Why the controversy over an Iowa cartoonist is no laughing matter

Photo by Ahdieh Ashram (Flickr)

Who has heard of the rural-Iowa newspaper Farm News? A week ago, the answer was nearly no one. But nothing blasts a paper’s name into the public consciousness like an ethical meltdown, and that’s exactly why thousands of people worldwide now know–and are criticizing–the small weekly. All it took was a pointed cartoon, a bitter advertiser, and a questionable editorial decision.

Last week, Farm News published a drawing by freelancer Rick Friday, whose “It’s Friday!” cartoon has appeared in the paper for 21 years. In the sketch, a farmer leaning on a fencepost says he wishes there were more money in farming. “There is,” his pal responds. “In year 2015 the CEOs of Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and John Deere combined made more money than 2129 Iowa farmers.”

The next day, Friday received an email from an editor, who said the sketch had caused a “shitstorm here that I do not understand. In the eyes of some, Big Ag cannot be criticized or poked fun at.” Farm News serves 24,000 readers in 33 counties. A client affiliated with one of the companies mentioned in Friday’s cartoon had pulled its advertising from the paper. Farm News cut ties with Friday just as quickly.

Cartoonists have a long history of retribution from their powerful targets. Most of the backlash has come from governments and political leaders, extremist groups, and even grassroots protesters. Until now, pressure from advertisers and self-censoring editors has mostly spiked individual cartoons, not led to cartoonists being canned. Neither outcome benefits readers, but the case of Friday and Farm News seems a predictable step forward for those who aim to curtail freedom of the press.

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First, let’s look at why cartoons–which are inherently rowdy–draw so much scrutiny and anger. “It’s a form of public humiliation, and people receive it differently than they receive words,” says Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation and author of The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power. At least some of the ire stems from the visual nature of the medium, which makes cartoons both striking and accessible. They sow discomfort for subjects and their followers, with no recourse for the aggrieved, Navasky says. “The response to these things is disproportionate.” (Disclosure: Navasky sits on CJR’s board of overseers.)

Those reactions have destroyed cartoonists’ jobs, freedoms, and lives. As far back as 1832, the French caricaturist Honoré Daumier was imprisoned for penciling colorful jabs at Emperor Louis Philippe. In the 1980s, a cartoonist and critic of Middle Eastern leaders was shot and killed outside his newspaper’s London office; observers have blamed both Palestinian and Israeli leaders, but his murder remains unsolved. Muslim extremists killed 12 people, including four cartoonists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015. Others have recently been fired in Venezuela and South Africa, allegedly for irritating political leaders, and government coercion is suspected to have claimed the job of Kenya’s most popular cartoonist in March.

In the US, backlash from governments and terrorists is less common than the suffocating grip of advertisers. Marketers understand the power in pulling ads, either to distance themselves from a news outlet facing public scorn or, maliciously, to punish one whose coverage has turned adversarial.

In 2014, a newspaper reporter in Kentucky was fired for bashing an advertiser, who complained to the writer’s supervisor. That same year, it was reported that a columnist for a firearms trade publication was let go after his call for gun control measures caused two major advertisers to walk. This shameful list also includes Coca-Cola removing its advertising from a French TV station in the wake of unflattering coverage, a videogame writer losing his job for penning reviews that angered sponsors, and a trade magazine axing a freelance motorcycle writer for reporting a story critical of an advertiser, even though the piece ran in a different publication.

We have no way of knowing just how many writers and editors engage in self-censorship, in misguided efforts to avoid the unemployment line. An editor for The Huffington Post, for instance, recently rejected a pitch that would have cast Uber in a negative light. His reasoning? The two companies were entering a business partnership, wrote The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple.

Yet, somehow, oft-persecuted cartoonists have rarely, if ever, been fired over business-side conflicts. “I’ve seen cartoons be removed from the site or sort of censored by the editors for that kind of reason. That happens almost all the time,” says Adam Zyglis, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. “But for someone to lose a gig over it, I don’t know if there has ever been a situation like that.” A 2004 study on cartoons and censorship reached the same conclusion. More often, public outcry convinces newspapers, particularly those run by college students, to cut ties with cartoonists who penned bigoted illustrations. In those instances, reason seems to be the guiding force.

 

 

Perhaps Farm News was particularly vulnerable to its advertiser’s demands. It’s an industry newspaper, and niche publications have small audiences and rely heavily on major sponsors. Farm News is a local weekly offered free of charge to readers in its circulation area, so it presumably has little subscription revenue to offset advertising losses. The paper depends on big agricultural companies–like the ones targeted by Friday–to pay the bills. “Hopefully my children and my grandchildren will see that this last cartoon published by Farm News out of Fort Dodge, Iowa, will shine light on how fragile our rights to free speech and free press really are in the country,” Friday wrote on Facebook.

Yet Friday’s cartoon is the kind of strong, straightforward journalism that Iowa farmers should expect from their newspaper. What good is Farm News if it lacks the guts to take on issues that matter most to its readers?

The publication’s news editor, Larry Kershner, said he couldn’t discuss much about the incident. Trying to persuade him to talk, I told Kershner, who screens cartoons for the paper, that his story could benefit journalism as a whole. “That’s the way you look at it when you’re not part of a corporation,” he responded. “When you’re part of a corporation, the perspectives change immensely.”

Farm News is published by The Messenger, a daily in Fort Dodge that is owned by West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers Inc. Neither Ogden’s vice president, William Nutting, nor the publisher of Farm News, Larry Bushman, responded to multiple requests for comment.

 

 

What’s certain is that Bushman and Nutting now have a bigger “shitstorm” on their hands than they did when the comic first ran. Farm News and its mysterious former advertiser have failed spectacularly to confine this story to Iowa’s barns and bars. That’s mostly due to Reddit, the sprawling aggregator and online forum, which picked up the story and voted it to the site’s front page, attracting an untold number of readers across the globe. The New York Times even ran a meaty piece on the farmer-cartoonist yesterday. This indicates that the public–or at least some portion of it–values editorial independence. Of all the takeaways from this story, that’s one of the most encouraging.

Navasky, the editor and cartooning expert, says technology is making attempts at censorship more difficult. The message will get out. This week, Friday began independently publishing cartoons for his newfound fans, drawing eyeballs he never would have if not for this debacle. The sketches still feature farmers and Big Ag. But Friday is also hammering a new target: the press. One drawing depicts an editor hunched over his desk, talking to a confused farmer who’s holding a newspaper: “We edited your opinion to please our masters.”

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha