The digital age, for all its beneficial wonders, has left some regrettable casualties in its wake. No loss has been more troublesome for many of us than the decline of print journalism as our principal medium of information. For all their flaws and variability, newspapers bring a depth of information, a degree of editorial quality control and a capacity for self-correction of errors that is difficult to find in what now passes for “news” journalism.
With that development, we’re losing something I have always appreciated almost as much. The political cartoonist, an influential voice in public debates for centuries, is among our most endangered species. According “Drawn & Quartered,” a history of American political cartoons by Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop, 2,000 editorial cartoonists were employed a century ago; estimates of the number of staff cartoonists working today range from about two dozen to maybe 40.
The famous 1,000-to-1 words-to-picture ratio may be understated when it comes to the political cartoon. A case can be made that public opinion has, over time, been more often shaped by these artists than by the words of their polemicist colleagues on the nation’s editorial pages. A salient political point made with humor can pack more punch than the same idea draped in invective. Many citizens who would not take time for a lengthy essay have learned of an issue or taken a cue from a well-drawn sketch and a clever caption.
I confess that, during my younger days spent in Washington, I read an occasional OpEd — but I never skipped a Herblock cartoon in The Post. If and when the political cartoonist’s genre goes extinct, we’ll have lost more than an occasional chuckle.
The cartoonist I’ll miss most laid down his pen earlier this year. For a quarter-century, including the eight years I spent in elective office, Gary Varvel delighted and illuminated the fortunate readers of the Indianapolis Star with his craftsmanship and…