The Plain Dealer’s Gaza cartoon: How and why

Recently, The Plain Dealer published four opinion pieces — two columns, an editorial and an editorial cartoon — about Israel’s confrontation with a ship trying to run its blockade of Gaza that ended with nine “Free Gaza” activists dead.

The two columns, by Deputy Editorial Page Editor Kevin O’Brien and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, were pro-Israel. The editorial criticized both the motives of the Free Gaza Movement and Israel’s blockade tactics. The cartoon, by The Plain Dealer’s Jeff Darcy, was strongly critical of Israel.

No prizes for guessing which one elicited the most reaction.

Of course it was the cartoon, which appeared on the same June 3 editorial page as O’Brien’s column. It depicted an armed Israeli soldier having shot a dove labeled “Gaza Aid,” and saying, “I had no choice! It attacked me with an olive branch!”

All three written pieces stated forcefully that the people on the ship were activists seeking to provoke a confrontation, not olive branch-carrying peace lovers. But the cartoon was the lightning rod. It drew 160 online comments; many passionate letters to the editor, four of which were printed in last Sunday’s Forum section; and lots of e-mails to Editor Susan Goldberg, Editorial Page Editor Elizabeth Sullivan and others. It was posted or linked on websites across the country and the world.

The reason is no mystery: The cartoon presented powerful imagery on a controversial topic that drew an immediate, visceral reaction, no matter which side of the issue a reader was on.

I should note here that this was Darcy’s take on a specific incident: that Israel overreacted. It was not an overall indictment, as some suggested, of Israel’s right to defend itself.

But the beauty — and the hazard — of the political cartoon lies in its simplicity. Where columnists and editorialists aim to persuade and convince, the cartoonist doesn’t have a lot of room for nuance. His goal is that visceral reaction.

Editor Goldberg calls cartoons one of the “blunt instruments of our business.”

“They are very powerful weapons,” she said. “They can convey a message in an instant. They have the most ability to project at a glance, and the least opportunity for subtlety. They grab readers’ attention with a quick scan, but they often lack the context and perspective you can put in a story.”

As a result, great care must be taken with the volatile images at the cartoonist’s disposal, and that’s where many critics found fault.

“Darcy’s cartoon is provocative, misinformed, and belies an ignorance of the realities in the region,” wrote Lee C. Shapiro, director of the American Jewish Committee.

Bruce Mandel, chair of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, was similarly dismayed.

“My reaction to it was, how could the paper do this?” he said. “Wasn’t it unfair? How does it show any objective view of reality? Showing an Israeli soldier having killed a peace dove was so beyond the pale. This wasn’t a peace mission; it was a hostile act meant to provoke.”

A few points should be made:

First, the political cartoon, by definition, does not strive for objectivity or even fairness. It is pure opinion.

Second, it reflects the cartoonist’s opinion, not the newspaper’s official stance. “Jeff’s views are his own,” said Goldberg. “They are not the views of the newspaper as an institution.”

Third, the editors do not necessarily have to agree with the sentiments expressed by the cartoonist. In this case, Sullivan, who reviewed the cartoon before publication, didn’t agree with the position it took, and it is not the official opinion of the editorial board.

Fourth, despite the dismay of the critics, and what could fairly be called a lack of precision in the execution of the cartoon, it reflected a legitimate opinion on the incident that is shared by many.

And fifth, some charged that the cartoon reveals an anti-Israel bias. That’s neither fair nor accurate. Darcy has drawn dozens of cartoons on all sides of the many Middle East conflicts, and he has a bulging folder of work that is sympathetic to Israel and strongly critical of its enemies.

Given the cartoon’s prominence on the editorial page, it’s hard to blame readers for concluding that it expresses the paper’s official opinion.

When it does, however, it happens by coincidence, not design. As Sullivan says, “The whole point of having a cartoonist is to have a powerful, independent voice.”

Whether she agrees with that voice or not.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on June  13, 2010.

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