09/09/2010 02:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Canary in Democracy's Coal Mine


Since the founding of the republic, editorial cartoons have played a meaningful role in shaping political discourse. But they depended on a flourishing newspaper industry, and comfort with controversy. It should come as no surpise then that political cartooning is a dying art form today. And as the last of the true titans of the field die off, it will soon be little more than a fond memory.

But one with serious civic overtones.

The truly legendary political cartoonist Paul Conrad departed this mortal coil on Saturday. He was 86.

For 30 years, Paul Conrad was the poetic conscience of the Los Angeles Times. A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he was a lion in the field, hugely admired by friend and foe alike. He epitomized the fiercely independent voice that has been rapidly vanishing from American newspapers in recent years.

Conrad's searing images, always controversial and sometimes shocking, forced readers to think through an issue and take a stand. In so doing, he made us also think about ourselves -- and what it means to be a moral human being and a responsible citizen in modern times.

And he did it, more often than not, by making us split our ribs with laughter.

I had the great pleasure of co-producing a PBS documentary about Conrad a few years ago. By plunging into his archives and reviewing thousands of eye-popping cartoons, and after many days and nights hanging out with him, I got to know the man well -- as an artist and a journalist, as a WWII veteran, and as a cantankerous yet exemplary citizen.

This was a man who reveled in his relentless skewering of the powerful and pompous, quick to pounce whenever he felt they'd forgotten or abandoned their public obligations, or engaged in deceptive or hypocritical behavior. He took on eleven presidents -- from Truman to Obama -- and every major social and political issue of his time.

Conrad's evisceration of Richard Nixon earned him his most prized possession -- a slot on Nixon's enemies list. Nixon struck back by having the IRS audit his taxes -- four times.

Commenting on Watergate, and Conrad's incredible cartoons from that era, the late great cartoonist Doug Marlette wryly observed: "Constitutional crisis? Who ya' gonna call? Call Conrad. It's like Ghostbusters. You gotta call Conrad!"

The next joy in Conrad's cartoon life was his relentless pursuit and provocations of Ronald Reagan -- as governor and president -- spurring a furious Nancy R. to repeatedly call Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, begging for mercy. Mercifully, to no avail.

Conrad's concepts were ingenious, but his execution brought him acclaim on a whole other level. His cartoons were frameworthy, drawn in a very distinctive style -- intricate black & white line drawings -- with little or no text to explain. The image spoke for itself. Loudly.

Don't take my word for it -- dive into Conrad's oeuvre, and witness his sheer audacity and transcendent talent. Or you can view a small sampling here and here.

Like so many in his field, Conrad was invited to prematurely "retire" from his perch at the Los Angeles Times by new publishers with a new attitude about the priorities of the enterprise. But ever indefatigable, he continued to turn out four syndicated cartoons a week right up until the end.

His passing is a profound loss for all who knew and loved his work. But it also represents the end of an era with equally profound repercussions for the nation at large.

Long before Jon Stewart started regaling us with his delicious combination of humor, wit, intelligence, outrage, and creatively crafted imagery to make sharply pointed political statements, a posse of fearless editorial cartoonists did much the same thing in the medium of their day.

Conrad -- along with Herblock and Pat Oliphant -- ruled the roost from the 1960's forward. Their cartoons were the first thing many readers looked at when they opened their morning paper. They are what drew those people to newspapers to begin with, and helped catalyze and cultivate the habit of reading the other sections of the paper. It was good for journalism, good for business, good for the community the paper served, and good for democracy at large.

Good cartoons are works of art that also serve as powerful political commentary, reducing the point and persuasiveness of an insightful op-ed into a single image. Great cartoons, like Conrad's, are so well conceived and drawn that they're also able to generate a profound response in the public mind. In days past, they could actually influence policy debate.

When you look at many of the cartoons Conrad drew 30 or 40 years ago, you can't help but marvel at how relevant and contemporary they still seem -- how they could have just as well been drawn yesterday -- stark reminders that the social and political issues they addressed still haunt us, some more corrosively than ever. They are a time-shifted finger in the eye of governments of both parties which have failed for decades to make meaningful progress on America's biggest problems -- another indictment (as if we needed it) of the dysfunctional nature of our politics, our news media, and the state of our democracy.

