While the New Yorker Obama cover has been dominating the news cycle for the past 24 hours, disputes and controversies regarding editorial cartoons are hardly new. Here are a couple of books that offer some historical perspective:
In her forthcoming book, All the News That’s Fit to Print (And Some That Wasn’t): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page, Jerelle Kraus offers a first-hand account of the many debates among the editorial board at the paper about whether or not to publish a potentially offensive cartoon.
In Drawn to Extremes: The Use and Abuse of Editorial Cartoons, Chris Lamb explores the long and frequently tumultuous history of editorial cartoons in the United States. Lamb argues that editorial cartoonists have used irony and ire to reveal the naked truths about presidents, business leaders, and other public figures. Since the founding of the republic, cartoonists have both made an important contribution to and offered a critical commentary on our society.
In describing the work of editorial cartoonists, Lamb writes, “Editorial cartoonists must point out what is wrong, often by making it look ridiculous. They must challenge the government or whatever need changing, whether the reader agrees or even cares. This sometimes requires producing an image so startling that it reaches up from the newspaper and grabs the reader by the collar and shakes them out of their slumber.”
Of course whether the New Yorker went too far will surely be discussed in the coming days and Lamb writes that some cartoonists see controversy as a sign that their work might have missed the mark:
“Some editorial cartoonists believe that any cartoon that upsets its readers is automatically a good cartoon. But this is not necessarily true. ‘If outrage inspired by a cartoon is based on its misinterpretation, then the cartoonist did not do his or her job,’ [cartoonist] Bennett said. ‘Is controversy a sign of a good cartoon? Not always. Sometimes it’s a just a sign of poor communication.'”