Page last updated at 19:17 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

The power of the cartoonist

Senator holding the New York Post cartoon
New York state Senator Eric Adams was among those protesting at the cartoon

By Stephen Mulvey and Ali McConnell
BBC News

"Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon," the New York Post wrote in an editorial apologising for the offence caused by an image of policemen shooting a chimpanzee dead.

"They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," one cop tells the other.

Uproar greeted its publication on Wednesday, with demonstrators objecting to what they regarded as a racist depiction of President Barack Obama.

The Post responded by saying it was merely meant to mock an "ineptly written" bill.

The line that it was "just" a cartoon, though, has scandalised cartoonists.

Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher, editorial cartoonist for the Economist for the last 30 years, described the remark as "sad".

Just a chimp

Cartoonists are columnists who use pictures and satire to make their point, he says.

"Visual imagery is very powerful. Cartoons can be very effective. We are trying to make people think - using humour to deliver a message."

He used the old cartoonists' ploy of taking two events and merging them together
Kevin Kallaugher
The founder of the UK's Political Cartoon Society, Tim Benson, also says the defence that the cartoon is "just a cartoon" does not wash.

"You cannot avoid editorial responsibility as a cartoonist - you're still a journalist like any other," he says.

The author of the cartoon himself, Sean Delonas, has described as "ridiculous" the idea that the chimpanzee was meant to depict Barack Obama.

He pointed out that it was a clear reference to a pet chimp shot in Connecticut on Monday, after it attacked and disfigured a woman.

"Every paper in New York, except The New York Times, covered the chimpanzee story. It's just ridiculous," he said.

The chimp was just meant to represent the chimp, he says, not any of the authors of the stimulus bill.

"If you are going to make that about anybody, it would be [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, which it's not," he added.

One layer

While the cartoonists bristle at the idea that any cartoon is ever "just a cartoon" they agree that this particular example was very weak.

Kevin Kallagher's Economist cartoon on the stimulus package.

Tim Benson says it doesn't work unless the monkey is intended to be Obama. "At best it's confused, at worst racist," he says.

John Byrne, a cartoonist for The Stage, who also teaches cartoon-drawing on the internet, comments: "Good political cartoons have many hidden layers - this just seems to have one."

Kevin Kallaugher says Delonas was trying to make the "rather obvious point that the stimulus bill was not well written, from his perspective" and that his way of delivering the point was "clumsy, awkward, deeply ineffective".

Delonas has used the "old cartoonists' ploy of taking two events and merging them together", he says.

"The goal is for people to look at it and say, 'Aren't you clever!'"

A lot of people in New York would have understood the reference to the chimp, he says.

"But they would still say, 'That's a bit of a stretch,' or 'I don't get it,' or it would raise a lot of alarm bells."

Issues of race

It is standard, he says, for cartoonists to take their inspiration from the news. The trick then is to add humour, and "a bit more".

One recent cartoon he produced for the Economist focused on the greed that, in his view, always drives capitalist economies. He sees the same greed in some people's eyes, as they await the cash injection from the stimulus package.

Tim Benson makes the point that having a black president means that all cartoonists will have to "tread more carefully".

"Issues of race as are as tricky as those of anti-Semitism," he says.

"It's almost impossible to draw an anti-Israeli cartoon without being accused of anti-Semitism."

For Kevin Kallaugher the episode is another example, like the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, of the power of the medium.

"You have to understand that you have power when you wield the pen. You have to be aware that with power and freedom comes responsibility."

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