Benedict Spence

The New York Times’ cowardly decision to ditch cartoons

The New York Times' cowardly decision to ditch cartoons
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The New York Times has said it will stop publishing political cartoons, six weeks after an image of a blind, kippah-wearing Donald Trump being led by a dog with the head of Bibi Netanyahu appeared in the paper. The cartoon was rightly condemned and an apology swiftly issued. But scrapping cartoons for good – and parting ways with two of its long-time cartoonists, neither of whom drew the offending image – is a step too far. The paper’s bungled campaign against Donald Trump shows why.

Since Trump first emerged as a candidate for the presidency, the NYT has railed against him for all manner of sins, from his womanising to his apparent bid to undermine press freedom. Trump is depicted as one thing: a thin-skinned, narcissistic racist. There is little humour in this depiction, only a continuous stream of outrage.

Yet where is the attempt to poke fun at Trump? Cartoon-style satire – helped along by the evolution of internet memes – has never been more popular. Yet the NYT, in refusing to publish cartoons, has turned its back not only on tradition, but on the future of satire too. So while memes set the cultural tone online, mainstream outlets like the NYT are missing out. Given that cartoons are print’s window into this rapidly evolving world, this is a serious strategic error. As scurrilous internet culture expands, certain sections of the media retreat into progressivism.

The decision to axe cartoons is typical of an increasingly po-faced publication like the NYT being rudely brought to its senses about the outrage culture it has done much to promote. Cartoons, it seems, are viewed as frivolous things – not serious journalism decrying the state of the nation. Better to can the cartoons, before too many others get offended by them, seems to be the approach.

This act of self-censorship is in itself intolerable. It flies in the face of tradition and duty — of the time-honoured practice of making a point in a picture that words cannot do. It is also an insult to those who risk quite literally everything to express themselves.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, the right to publish freely and to freely make mistakes must not only be upheld, but defended to the hilt — Israel’s Haaretz, in its coverage of this story, rather pointedly placed a link to another on its webpage, titled ‘Haaretz published a cartoon 38 years ago depicting Israeli leaders as pigs. No one got fired’. Yes, the Trump/Bibi cartoon was racist. That is no reason to bin the whole medium.

But what is even more baffling is that while the NYT has tried to take Trump to task, the paper ignores the weapon that truly gets under the president’s skin: mockery.

Trump doesn’t care when he is accused of serious wrongdoing — so long as he is being taken seriously. The Donald obviously doesn’t read the paper he derides as 'failing' but it takes little effort for someone so addicted to the internet as he is to glimpse — and understand — a caricature. Any number of think pieces in the world can be retweeted onto his timeline and safely ignored. But a cartoon, by its nature, is harder to ignore once it’s in front of Trump.

This was a medium the paper could have used to devastating effect against the Trump administration. Instead it has become so afraid of the unpredictability of the outcome and by the potential to offend, that it has taken the cowardly way out, deciding not to use cartoons at all. Hardly the brave, principled stance one would hope for in the face of a man it considers such a monster, and a danger to press freedom.