AP NEWS

Commentary When a political cartoon provokes outrage

March 14, 2019

We sat across from each other at a table in Little Pub in Greenwich Monday night, two women meeting for the first time, neither quite knowing what to expect.

Laura Kostin, a Democratic member of the Representative Town Committee, District 2, in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich and the mother of four children aged 13 to 2, was gracious to meet with me. I had questions for her, and she had questions for me.

What brought us together was an editorial cartoon that appeared in some Hearst Connecticut daily newspapers on Tuesday, Feb. 26. It depicted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — AOC (since we love abbreviations and nicknames) — (“Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Bernie,” “Slimeball James Comey” — oops, I digress).

The editorial cartoon, created the day after the Academy Awards, showed a caricature of AOC, with an extra-wide smile, pointing at the TV screen showing a golden Oscar and winner “Best Picture Green Book.” “WOW! An environmental movie won!” AOC exclaims in the cartoon. (BTW: Just in case we’re not savvy enough to know it’s her, the chair has the initials AOC on the back.)

Laura and five other women were outraged enough to write a Letter to The Editor in protest of the cartoon.

“Beyond the physical caricature that is shocking in any publication in the year 2019, the woman is portrayed as ignorant and stupid, the familiar insult by white racists toward people of color and often women.

“Worse, the cartoonist Dana Summers, is including the title ‘Green Book’ in his cartoon. The ‘Green Book’ was a listing of restaurants, gas stations, stores and private homes in the South where blacks could be served or sleep without fear of being rejected, or even lynched, while traveling. The very existence of the Green Book during the Jim Crow era was evidence of the brutality and fear that the racist system engendered in the black people,” they wrote in the letter, which we published.

The letter brought me up short. I was the one who chose that cartoon.

A buzz

Laura told me when she saw it in the newspaper she was shocked.

“This woman of color was portrayed as someone stupid,” she said. She randomly sampled friends, and many felt the same way. She posted something on a closed Facebook group and about 15 people weighed in on the cartoon, with varied views. There was a buzz.

Laura and the five other women she calls her tribe decided they had to do something and together crafted the letter. Most are members of the Greenwich RTM, motivated by the 2016 presidential election to get involved, and were among scores of women who ran for office and won in the fall.

Joanna Swomley co-founded the local Indivisible branch, a grassroots movement to “elect progressive leaders, realize bold progressive policies, rebuild our democracy, and defeat the Trump agenda,” the national website states.

Phyllis Alexander, Mary Ellen Markowitz, Nerlyn Pierson and Monica Prihoda wrote and signed the letter with Joanna and Laura.

Laura was the only one able to meet with me, but I had email exchanges with most of the others.

“There’s a saying ‘think global, act local’ and that’s what inspired me to run for the Old Greenwich RTM,” Monica told me in an email. Through the RTM “I made friends and found common ground with the women who signed the letter to the editor with me. We began talking and decided to do it.”

I’m glad they did.

Choosing editorial cartoons

Part of my job as an editorial page editor for Hearst Connecticut is to choose the daily opinion page editorial cartoon for the group. The main source is a syndication called Tribune Content Agency; I also check the Reed Brennan Media Associates website and receive some ‘toons through the Washington Post News Service & Syndicate. It’s fun, really, to see editorial cartoonists’ take on current events.

I like when there’s an intersection of ideas or a point made cleverly. Often the cartoonists jump on the same topic, which makes it a challenge to find something different. For example, on Thursday most of the ’toons were about the college admissions scandal. But because we just ran one on that, I looked for something different for Friday’s paper.

Often, President Trump is a target, which comes with the territory of being president. We are accused by some readers of picking on Trump, of never running conservative cartoons.

Dana Summers draws for the Orlando Sentinel and is one of the few nationally syndicated cartoonists with a conservative bent.

The Monday morning after the Academy Awards as I scrolled through the cartoon offerings, Summers’ caught my eye. It was timely — the only one to play off the awards — and related to Ocasio-Cortez’s recently unveiled Green New Deal. Bingo.

Never did I think it was demeaning to women’s intellect. I should have.

I consider myself a feminist, and if I didn’t see how that cartoon could have been interpreted as “insensitive and offensive,” as Monica put it, what else am I missing?

We each come from the perspectives of our upbringing, education, experiences and need to be aware of inherent biases or blind sides. We need to step outside of ourselves.

Political figures are ripe for caricature. They are in the news, they make policy, what they do affects our lives. This brings to mind the landmark Supreme Court decision in 1988, Hustler Magazine, Inc. v Falwell. Televangelist and political commentator Jerry Falwell sued the magazine over a parody ad that depicted him as an incestuous drunk. But the unanimous decision was that the First Amendment right of free speech prohibits public figures from recovering damages for emotional distress caused by a caricature, parody, or satire “that a reasonable person would not have interpreted as factual.”

AOC, and Trump, will continue to be fodder for editorial cartoonists as long as they are in the public eye; we will likely publish many. The caricatures exaggerate features, such as Trump’s small hands or too-long red tie or former President Barack Obama’s large ears.

Editorial cartoons can be outrageous, to make a point about current events with humor. But, as the six letter writers pointed out, the cartoons don’t work when they propagate stereotypes.

“I will always confront racism, sexism and like injustices,” Monica wrote to me. “We are all in this together.”

I agree, and appreciate the dialogue. Laura and I spoke for about an hour at Little Pub the other evening, but the sentiments will long echo.

Jacqueline Smith’s column appears Fridays in Hearst Connecticut daily newspapers; she is the editorial page editor for The News-Times in Danbury and The Norwalk Hour. Email her at jsmith@hearstmediact.com