Why Cartoons Are Vital to Democracy

Journalism

Patrick D'Arcy, Emerson Collective’s Director of Fellowships and Portfolio Communications, sits down with editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers to discuss satire’s role in holding the powerful to account.

Over the course of his long career, Rob Rogers has come to understand the power of the cartoon. As an editorial cartoonist with the Pittsburgh Press for nine years and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 25 years, where he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and 2019, he has covered six U.S. presidential administrations, commenting on each with equal parts wit and pathos. “An editorial cartoonist is supposed to be a troublemaker,” Rogers says. “The one who asks the questions that other people don’t want to ask and gets under the skin of politicians and government officials to keep them honest. If the newspaper is the watchdog, then the cartoonist serves as its teeth.”

But last summer, Rogers appeared to bite too hard: The Post-Gazette fired him over satirizing images of President Trump deemed “too angry.” Among the themes of his final cartoons at the paper were the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, mass shootings, and the mounting threat of climate change. Now a freelance cartoonist, Rogers recently published a book on his experience, Enemy of the People: A Cartoonist’s Journey. Here, Rogers, an Emerson Collective Fellow, shares his creative process and explains what’s at stake if a cartoonist can be fired for criticizing the powerful.

"Caution!", one of the six cartoons that were censored by his former employer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You have such an interesting story. How did you first get into editorial cartooning?

I’ve drawn cartoons since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I never really thought about it as a career, just something I loved doing. The question for me was always whether or not I could make a living at it. In college, I was an editorial cartoonist for the school paper. I discovered the work of Jeff MacNelly from the Richmond News Leader and I just fell in love with his humor and his style. I also discovered Pat Oliphant and Herblock, two of the other greats in the field.

I didn’t really expect to get a job as a cartoonist. I was an art major in college and got an MFA in painting at Carnegie Mellon University. At the time, I was thinking, “If I get a master’s I can always teach art.” But I was shocked and delighted to get a summer internship as a political cartoonist at the Pittsburgh Press right out of graduate school. I stayed at the Press until they folded and then joined the Post-Gazette and have been in Pittsburgh ever since.

“News Hole,” by Rob Rogers, December 9, 2016

What do you see as the role of an editorial cartoonist?

Broadly, I think it’s to criticize those in power. It goes along with the definition of what a good journalist does, which is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Some people have described an editorial cartoon as an illustrated version of an editorial, because it’s an opinion piece. But I think it’s bigger than that. An editorial cartoon hits you right in the face. It’s hard to ignore it on the page. In my mind, the best editorial cartoon is one that gives you a chuckle and a punch in the gut. You laugh first, but there's always a more serious point underneath all of the humor and the drawing.

"Graduation" by Rob Rogers, May 20, 2018

Tell us about your creative process. How do you approach a new piece?

I can’t even think about cartooning until I’ve had my morning coffee. I peruse several newspapers and watch cable news and look for that one story or issue that jumps out and kicks me in the gut, begging for satire. I am especially drawn to stories that highlight social injustice, hypocrisy, or inequity in our society.

I write down several possible topics in my sketchbook. Sometimes I can combine two topics into one cartoon. If it’s a pop culture story about something insignificant, I may use that as a metaphor for something more important.

After I land on an idea, I begin to rough out the cartoon in my sketchbook, and once I have a rough sketch that I like, I make a copy of it on the photocopier. Then, I take that copy to the light table and put a piece of bristol board over top and pencil it in, refining the drawing as I go, before going over the lines with pen and ink. I still enjoy drawing and inking by hand. I like to have an original piece of art at the end of the day.

“Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin, May 9, 1754. Originally published in the Pennsylvania Gazette, the cartoon urged colonial unity, and is an early example of an American political cartoon. Source: Library of Congress.

Do you think satire is a requirement to a functioning democracy?

Satire has had a long history in America. Ben Franklin and Paul Revere were both cartoonists—two of the leading, founding fathers of our nation felt that cartoons were an important medium to get their message across. Whether you’re talking about Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, or editorial cartoons, satire is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. We expect people in power to be lampooned. It’s who we are as a nation.

The first step toward despotic rule is to get rid of the people who are critical of our leaders. The ability to draw cartoons ridiculing those in power without fear of persecution is no small thing. Many countries do not allow that. When those freedoms begin to disappear and when a free press is under attack from the government, those are signs that our democracy is in trouble. Satire is the ultimate expression of free speech. It reminds us that we live in a healthy democracy. But we are living in a time like no other in our country’s history—a time when the media is under attack, a time of extreme partisanship. We need satire and editorial cartoons now more than ever.

To learn more about Rob Rogers’s work, visit robrogers.com.