He was definitely from another era. A proud liberal, screaming from the rooftops for all to hear. As he says with a sly smile in the opening line of the documentary: "Nobody ever accused me of being objective." His candor was as bracing as his scorching imagery. Both will be sorely missed. Along with big league editorial cartoons in general.

Of course, nothing lives forever. Throughout history, art forms of all kinds have their heyday and then leave the scene. But it's usually due to the public (or commissioning authorities) growing indifferent to the form, or preferring new ones instead. With editorial cartoons however, there was never any fall off in interest in the art form per se -- it was the the priorities in the medium in which they had long been published that changed, and forced top notch cartoonists into near oblivion.

A predicament that is part and parcel of two trends that have been escalating and converging over the past couple decades, and which are tearing a hole in the soul of journalism, and the fabric of democracy.

The first trend is driven by the corporate conglomerates that now own the majority of newspapers, as their sole goal is to wring as much profit as possible from their "assets." They have no passion for, or commitment to, journalistic excellence in and of itself. And they sure don't like to upset advertisers, which provocative cartoonists have a habit of doing.

As Tom Brokaw (who narrated the doc) said in the film:

Conrad's exit from the Los Angeles Times before he was ready to retire was not an isolated event. It happened in the context of the takeover of the media by large corporations and a resulting shift toward avoiding controversy.

When the current wave of corporate takeovers started back in the 1980's, the first to feel the axe was the staff cartoonist. There used to be several hundred cartoonists working at American newspapers. Now it's down to around 80 and shrinking quickly. Cost-conscious and risk-averse papers might run "safe" syndicated cartoons, but only a tiny percentage of dailies have a hard-hitting cartoonist on staff anymore. Fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Tony Auth says: "If I were starting out now, I don't know what I would be doing because I don't think I would be looking at newspapers as the future of what we do."

Doug Marlette put it even more starkly: "Cartoonists were really just the canaries in the coal mine" -- as the profit-first agenda soon expanded its sweep by cutting editorial staffs across the board.

On one level, you can understand the cost cutters. Newspaper subscriptions have been going down, year after year. And those numbers hurt advertising rates.

There's no question that the Internet, cable TV, and other media formats have become fierce rivals for eyeballs. But a key problem facing newspapers isn't that people are reading the news elsewhere, it's that they are not reading serious news at all. Sure, they might surf headlines online, and scan some popular blogs, but the dirty little secret in the death of newspapers and the decay of intelligent governance is the evolution of a citizenry that, by and large, shirks its responsibility to stay sufficiently informed on the big issues that affect all our lives -- a civic responsibility that can only be exercised by reading serious news on a daily basis.

If this civic trend could be reversed, newspaper reading would go up, and cost-cutting pressures would relax. More importantly, the general public might gain the knowledge and motivation to start repairing our broken government that we endlessly complain about while refusing to do the only thing that can fix it.

Unfortunately, we're never challenged to rise to our necessary civic roles by politicians or pundits or public figures of any stripe. And we wonder why this self-governing country is on the wrong track.

Meanwhile both trends escalate, and toxically reinforce each other.

As we read less about current events, the number of newspapers continues to shrink, the remaining staffs are gutted, edgy voices silenced, coverage cut back, and what remains is homogenized to avoid controversy that would offend advertisers, filling pages with fluff to attract "readers" who are not interested in actual news -- and a nation of once informed and engaged citizens devolves into a gaggle of apathetic citizen slackers, and angry partisan mobs.

And the spiral continues.

In this context, does it matter if there's a future for editorial cartooning?

Maybe not. But what does matter is the quality of journalism in nurturing democracy, and the quality of thought engaged in by its citizens.

So as we listen to the next round of calls for change in the upcoming midterm election -- let us also give some consideration to the changes we the people need to make in ourselves.

But first say goodnight to an amazing artist/journalist/rabble-rouser. Then heed the canary's song.

When asked when he was going to retire, Conrad always quipped that as long as politicians make fools of themselves, as long as their behavior demands that he (quoting Marlette again) "show their asses to the world" -- he would never quit.

Something tells me that Heaven's Editor-in-Chief is going to have his hands full with his new arrival.