Jordan: It is not your typical week when an editorial cartoonist from New Brunswick finds himself doing interviews on one of CNN’s lead programs. But here we are.
News Clip: The pop culture lead now a political cartoonist let go after 17 years with the newspaper chain, and right after this cartoon of his went viral. Political cartoonist Michael de Adder depicted President Trump golfing over the bodies of migrants Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23 month old daughter Angie Valeria who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande River. The president in the cartoon saying “Do you mind if I play through?”
Jordan: Following a viral cartoon and perhaps an even more viral exit from his freelance gig at an East Coast publishing company, Michel de Adder and the long tradition of editorial cartoons both found themselves in the spotlight. De Adder’s cartoon of Donald Trump was savage and effective, but why did this drawing in particular catch fire? And why was this one a bridge too far for a company that had long published his drawings? What is the rule of a cartoonist on editorial pages of newspapers in today’s era of mass digital consumption? Why are they a vanishing breed? What kind of discussion happens behind the scenes at outlets around the world when a particularly biting piece of satire lands on the editor’s desk? And why are these drawings still so capable of stopping us in our tracks even while we scroll through thousands of gif’s and memes every single day?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Sue Dewar is a longtime editorial cartoonist, she currently draws for Postmedia. Hi Sue.
Sue: Hi, how are you?
Jordan: I’m doing well, thank you for taking the time. We wanted to talk to you because a cartoon struck a nerve around the country last week.
Jordan: Can you first of all….
Sue: Yeah, Michael de Adder.
Jordan Yeah, can you first of all, for people who have maybe been tuned out, tell me about Michael de Adder’s cartoon that everyone was discussing and tell me why it struck such a nerve if you can?
Sue: Well Michael de Atter drew Donald Trump playing golf essentially by the poor migrant and his little baby that died trying to cross the Rio Grande. I think the photograph originally upset people enough, but when it’s drawn in a cartoon, it for some reason blows up. I’ve seen it happen again and again. People react very strongly to something that is drawn, whether it’s funny or whether it’s tough like Michael’s, or whether it’s sad. People have very strong, visceral reactions.
Jordan: From your perspective was it a good editorial cartoon?
Sue: It was a great editorial cartoon.
Sue: Because it had all the earmarks of good satire. It was very hard to look at, which is important, and it poked a big hole in the truth about what’s happening in the migrant situation. It made fun of Donald Trump, who deserves it, and it hadn’t, you know, if you don’t like Donald Trump or you do like Donald Trump, you know his golfing, which is ridiculous adds an element of humor to it too.
Jordan: So what happened when that cartoon hit the newspapers or hit the internet, I guess?
Sue: Well, it went viral because the world; Well, we’ll say the United States is very divided, and a lot of Canada is divided to their pro conservative, anti conservative, pro democratic, and so this hit a nerve on all levels. You know, the anti trump people loved it, and the pro trump people hated it, and we have those in Canada, too.
Jordan: What happened to Michael after that?
Sue: Michael was fired. And Michael was absolutely fired for that cartoon, there’s no other reason. They’ve made a 1,000,000 excuses. It may be because he draws Trump too often and they don’t like it, and they told him. But he didn’t give this cartoon to the newspaper, he put it online and it went viral.
Jordan: Were you surprised that the reaction from the paper was so immediate and harsh as somebody who does the job?
Sue: No, not at all, not these days. I’ve seen so many people fired, you know, for doing a cartoon, particularly in the States about Donald Trump or people that are afraid to draw Donald Trump because of their boss. This is kind of happening way too many places in North America and in Britain. All kinds of places have been told not to do Trump.
Jordan: Have you done Trump?
Sue: I’ve done Trump.
Jordan: Do you have a conversation around that with your boss’s, or do you just do it and submit it?
Sue: I absolutely had the conversation. They said we don’t want too many trumps, and I said, well, I’m a Canadian cartoonist and I will be concentrating on Canadian news, but if feel like drawing Trump I will, and it won’t be nice.
Sue: There’s the part of the old Sun used to be very cheeky, and they actually liked opposite points of view in the paper. They don’t so much now, but they used to, and I’ve been in it for so long, and I also have Andy Donato at, you know, as a precursor, and he got away with a lot, so I tend to get away with more than probably some chains would allow.
