When Cartoons Provoke Controversy… potentially
“The role of an editorial cartoonist is to provoke readers, not create controversy.”
This sage proclamation was once declared to me long ago by one of my first editorial overlords. It came not from who one might expect, a gruff old-timey journalist lecturing a potentially troublesome satirist. It came in my early days volunteering at my university campus student newspaper. From the dude with the important sounding title, “managing editor”. A guy I called a great friend, who I’d chum around with and drink beers with then and for years after. It’s a statement that I’ve tried to adhere to since hearing it in the late 1980’s while studying at the University of Ottawa. Yes, Sheldon Rae, I’m talking about you, my old friend!
As an editorial cartoonist, navigating the delicate waters of sensitive topics can be akin to walking a tightrope. Last week, I found myself grappling with the challenges that arise when an idea and sketch fail to align with the expectations of editorial gatekeepers, leading to the untimely demise of a concept – a fate commonly referred to in the industry as getting “spiked.”
The subject at hand was the ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) investigating allegations of genocide committed by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza. The conflict’s complexity, fuelled by historical grievances and recent tragic events, has heightened global tensions, triggering a surge in pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli sentiments, along with a disturbing rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia.
In an attempt to capture the gravity of the situation, I crafted a cartoon depicting ICJ judges on a boat in the Mediterranean cautioning a menacing missile-bearing Benjamin Netanyahu, blood-soaked and hovering over a devastated Gaza. The rubble, blood-spatters, and a subtle nod to Hamas held hostages in tunnels aimed to provide a truthful illustration, addressing concerns that the plight of the hostages was fading from discussions amidst the demands for a ceasefire.
However, the path from sketch to publication proved treacherous. Only one out of numerous editors endorsed the cartoon, and even among them, reservations emerged. An editor at the Toronto Star, while appreciating the concept, expressed concerns about the use of blood and the reference to hostages. This internal editorial scrutiny is not uncommon when dealing with controversial subjects, especially those as sensitive and polarizing as the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Controversial topics naturally draw the attention of higher-ups in the newsroom, and the highest authority holds veto power. In this case, faced with limited endorsements and sensing potential backlash, I redirected my focus to a more politically neutral subject – Donald Trump. The decision spared me from a weekend filled with vitriolic reactions to a cartoon addressing a dire and depressing topic.
The context behind the spiked cartoon includes the ICJ’s provisional order, stating that it is “plausible” that Israel violated the Genocide Convention. The court called on Israel to take immediate measures to prevent acts prohibited by the convention and protect Gaza’s population from further risk of genocide. South Africa, presenting the case, alleged genocidal acts by Israel, emphasizing the extensive civilian casualties in Gaza.
The court’s ruling, legally binding but unenforceable, may exert pressure on Israel’s allies, including the U.S., which reiterated that the genocide allegations were “unfounded.” The ICJ’s decision, while not a verdict on genocide, underscores the gravity of the situation and the need for international attention.
In the intricate dance between editorial creativity and the editorial room’s gatekeepers, the Israel-Gaza conflict stands as a formidable challenge. While the cartoon might have been a truthful portrayal, its potential impact on readers and the editorial decision-makers ultimately determined its fate. As controversies persist, editorial cartoonists continue to grapple with the delicate balance between artistic expression and editorial responsibility, knowing that not all battles are worth fighting on the pages of a newspaper. (AI)