Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > Commentary and Features

Do Cartoonists Have Too Much Power?
posted October 22, 2007

This piece by a writer named Iain McWhirter in the Sunday Herald asks one of those questions which if you're like me might make you spend the time you're reading it thinking it's totally ridiculous and also wondering if it might not be absolute truth. Looking at the party resignation of Liberal Democrat Menzies Campbell, McWhirter suggests that despite the obvious free speech imperative that must allow them to do so, cartoonists have way too much power when it comes to setting the terms of broad political debate. This is because they can craft the kind of basic public image that defines a politician from the beginning of their career all the way through to its end. McWhirter further suggests that this phenomenon makes it hard for any politician with an obvious eccentricity to have the same chances at a fruitful career.

While I'm not sure the premise holds (the history of various cartoon versions of Tony Blair, for instance, showed a lot of image development that mirrored public opinion more than a take that was certain from the start) and I'm not sure that it's specific to cartooning (US politicians gain positive qualities in defeat they simply aren't allowed to have while running for high office, a parsimony that cuts across media) I have a lot of sympathy for the position. My gut says this is because how political culture has changed around the cartoonists rather than something new that cartoonists do. There's a court jester element to political cartooning that used to serve as a counter-measure to more serious inquiry and discourse and measure-taking, a kind of reminder that at heart this politician was this kind of clown, and so on. I'm not sure you can say there's anything out there in significant fashion that's halfway serious or measured in the way that makes cartooning's summary statements a counter-idea as opposed to a main idea, the same way that you have to look at something like The Daily Show differently when it's clear that's not where people are getting a different take on the news but where a significant number gets their news.