Jordan: That was kind of my next question is how much freedom in general do political cartoonists get?
Sue: You know, a political cartoonist is really only as good as his editor. There have been all kinds of great cartoons cast on the floor by an editor in whatever chain you want to; You have no idea how many times things have been turned, even in strip cartooning. I remember when I was in a strip cartoon called Us and Them with Wiley Miller, who does non sequitur, and I did the subject of menopause. This would be 15 years ago, and all kinds of editors turned it down because it was not, it wasn’t seemly to discuss menopause in a car chain.
Jordan: That seems so quaint these days.
Sue: It was ridiculous, especially at the time I was going through menopause. So I had a ball with that one, but we lost a lot of readers.
Jordan: What kind of conversations would you have with an editor around a cartoon? How does that conversation start? Do you hand in the cartoon and then you talk about it? Do you talk about an idea before you draw it? Where does it go?
Sue: Well, different newspapers work differently. A lot of them have editorial boards where everybody will meet and discuss what’s gonna go on the page, and the cartoon idea will be thrown out, or put in, or whatever would happen. The Sun hasn’t been that way. Usually you tell the editor what you’re going to draw. I used to cheat, and I would draw my opinion; When I handed in a rough, I would drop the cartoon I liked the best and the rest I kind of scribble so they always picked the one that I drew better for the rough. A lot of cartoonists do that.
Jordan: When you see something like the past week happened to a cartoonist like Michael, what goes through your head about the profession and what do you think his next step should be? Does he have one?
Sue: Well, I think Michael will be fine. He’s an award winning cartoonist, he’s very well known in the East Coast. He’s still run in a number of papers, but I think that he will be just fine. The whole era of political cartoons has really been dumbed down, partly because of all the syndicates that have risen up in the States. So editors can pick cheap cartoons on whatever subject they want instead of having their own cartoonist. In the old days, newspapers used to love the controversy. I can use water gate as an example. They loved to pick at the government in power, they loved to be sneaky and have the first story, the best cartoon, all that. But that’s all gone because their owned by such big conglomerates and with the internet they’re losing money badly and so they want more fluff, which is inexpensive and less controversy.
Jordan: Was there ever a figure or a topic before Trump that was treated in a similar way? Like okay you might have to draw him sometimes, but we don’t want too much of it, our readers are sensitive. Like, what was that before Donald Trump was elected?
Sue: Well we already had our hands tied with Mohammed. As you know what happens to people that draw Mohammed.
News Clip: Gun fire erupting at the office of the French satirical magazine that we just told you about. Now, you might remember this was the target of an attack several years ago in response to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Sue: That was a blow particularly for satirists like Charlie Heb-do group, and before that way, way back in the day you could pick on all the politicians but you had to leave the queen alone.
Jordan: Is that still true?
Sue: No. That all stopped with Diana and all the royal family and all their predilections, and all the stories that came out of that, and all that stopped. I think we don’t draw the Queen you know; We’re not too sarcastic when it comes to the Queen, although we draw her a lot, but in relation to Trump or relation to something else. But now she’s a much older woman, and I think there’s a certain amount of respect for somebody you can carry off what she carries off for her age. We’re pretty careful around her just because she’s been through a lot.
Jordan: What do cartoonists say to each other about incidents like what happened to Michael or censorship at various newspaper chains? What’s that conversation like? Do you communicate what they’ll take and what they won’t?
Sue: There’s not that much talk about the right topic for the right chain. There’s a lot of complaints about editors and a lot of complaints about the big bureaucracies. You know, like Irving, and Post Media is run by a hedge fund, and it goes on…. things like that. One of the most prolific topics, and one that I totally concur with is that because these big chains run out of one particular area, they are responsible for newspapers way at the other end of the country, and in various places around the larger cities. For example, Post Media’s Toronto based but it runs all the Suns across Western Canada, and because they’re produced in Toronto, and because there’s been a sort of a dumbing down of the press and because it’s cheaper, all the news that goes out to them is mostly Toronto based, and they’re allowed to put in their own sort of local stories. But on the whole, the editorial is out of Toronto, and the cartoon is out of Toronto, and I think that’s a real problem. They’ve laid off all their cartoonists out there, and that was mainly Quebec.
