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Death of cartoonists in Paris draws out passionate defense of free expression

January 8, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
Pens -- weapon of choice of the murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo -- were raised in their honor at vigils around the world. Jeffrey Brown talks to two editorial cartoonists, Tom Toles of the Washington Post and Ted Rall of the Los Angeles Times, about the role of satirical cartoonists in society and their declining number in the U.S.
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GWEN IFILL: We close tonight with other fundamental questions being asked in the wake of the Paris attacks about the cartoons themselves. What could or even should be drawn when it comes to freedom of expression?

Jeffrey Brown takes it from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: One response to the mass killing in Paris yesterday, at vigils around the world, pens were held high to show solidarity with the slain cartoonists and journalists who used them in their political satire.

JON STEWART, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”: Our hearts are with the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of this country’s leading satirists, Jon Stewart, was visibly upset on his “Daily Show” program last night.

JON STEWART: I know very few people go into comedy as an act of courage, mainly because it shouldn’t have to be that. It shouldn’t be an act of courage. It should be taken as established law. But those guys at Hebdo had it. And they were killed for their cartoons.

JEFFREY BROWN: The cartoons in the magazines are highly controversial and provocative. Many news organizations, including the “PBS NewsHour,” have decided not to show these images.

They come out of a long history of cartoon satire, especially vibrant in Europe, including the likes of French artist Honore Daumier in the 19th century. Ten years ago, a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Mohammed that sparked a wave of protests across the Muslim world, in which at least 50 people died.

Today, social media brimmed with debate on the value of such satire, and condemnation of the killings, with one way of honoring the slain cartoonists, through the creation and publication of new cartoons.

One voice raised today was that of Ted Rall, who wrote an essay in The Los Angeles Times, where he’s an editorial cartoonist. He joins us from New York. And here with me is another prominent political cartoonist, Tom Toles of The Washington Post.

Ted Rall, I want to start with you.

You had a personal connection to the people at the magazine. How did they see their work? What they were doing?

TED RALL, The Los Angeles Times: Well, they were very hard-hitting, aggressive group of cartoonists. I had the pleasure of meeting them at an annual cartoon convention in Angouleme, France. It’s the biggest confab of cartoonists and their fans that takes place every year.

And they sought me out. We went out for drinks and dinner. And it was very clear that they were a very collegial, very happy bunch of cartoonists. These were guys who weren’t just trying to push the envelope. They were encouraged by their editor to be as aggressive as possible.

It’s a big difference between the way things are done in the United States, where often editors are trying to rein in the cartoonists. There, they were encouraged to stretch and be as aggressive as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom Toles, I want to put up a cartoon that you did in response and was published in today’s paper.

Tell us about, as we look at that, what is the value of this kind of work, as you see it?

TOM TOLES, The Washington Post: Well, the attack was shocking and outrageous. It was a direct, bloody, murderous attack on free speech, cartoonists in particular, but free speech in general.

And you want to push back on that, say something that reinforces the value of the idea of freedom of expression. And the imagery I chose was a rifle, an automatic weapon, and a pen, to put the two side by side to give people a chance to think about it in the context of the historic idea that the pen is mightier than the sword.

But in the short term, the pen isn’t always mightier. I mean, cartoonists were murdered and their work was assaulted, and on that day, it was a real challenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ted Rall, if people say, OK, maybe you have the right to do this, you have the right to insult or provoke, but why do it, why deliberately do it, especially if it goes to some core beliefs of people?

TED RALL: Well, it’s not the job of a cartoonist to be concerned about offending people or not offending people.

Speaking for myself and I think for many of my peers, the intention is not to make people angry or to make them rebel or make them furious about an attack on their religious faith or their political beliefs, but it’s an idea — the idea is to tell things as they are and call the shots as you see them.

Honesty is what’s important. And I think the job of editors is to rein in a cartoonist when he or she thinks they may have gone too far. But the cartoonist needs to not self-censor, not hold his or her punches. It’s important to express ourselves freely. Otherwise, our freedom of expression doesn’t mean anything if we’re not exploring the limits of it from time to time.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you — Tom Toles, do you — where do you draw lines? Or do you draw personal lines in this country to do satire of religious figures or of ethnic groups?

TOM TOLES: I think about these subjects very seriously. I do have personal lines that I think, for reasons of larger concerns, that I don’t go past.

But I just want to emphasize that, on a day like today, that’s a discussion for another time, because what is at stake now is not what I decide to do. It’s the right of any cartoonist to exercise the full extent of freedom of expression.

Whether I decide to draw the line where he does, today, it doesn’t matter. Today, we defend the idea of freedom of expression. That’s what was attacked, and that’s the key issue today. Yes, there are all kinds of discussions you can have about what’s the smartest thing. I agree with — certainly agree with Ted. The goal is honesty. That’s the core thing.

But the context that we’re working in has to have a perimeter of freedom of expression that is a very broad perimeter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ted Rall, I want to show a cartoon that you did in response. And it goes to a point you were making a little earlier, that this kind of political expression is largely lost, or much less, in this country.

TED RALL: Yes.

When I started doing this in the early 1990s professionally, there were hundreds of full-time staff editorial cartoonists throughout the United States. These days, there’s barely 30, if even that many.

Today, the staff editorial cartoonist in Fort Lauderdale, Chan Lowe, was laid off today. Nice timing, guys. And it’s — this has been a bloodbath, really, in our profession. There’s not a single magazine in the United States that employs a single cartoonist full time on staff.

There’s only one Web site in the United States that employs a single political cartoonist on staff. The profession has pretty much almost ceased to exist in the United States. You know, more people were killed in Paris, more cartoonists were killed in Paris yesterday than work in the states of California, New York, and Texas combined.

So, no doubt the threat of violence, as we saw in Paris yesterday, is very real and horrifying, but there’s also an existential threat to the profession just from budget cuts and the transformation of media in the digital age.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ted Rall and Tom Toles, thank you both very much.

TOM TOLES: Thank you.

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