Jun 21, 2012

In the Wake of a Controversy, Eisner and Political Cartoonists Take Stock

Protesters outside The Daily Texan’s offices in March after the newspaper published an editorial cartoon about Trayvon Martin that many considered racist. Photo by Raymond Thompson.

By Mary Baswell
For Reporting Texas

Stephanie Eisner, the University of Texas at Austin student whose editorial cartoon about the Trayvon Martin shooting case created its own firestorm in March, described her unexpected role in the media controversy as “traumatic.”

“I hated to see that I caused so much pain to a group of people and hated that the tool of this pain was something I love so much — my art,” she wrote in a recent email. Her depiction of the media’s reaction to the killing drew ire for its use of racially charged language and for misspelling Martin’s first name.

But despite being removed from the roster of Daily Texan cartoonists, Eisner, a 19-year-old who just finished her first year at UT, wrote in an email that the experience has made her a wiser cartoonist, a position that “fulfills a very important and unique niche in journalism.”

While the furor over the shooting case and the cartoon it inspired has faded, professional editorial cartoonists said that the incident highlighted important, timeless lessons about subjective journalism, especially in the age of the Internet: how to navigate the fine line between opinion and insensitivity, free speech and thoughtful editing.

Ben Sargent, who won a Pulitzer Prize while he was an editorial cartoonist at The Austin American-Statesman, said that Eisner might have crossed the “hazy good-taste line” with her cartoon but feels that offense is part of the profession. Cartoonists, like other opinion journalists, are “relieved of the obligation to be balanced,” he said.

Sargent was on the grounds of the Capitol attending a rally protesting Martin’s death the same day Eisner’s editorial cartoon was published in The Daily Texan.

“There was a lot of shock and dismay over the cartoon,” Sargent said.

Gawker, the first national website to comment on the drawing, pronounced it “the winner of the most racist Trayvon Martin cartoon.” In the following days, some protesters on campus described The Daily Texan as “racist since 1900.” The paper’s staff offered apologies and explanations and the cartoon has been permanently removed from the Daily Texan’s website, though commentary and links to the cartoon remain.

David Horsey, a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, said in a telephone interview that the mixture of inexperience and a hot-button issue made the controversy “almost unavoidable.”

“Race is probably the hottest topic for any cartoonist, even beyond religion,” he said. “And there’s no place where passions are higher than a college campus. Everybody is idealistic and ready to change the world.” He added that idealistic student cartoonists, without experience in gauging audience reaction, often neglect to edit their work to ensure clarity.

Sargent said that the art of cartooning lies in the ability to communicate effectively, tapping the audience with the message rather than “pounding them [with it] over and over.” He said that Eisner’s downfall was that her tone and language overwhelmed the point she was trying to make and that at least one “buzzword” was so strong and offended so many people that readers concentrated on that and forgot about her message.

Eisner, who agreed to answer interview questions via email, wrote that she has learned to be more cautious when selecting issues to present to the public. “Controversial subjects should not be avoided, yet they should be treated with extra care and attention,” she wrote.

Horsey likens his cartoons to having a conversation with readers. Rather than serving up only hard-hitting messages, he mixes in humor to keep his audience engaged. But that humor, coupled with intentional exaggeration, can be a point of contention between artist and audiences because readers can interpret symbolic communication in many different ways, he said.

“If I’m going to jump into a controversial situation, I always make sure that I’m totally clear in what I’m trying to say, that it can’t be misread, so that at least if I get heat, it will be about what I meant to say, not what people are interpreting it to say,” he said.

Eisner admitted that the subject was “too complex to be summed up into one image” and that she made “significant errors” in the “careless misspelling” of Martin’s name and “the naïve use of a politically incorrect term.”

While Horsey thinks Eisner could have “pulled back a little bit” and focused more on the media’s portrayal of events, he said she shouldn’t have been surprised by the public’s reaction. “Virtually every cartoon is going to make someone upset. You have to understand what you’re getting into,” he said.

And although Eisner had “a right to say it however she wanted to say it,” Horsey said that sometimes it’s also OK to apologize if a part of the cartoon offends unintentionally. “Sometimes you get it wrong,” he said.

Eisner issued an apology in a statement the day after the cartoon’s release: “I apologize for what was in hindsight an ambiguous cartoon related to the Trayvon Martin shooting. I intended to contribute thoughtful commentary on the media coverage of the incident, however this goal fell flat. I would like to make it explicitly clear that I am not a racist, and that I am personally appalled by the killing of Trayvon Martin. I regret any pain the wording or message of my cartoon may have caused.”

Catherine Ploehn, an editorial cartoonist for the UT-Dallas student newspaper The Mercury, said that the cartoon’s ambiguity has made her a more careful editor of her work.

