When a lunatic killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University earlier this week I knew what to expect from political cartoonists, who don’t react well to tragedy. Some of the cartoons seemed insensitive, as today’s generation of jokesters struggled to respond to a story with no lighter side.
I have some sympathy for the editorial cartoonists who have a daily deadline and must respond to the headline of the day. The first cartoons were predictable: Uncle Sam or the Virginia Tech mascot, with bowed heads and flags or the school pennant at half-mast. There were lots of riffs on the school logo (the letters “VT”), including one depicting the school logo in dead bodies. Some cartoonists launched immediately into gun control cartoons – “how terrible it is that guns are so widely available” and “what a shame it is that none of the victims were toting firearms to protect themselves.”
I run a syndicate that distributes editorial cartoons to newspapers, and our editors were not happy. The day after the tragedy one editor from Georgia wrote: “As a Cagle subscriber, I have to tell you the cartoons sent today about the Virginia Tech shootings showed a deplorable lack of sensitivity and taste. Can’t you find (someone) who isn’t so quick to try to be funny or cute at innocent people’s expense?”
As bad as this week was for cartoonists, it was worse for television. An army of aggressive TV reporters descended on little Blacksburg, Va., asking everyone they could find, “How do you feel?” and “Did you know him?” The television coverage reached new heights of ugliness when NBC released the killer’s “Multimedia Manifesto” and all we could see on cable news was 24 hours of “non-stop nut-case.” It took a day for the wallpaper killer coverage to devolve into finger pointing among the media about whether they were doing the right thing in publicizing the killer’s message.
When I first heard about the massacre, I wrote in my blog that I would not be drawing any cartoons about it. But after only two days the story had matured into something I wanted to draw cartoons about because there was something for me to criticize. I drew two cartoons bashing NBC; one showed the NBC peacock dressed up as the network of gun-brandishing Seung-Hui Cho. I drew another showing two kids dressed like Cho, because “He’s the only guy we see on TV now.” I drew another one generally bashing people who didn’t see that Cho was a psychopath, with Cho painting the giant words “STOP ME” on the ground while two oblivious college professors walk by saying, “How can we know something like this is going to happen?”
Political cartooning is a negative art form. Cartoonists and columnists work best when bashing hypocrites or speaking to issues where opinion is divided. I am fortunate to have no daily deadline. When I don’t want to draw on a subject, I don’t have to; that was a luxury for me with the Virginia Tech story. Unfortunately, the deadlines of the 24-hour news cycle demand that most cartoonists, reporters and commentators chime in right away.
Sometimes it pays to take a step back and hold your breath without writing, drawing or reporting anything for a couple of days – until there is something constructive to say.
Daryl Cagle is a political cartoonist and blogger for MSNBC.com. He is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and his cartoons are syndicated to more than 800 newspapers, including the paper you are reading. His books “The BIG Book of Bush Cartoons” and “The Best Political Cartoons of the Year, 2005, 2006 and 2007 Editions,” are available in bookstores now.