Ryerson Review of Journalism graphic

Andy Donato’s fourth floor office at The Toronto Sun is a mess. The floor is littered with empty boxes and scraps of paper. His desk-assuming there is a desk-is covered with papers, notes and assorted office paraphernalia. In the corner of the room sits an easel and a potpourri of pens, felts and brushes. A leather jacket drapes the swivel chair in front of the easel.

The chair is empty this morning as usual. Donato’s creative spirit thrives in this organized chaos, but The Sun’s editorial cartoonist spends the first two hours of every day working in the cafeteria. He has been with the paper since its birth in 1971. He sits in the smoking section and fills his ashtray with spent Craven As while he drinks his coffee and digests the news. He scans the daily papers in search of an idea for tomorrow’s bit of biting wit. As an editorial cartoonist, Donato has the freedom to start work in the cafeteria.

In fact, editorial cartoonists have a lot of freedom. While reporters are bound by accuracy, editorial cartoonists avoid it at all costs. And while editorial boards measure the potential impact of the goods and services tax, cartoonists measure Brian Mulroney’s chin. When editorial boards examine Robert Bourassa’s most recent point on Meech Lake, cartoonists examine the point of Bourassa’s nose.

Canada’s full-time editorial cartoonists-there are about 35 of them-are given the licence to entertain, embellish and exaggerate. Cartoonists enjoy freedom of expression and near immunity from prosecution unparalleled on a newspaper’s staff.

But do Canadian cartoonists abuse this mandate? Politicians and other public figures who have felt their wrath might say yes. Most cartoonists and their bosses would disagree, for cartoonists do more than mock the anatomies and habits of the country’s leaders. Their freedom and talent often allow them to depict events in a way a writing journalist can only dream of. “The cartoon often crystallizes the events of the day for the reader,” says Warren Clements, assistant editor of The Globe and Mail. “Instead of wading through paragraph after paragraph, the cartoonist gives the reader a quick, short hit on the cartoonist’s view of a certain issue.”

The cartoonist works with metaphor, insinuation and suggestion to crystallize events, says Globe cartoonist Brian Gable. But their main tool is exaggeration. The expectation on the cartoonist to exaggerate and be funny, coupled with the daily forum and freedom on the editorial page, is an explosive combination. It is no surprise that a single drawing can evoke sincere and extreme responses-laughter or rage.

On October 26, 1989, Phaneuf, a freelance cartoonist working in Quebec for Le Devoir, angered Manitoba politicians. A Manitoba task force on Meech Lake had just released a report suggesting several amendments to the constitutiona1 accord, including the elimination of the Quebec distinct society clause. Representatives of all three major political parties took part in the provincial task force and approved the report. Le Devoir criticized the report in an editorial which accompanied Phaneuf’s cartoon. It depicted three people in white hoods and robes, each holding two fingers in a V shape. The Winnipeg Free Press said the V stood for peace, The Globe and Mail said it meant victor)’ One of the figures held a burning fleur-de-lis. Translated, the caption read: “Distinct society: The intervention of Manitoba.”

The response was swift and angry. Sharon Carstairs, Liberal Opposition leader in the Manitoba legislature, visited Le Devoir’s editorial staff to discuss this and other issues. She left disappointed. “I didn’t expect a retraction or a new cartoon showing Manitobans as good little boys and girls,” she says. “I just wanted recognition that the cartoon did not reflect the majority of Manitobans.”

Although Carstairs has nothing against editorial cartoons, and often buys the original of those that poke fun at her (“so I can laugh at myself”), she feels this one crossed the boundary of good taste by depicting all Manitobans as racists. It sent a message to Quebec readers that “you should hate the people of Manitoba because they hate Quebecers,” she says, and it showed “a lack of knowledge of what the Ku Klux Klan meant in Western Canada, especially in the 1930s and 1940s.” Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa didn’t think much of Carstairs’ rage. He told reporters in Quebec, “I told her, ‘you should see how they depict me in their drawings’.”

Benoit Lauziere, Le Devoir’s publisher, dismissed Carstairs’ concerns and refused to apologize. “A cartoon is a cartoon and an editorial position is an editorial position,” Lauziere told The Globe and Mail. “I can defend the paper’s editorials by using rational arguments, but a cartoon is, by definition, based on exaggeration.” He also encouraged people to “lighten up a little” and show a sense of humor: “If we can’t make a joke on our daily public affairs, we’ll all end up committing suicide.”

The Globe’s Gable and The Sun’s Donato may disagree with Phaneuf’s opinion, but have no problem with the cartoon being published. “I thought it was a good cartoon,” says Donato. “If Sharon Carstairs can’t take it she shouldn’t be in politics.” Says Gable: “I can very much defend Phaneuf’s right to draw that image. It’s within the realm of possibility that the cartoon may express how many Quebecers perceive the West.” He adds, “Phaneuf probably represents a large enough portion of Quebecers to justify the cartoon, and. by suppressing it the whole concept of fair comment and freedom of speech becomes jeopardized.”

But Merle Tingley, semi-retired “Ting” of The London Free Press, thinks the KKK cartoon was “stretching it.” Ting, who is considered a gentler type of cartoonist, feels that the reaction from Manitoba was fair, a view closer to that of editors than to that of his colleagues.

A Globe and Mail editorial of October 31, 1989, declared the cartoon an “identifiable excess” and said that labelling the Manitoba task force report as anti-French was “inaccurate and unfair.” Clements adds that the cartoonist was “leaping to unfounded conclusions” and that The Globe and Mail’s basic objection was “the assumption of racism.”