“I try to think about how others from wide varieties of backgrounds and opinions will look at my pieces and how they’ll judge it,” she said.

Eisner agreed that the controversy has taught her the importance of “double checking, triple checking and quadruple checking” her work and said that in the future she would send her cartoons to a variety of people from different backgrounds to gauge the response and to ensure that her original intent comes across clearly.

Horsey said that he didn’t think the Daily Texan cartoon was especially outrageous and that she made a valid point about the media. Though he “flinched a little bit” at the language, he said that in the digital age, there’s less time to consider what the reaction might be. Ploehn said the Internet breeds sensationalism, with news going viral in both good and bad ways. Sargent said that viral stories spread almost immediately, sometimes out of proportion to their actual importance—and then disappear just as quickly.

Despite negative reaction from around the world, Eisner said that the immediacy of the Internet is “fantastic” and that she loves that aspect of art—that “it is designed to be shared and easily passed along from one mind to another.” She said, because of its speed, the Internet makes pictures “powerful and contagious.”

And while the feedback from her cartoon was mostly “negative and personally hurtful,” she said, in a larger sense technology ensures that “we are all more connected and this is definitely a good thing when it comes to the public being more aware of critical issues in our nation and world.”

The cartoonists, young and old, agreed that Eisner should not be the sole focus of the controversy. Ploehn said she believes that the editors are heavily responsible for the cartoon’s release, just as they are responsible for anything that goes into the paper.

“Anything printed in the paper is not just one person’s responsibility,” Horsey said. “If you print something, you should stand by it and not blame it all on the cartoonist.” He added that the editors should have anticipated the reaction as well and should have either “taken the safe road” and not printed it or prepared for the response.

Numerous attempts to reach members of last semester’s editorial board to ask them specifically about their responsibility in publishing Eisner’s cartoon were unsuccessful. Eisner declined to comment on the level of the Daily Texan’s responsibility in the incident but said that the cartoon “received the exact same attention” as her other cartoons, with more than five editors approving it for publication. In a statement following the backlash, Daily Texan editors had said that “[i]t is the policy of the editorial board to publish the views of our columnists and cartoonists, even if we disagree with them.”

Susannah Jacob, the Daily Texan’s incoming editor-in-chief, wrote via email that the paper is “looking forward to publishing well-conceived and thoughtful editorials and editorial cartoons that move beyond its previously acknowledged mistake of publishing that cartoon.” (Jacob, an editorial board member last semester, was not asked specifically about her role in publishing the cartoon and did not respond to later interview requests.)

Though Eisner missed the mark with her cartoon, Sargent said, the controversy is all part of daily journalism and that these “teachable moments … happen everywhere, from the smallest town weekly to The New York Times.”

“Sometimes you do work you’re really proud of and some days maybe you’re not so proud of it. That’s just part of learning to be a cartoonist,” he said.

Sargent, who described journalism as more of a trade than an academic discipline, called student newspapers the “primary charm” of journalism schools for allowing students a real medium to work with—and the real possibility of slip-ups. (In the case of The Daily Texan, it is also an independent training ground, with no editorial oversight from the journalism department.)

Horsey said the cartoon should also be a lesson for the public at large, whose outrage spawned discussions about the larger issues of censorship and free speech in America.

“This is a democratic society and we all get to say what we want to say. Just because you’re offended doesn’t give the right to shut someone down,” he said.

In addition to the negative reaction to the cartoon, Eisner said that the media reported wrong information about her, including her ethnicity, age, family income level and student classification. Sources cited her as white or as a “white Latina,” a freshman or sophomore, an 18-year-old and assumed that since she grew up in The Woodlands, an affluent suburb of Houston, that she came from an upper-class family.

She wrote that she in actually “100 percent Hispanic,” a junior (because of credits she earned while still in high school) and that she was raised by a single mother who “struggled” to support the family “on the salary of a teacher.” She also wrote that she saw “no reason why my coloration merited any kind of attention.”

“Over all, many news sources squeezed me into a box that fit their particular intention for the news story,” she wrote. “Ironically, this is what I was criticizing them for doing in the Trayvon Martin situation with my cartoon.”

Ploehn said that, all in all, Eisner should forget what people have said about her and keep pressing forward. Sargent said that Eisner had told him she was still considering cartooning in the future; he also thinks this incident will not harm her chances for success. Horsey said Eisner should “go for it,” given the freedom of the press.

“In some countries, cartoonists are killed, thrown in jail or chased out of town,” he said. “Americans have it pretty easy—we just have people mad at us.”

Eisner confirmed that she has not given up. “It will take more than 15 minutes of infamy because of a misrepresented political cartoon to keep me down,” she wrote.