Jordan: We’ve talked a lot about what makes amazing political cartoons. But what makes a bad political cartoon that someone deserves to lose their job over?
Sue: I think if the cartoon is perceived to be racist or intolerant of any particular culture, that doesn’t really work with the sensibilities of most people, then I think that you deserve to be. Usually you’re just pulled, you’re not fired.
Jordan: Right. Getting back to the cartoon at the center of this. I mean, one of the reasons as you mentioned was so disturbing is because the image it’s based on was so arresting. When you approach a topic like that where you know you’re going to draw something that will spark that real emotion in someone, how do you balance being cognizant of what is too far, and what is needed to provoke a reaction and make your point?
Sue: Well, cartoonists will often take the too far route, and then we have editors that cut us back. The rule of thumb for cartoonists is if it makes your teeth hurt, draw it because you know that you’re gonna have a very strong reaction. So, you know, most of us try to put one of those in. Most of us have had our trial by fire, where we’ve done a cartoon that’s gone viral.
Jordan: What was yours?
Sue: Well, in the 1995 Quebec referendum, that was a very interesting time. Bouchard lost his leg, and none of us cartooned him for a year because we felt sorry for him, and then, of course, the block became huge. Leader of the opposition he was and we became sort of angry with him, and so we started to cartoon him again, and then when we had the referendum, I did the beaver biting Bouchard on the wooden lake. Oh, and boy, did I; Well, actually, it was similar to the Danish cartoon situation, nothing actually happened. You know, like not a lot of people were looking at the little, and it was very small at the time, Ottawa Sun where I worked. But then they had that problem with Peruzo, who had made the comment about, you know, the vote was lost because of the ethnic vote, which meant, you know, basically it was the Jews and Montreal that killed the vote, and so they were looking around to deflect from that particular situation, and they saw my cartoon, and they put it on the front page of every newspaper in Quebec, and that’s before the internet. So we got six thousand written death threats and unlimited phone calls, they had to hire armed guards at The Sun.
Jordan: What did you do afterwards? Did they retract it? Did you apologize?
Sue: No, we did not retract it because my editor was very supportive, and so was my publisher. At one point during the House of Commons, the regular House of Commons day, the Bloc Quebecois had all my cartoons cut out on their laps, and we’re prepared to wave it on TV, and so they condemned the cartoon in the House of Commons. There’s only been two of us condemned in the House of Commons, me and Terry Mosher.
Jordan: That’s an award of distinction. Is that a badge of honor for a cartoonist?
Sue: Absolutely. Absolutely, and this will be a badge of honor for de Atter too. I only hope that Trump Twitter;s about it, because that would be the piece de resistance.
Jordan: How do you lampoon Donald Trump? What works? He seems so…. so much larger than life that I can’t imagine a way to do it consistently that doesn’t either go way too far, or just isn’t funny cause he’s already doing that in real life.
Sue: Well that’s the problem with cartooning him, and he’s already a cartoon. I mean, he’s already said something completely goofy, which takes the air out of any political cartoon unless you’re being savage about it, which be like in Michael’s case, he has gone so far past what the President United States should be that you know, you’ve got to be pretty savage to get him at
this point. He hates the press anyways, so, you know, I’m very surprised that a Canadian newspaper would be a Trump supporter.
Jordan: Thank you, Sue, for taking some time today.
Sue: Oh, thank you very much, it was nice to talk to you.
Jordan: Sue Dewar, one of Canada’s last remaining editorial cartoonists currently at Post Media. That was The Big Story, for more big stories head to our website at thebigstorypodcast.ca, or just follow us on Twitter and we will tweet you a new one. Every morning you can find us also at frequencypodcastnetwork.com, and in basically every single podcast app on earth. Just search for us, hit subscribe, and if you like what you hear, we wouldn’t say no to a rating or a review. Claire Broussard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clark, Stephanie Phillips, our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen our trusty digital editor, and I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening, we’ll talk Monday.
Back to top of page