cartoons have always served an important purpose — to synthesize a complex idea in a single panel, preferably with as few words as possible. Cartoons have been used to satirize institutions and, as the say goes, speak truth to power since newspapers began. They are an important part of the democratic process.
Apparently, the Pulitzer Prize committee doesn’t agree. When the awards were announced Friday, they named three finalists in the political cartoon category but declined to award the prize to anyone. In the cartooning community, this was seen as a slap in the face at a time when newspapers are laying off cartoonists as a cost-cutting measure.
The Pulitzer Prize board ignored the juror’s choices last year in order to select its own winner. The American Association of Editorial Cartoonists issued a statement pointing out, “It is notable that the three Finalists chosen for 2021 were of Jewish, Latinx, and Native American backgrounds, yet this is the first time in 48 years that the board has chosen not to issue an award. No woman has won in 20 years, and there has been only one female Finalist during those two decades.”
Choosing not to award the prize this year smacks of institutional prejudice from an organization that is supposed to represent the best of journalism. At best, it shows a tone-deaf institution unable to keep up with the times and one that shows disrespect for artists who represent an important branch of the journalistic tree.
Over the past couple of years, Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Benson was let go from the Arizona Republic after nearly four decades. Rob Rogers, a former Pulitzer finalist, was fired by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Charlie Daniels was dismissed after 60 years by the Knoxville News Sentinel. The Houston Chronicle eliminated Nick Anderson’s job, leaving Texas with no full-time editorial cartoonist.
The Herblock Foundation reports there were around 2,000 newspaper editorial cartoonists in the U.S. at the start of the 20th century. Today there are fewer than 40. Some of the laid-off cartoonists continue through syndication or through their own websites, but these are precarious times.
I am grateful that the Beaumont Enterprise still values the contribution of the editorial cartoon. I don’t expect to be nominated for a Pulitzer, but I do believe my modest contribution to the field has value, and I am always appreciative of readers’ engagement (not always positive, but that’s fine, too).
Those of us who use our art to provoke and question, or just to amuse, feel let down by the Pulitzer board. Check out the portfolios of the three finalists posted on the prize’s website. They are clever, innovative, pointed and often funny. If the supposed keeper of the journalistic flame doesn’t value the cartoonist’s work, who will? More importantly, one must question what (or who) exactly they objected to? Someone needs to draw attention to that.
Andy Coughlan is a journalism educator and adviser at Lamar University and a visual artist and playwright. He has drawn the local Sunday cartoon for The Beaumont Enterprise for more than 25 years. His writings can be found on his blog at andycoughlanart.wordpress.com.
This column was first published on page D1 of the June 20, 2021 edition of the Beaumont Enterprise.