Don Sellar, editor of The Toronto Star’s editorial page, feels that the cartoon was “terribly unfair to all of the Manitoba party leaders” and represented a narrow view. Still” he says “people needed to see it,” and if he had been given the choice, Sellar would have run the cartoon, but not on the editorial page. Carstairs admits she might have been less upset had the cartoon run on another page unaccompanied by an anti-Manitoba editorial.

But all of the controversy raised by this and other cartoons may be unfounded. “There’s little danger that a cartoon will be recognized as fact,” says Toronto libel lawyer Bert Bruser. “Cartoonists indeed have a really tremendous latitude because of the way people look at cartoons as being expressions of opinion instead of fact.”

Brian Gable, who was inspired by the black humor of J.D. Salinger and the comic satire of Mad magazine, agrees with Bruser’s analysis. He says that cartoonists have the same freedom as medieval court jesters who could provoke laughter without being taken seriously.

The biggest scare in Canadian cartooning took place in 1978 when a cartoonist in British Columbia was taken seriously. Cartoonist Bob Bierman of The Victoria Times drew a devastating caricature of then Human Resources Minister Bill Vander Zalm happily pulling the wings off flies. The implication, of course, was that Vander Zalm was cruel-not that he was an entomologist.

Vander Zalm didn’t ignore the doodle or laugh it off. He sued Bierman. In January 1979, Mr. Justice Craig Munroe of the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled in favor of Vander Zalm and awarded him $3,500 plus costs. Munroe said that the cartoon “was not, objectively, a fair comment upon facts Vander Zalm’s activities in office] could not fairly lead ordinary person to conclude that the plaintiff acted in a cruel, thoughtless manner when performing his duties. Freedom of the press…is not a freedom to make untrue, defamatory statements. The political cartoonist has no special immunity…”
Bierman filed an appeal and won. He and other cartoonists continue to draw Vander Zalm, now Premier, in a myriad of unflattering ways.

Peter Desbarats, dean of the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate School of Journalism and co-author of The Hecklers, a 1979 book about Canadian cartooning, says that the courts have come to recognize that cartoons “fall within a different tradition” than the written word and that “caricature is a legitimate form of political journalism.”

The whole tradition of political caricature protects cartoonists from being hit with libel and defamation suits, says Desbarats. This defence by tradition allowed the cartoonist to grow from a mere illustrator of the daily editorial, to an independent, almost untouchable hero on the editorial page. A cartoon can also be a conduit of public opinion. Says Andy Donato: “The average guy out there can scream at his wife and at the dog and everybody else about what’s going on with the government, whereas I can do it and put it in the paper and hundreds of thousands can see it every day.”

In the late 1950s Duncan Macpherson became the first Canadian cartoonist to part from a paper’s editorial policy: his cartoons did not necessarily complement the editorial. Since then, he speaks for no one but himself. “I’m sitting in the stands watching the game,” he says. “I don’t speak for the crowd, but I stand up and I cheer or I boo.”
Like Donato and Macpherson, Ting reaches thousands. He says he brings the issues of the day to the kitchen tables of London and tries to make events relevant to his readers with his “homespun” style.

All cartoonists try to deliver issues and events for the reader to appreciate and understand, but the way they do that varies with individual styles and newspapers. But the basic technique is pretty much the same: simplification is the key. The measure of success, says Brian Gable, is “when people laugh and they get it.”

But a cartoonist is more than a humorist and an artist. He or she is also a journalist. “Like other journalists, they have to be informed on the day’s news in the sense they’re commenting on current events,” says Warren Clements. “They’re also editorialists.”

Gable is most comfortable comparing editorial cartoonists to columnists. “For someone writing a daily column, emotion and feeling are predominant concerns,” he says, “and (or a cartoonist, it’s the same thing.” Andy Donato, who calls himself one of the country’s few right-wing cartoonists, is a case in point. He hates apartheid, but thinks the idea of sanctions against South Africa is ill-conceived. He can’t stand Meech Lake and took great pleasure in penning a cartoon of Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon urinating on Robert Bourassa after the Manitoba task force suggested the watering down of the constitutional accord. And when it comes to personalities, Donato says that he likes to depict former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as “evil,” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as a “twit” and federal finance committee chairman Don Blenkarn as an “ass.”

Duncan Macpherson’s portfolio includes a plethora of poignant yet whimsical drawings of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. The pointed pen of Terry Mosher, “Aislin” of the Montreal Gazette, is often aimed at Robert Bourassa, and every cartoonist in the country wreaks havoc with Joe Clark’s flaccid ears and pudgy cheeks. Regardless of their political views and policy stands, editorial cartoonists have a history of siding with the average citizen when it comes to analyzing government. A cartoonist is like a sports play-by-play announcer trying to convey observations. But in the process, the editorial cartoonist can’t help but cheer for the home team. And whether the cartoonist is cheering for the figure labelled the Taxpayer, the Common Man or John T Citizen, he does it by stretching fair comment to the limit and taking humor along for the ride.

After more than a century of stretching the limits and entertaining the public, Canadian cartoonists are among the best in the world, in many cases surpassing the European artists and even the hundreds of Yankee doodlers. “I think we have produced world-class cartoonists,” says Peter Desbarats. “Journalists in Canada are overly restrained by libel laws,” but cartoonists thrive in an atmosphere of few restrictions. “It’s healthy to have a greater degree of freedom for cartoonists,” he says.

With this freedom, cartoonists breathe life into the editorial page. A mass of cerebral, unattributed type is broken by the black and white thoughts of a journalist trained at an art school. The cartoon can evoke a range of emotions and reactions, and may even lead people to rethink their opinions. But that’s not the main function of a cartoon. “In an editorial you go with the expectation that events will be made ethically clear to you,” says Brian Gable, “but with a cartoon, you sit back and you loosen your tie and get ready for a chuckle.”

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