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Cracking Jokes on a Sinking Ship

“They keep shooting holes in the bottom of the boat and they don’t know why the ship is sinking.” Milt Priggee on political cartooning in the fragile age of the American newspaper.

For his single-panel editorial cartoons, Milt Priggee likes to say, “I have the best writers in the world.” Donald Trump, Anthony Weiner, John Boehner . . . they’ve never failed to provide inspiration.

A political cartoonist for decades in Washington State and elsewhere, Priggee has worked in the newspaper business from its 1970s prime to its far more fragile present, from an era when syndication put his work in front of millions to a time when a cartoonist without his or her own website can hardly get seen at all. His Speakers Bureau talk lays bare the challenges facing local print media, as well as the political satirists who once found a welcoming home there.

Humanities Washington: What does “local” mean when we talk about the newspaper business in the 21st century? 
Milt Priggee: The whole industry is changing, in that print media is not the monopoly it once was, so it doesn’t garner as much attention. And that’s true about everything that’s in a newspaper. Right now, the newspapers are in a position that they should be in a synergy mode with their websites, and they’re not — they’re doing the complete opposite. They’re downsizing, they’re getting rid of what they have. And what they do have left they put on the Internet and give away for free. They keep shooting holes in the bottom of the boat and they don’t know why the ship is sinking. The landscape has made a dramatic shift, in that the Internet has made everybody a 24/7 media outlet. A weekly newspaper is no longer a weekly on the Internet. You have readers coming to you, and the Internet has provided newspapers a niche, meaning the Internet made the local newspaper the local experts for that local readership. There’s nobody else that has the wherewithal to investigate local stuff. MSNBC is not going to be talking about Hanford, unless it blows up. They’re not going to be talking about the McCleary decision on basic education funding in the state of Washington. The Seattle Times can do that. But newspapers still think they’re the mass media monopoly. So they’re dropping the ball on the local side.

Let’s talk about Candidate Trump. Is it fun for cartoonists to have a presidential nominee with so many easily caricatured features? 
How do you choose? It’s like a kid in a candy store. There’s so much, you just grab the first thing you can. When he started out, he was this one distraction, and everybody would jump on that one distraction. Now, his distractions are getting in the way of his distractions. Now it’s become a feeding frenzy for the media. The media now is starting to investigate — they’ve gotten tired of distractions, almost a year into this nomination process, and they’ve just now decided, “Hey, maybe we should do our job.”

President Obama will leave office next year. Have cartoonists faced particular challenges in depicting an African-American president in a satirical way without falling into racial caricature? 
No. As artists and cartoonists, I believe we have evolved beyond that. Also, if it falls into a racist caricature, then we do a Donald Trump: We create a distraction that gets in the way of what we’re trying to say. It would obliterate any satire, and the meaning of the satire. We’ve caricaturized not his race, but his facial features. He’s got the smile lines, he’s got round ears — they’re not huge like George W., but they stick out the sides of his head. He’s got a strong chin, a nice smile with lines around the corners of his mouth. None of that has anything to do with race. That’s not just me, I would bet 100 percent of  cartoonists would say the exact same thing. The sick, sad, racist imagery that I have seen is on Internet memes—those don’t have anything to do with political cartooning, which is dealing with issues, politics, events, what’s going on with the country. Those racist memes are just racist memes.

Your website includes contact points for your lawyers in case someone wants to sue you. Has that happened often, and is it a risk for satirical cartoonists? 
Yeah, I’ve been sued. Most cartoonists never, ever get sued. Like a cop pulling a gun and shooting a robber in the act of a robbery, it just doesn’t happen. What that note on my website means is, “I’m ready. You saw the link, you’ve been warned.” I’m undefeated — three libel lawsuits, two brought by judges, one by a state Supreme Court justice in the state of Ohio. Lawsuits against cartoonists … the interesting thing is if you’re sued, they won, because even though they are not gonna get any money, your lawyer says you can no longer draw about that subject, because you’re not gonna give them any more ammunition. And that’s what they really wanted. It’s revenge. It’s a blood money. The only money they can get is now they know that newspaper is spending X-thousands of dollars to defend that lawsuit. That’s all they can hope to get.

Do editorial cartoons have a duty to be funny, or is their responsibility owed more to simply making the point? 
Being funny is for the comic strips. It’s for the gag cartoons. Our main objective is to make you think. People attack me and say, “There’s nothing funny about that; you’re supposed to be funny.” I explain to them, this is opinion, and “opinion” does not mean “entertainment.” This is the editorial page, where we take a position on an issue, and then exaggerate. And if you don’t agree with what I’m saying, you’re gonna find it very, very, very hard to see it as humorous. But if you do agree with me, you’re going to be laughing. For one person, it’s funny. For another, it’s your sacred cow being gored.

Priggee is presenting free talks around the state as part of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau program. Find an event near you.

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