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Diplomacy in Action

Rock the Laughs: Humor's Role in Presidential Elections

Jeff Gottfried, Research Associate, Pew Research Center; Martha Grove, Archivist, U.S. National Archives; and Matt Wuerker, Cartoonist, POLITICO
Washington, DC
November 17, 2015

11:00 A.M. EST


MS REAM: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. I’d like to also extend a welcome to the folks that will be watching from New York. My name is Mary-Katherine and I’m the information outreach specialist here at the Foreign Press Center. Before we get started, I’d like to ask all of you to just make sure that your phones are on silent. You can keep your phones, feel free to use them to take pictures, live tweet, whatever you want to do; we just ask that they remain silent for the duration of the program.

So today we’re really excited to offer you guys another program in our series on U.S. elections. This one will be looking at the role of humor in the U.S. elections, and we are delighted to have three experts to discuss the matter.

First we’ll be hearing from Martha Grove, who is an archivist at the U.S. National Archives. She’ll be providing the historical perspective by doing a case study on Clifford Berryman, whose cartoons you would have seen. They’re the black-and-white, kind of sepia-toned ones that you might have seen in the lobby.

Then we’ll move on to Matt Wuerker, who is an illustrator and cartoonist at POLITICO. He will provide the practitioner’s perspective, talking a little bit about his creative process and what he hopes to achieve with his cartoons. Again, you might have seen his cartoons in the lobby. Those would have been the more colorful ones. And incidentally, he is also the recipient of the National Press Foundation’s Berryman Award, so kind of a neat tie-in there.

And then finally, we’ll hear from Jeff Gottfried, who is a research associate at Pew Research Center. He helped co-author the paper – I think we sent it out – but that looked at the effect of The Colbert Report on voter knowledge of campaign finance. And currently, he looks at journalism issue such as the news media and political polarization, as well as how millennials’ news conception habits differ from those of previous generations.

So before we just get started, I’d just like to remind you all that the views represented here belong to the speakers and not those of the U.S. Government. I just want to be very clear about that. (Laughter.) And then without further ado – without further ado, please help me in welcoming Martha to the stage.

MS GROVE: Okay. Well, I’m going to start out with reading you a quote. Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell once jointly wrote together that, “A sense of humor is a prerequisite for running for public office. Candidates must expect to be caricatured by editorial cartoonists, sometimes with a very pointed pen. And throughout American history, the art of editorial cartooning has flourished not only because it is entertaining, but because it is healthy for the political process for people to be able to chuckle from time to time over what their government is doing.” Which I think is very true.

Clifford Berryman, who I’m going to show you a selection of his cartoons, he was a renowned political cartoonist in Washington during the first half of the 20th century, and he drew thousands of cartoons commenting on the political campaigns and candidates of his era. And while these cartoons relate to very specific campaigns and events, some of which happened more than a century ago, they also are timeless in the way that they reflect the American campaign process and give us some insight into some things that are happening today.

In 1886, at the age of 17, Berryman moved to Washington from Kentucky and he worked at the U.S. Patent Office drawing patent illustrations. And shortly after that, he left to become a cartoonist at The Washington Post. And then in 1907 he became the front page cartoonist at The Washington Evening Star, which was then the largest Washington newspaper at the time, and he drew political cartoons for The Washington Star until his death at the age of 80.

His cartoons appeared in Washington papers from 1898 up until 1949, and they were printed very prominently on the front page above the fold. No photographs to distract from his cartoons. He was welcomed by political circles in Washington and he satirized both Republicans and Democrats, but he really didn’t ever use outlandish caricature to – when he was drawing politicians, and people generally liked the way that they appeared in his cartoons.

Like many cartoonists, Berryman often used recognizable figures to convey some of the common concepts that he was drawing about, and in addition to his version of the Republican elephant and the Democrat donkey, he used the teddy bear, which was a term he originally coined and drew to represent Teddy Roosevelt and he later used to introduce his own point of view into his cartoons. And then he also – on the bottom there you can see Miss Democracy, who represented the voice of the American people; John Q. Public, who was supposed to sort of represent the common man; and Uncle Sam, who Berryman used to represent the country as a whole. And then the bee was a common character that he used which sort of generally symbolized the buzz of political office or the lure of political office buzzing in a candidate’s ear.

Now, in these cartoons Berryman captures potential candidates as they consider the first step of the campaign process. Some candidates require encouragement to jump into a presidential election, and Secretary of War William Howard Taft, who is shown here, told President Theodore Roosevelt that his highest ambition was to serve as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. But Roosevelt hoped that Taft would run as his successor in the 1908 presidential election, and with Roosevelt’s encouragement Taft began to consider that option. And this cartoon you can see Taft sort of swatting away the buzz of a potential Supreme Court nomination so that he can better hear the enticing buzz of the presidency.

A race with many candidates and no clear frontrunner can prove very challenging to a party. In 1924, the Democratic race to challenge Republican President Calvin Coolidge opened up when the frontrunner proved to be weaker than expected. This cartoon comments on the ever-growing field of potential candidates who are all throwing their hat in the ring, and the Democratic donkey is looking very worried about this crowded field with no clear frontrunner. And the donkey really worried with a very good reason. The Democrats lost to Coolidge later on in the general election.

Sometimes it’s a potential candidate’s hesitancy to run that makes the party nervous. In 1916, as President Wilson’s first term was entering its final year, it was unclear whether he was going to run for a second term. State primary laws require candidates to declare their intention to run by a particular date, and here Ohio’s deadline was fast approaching and you can see hear Miss Ohio is sort of inquiring of this very bashful looking Wilson whether he’d declare his candidacy in time for his name to appear on the state ballot. And he did – eventually, he did put his – submit his name in time, although he did not publicly declare his candidacy until later.

Modern primary elections begin with a large number of candidates and the field narrows as the primary season progresses. This cartoon was printed in The Washington Evening Star on the day of the 1948 Nebraska primary, and it shows the Republican Party – the Republican Party elephant is depicted sort of as a watchful mother chastising her sons for their bitter infighting because she knows that a divisive primary is likely to hurt the party in the general election.

And after a divisive primary, it can be very difficult for a party to unite voters behind their chosen candidate when you get to the general election, and that is what happened in 1924. Here, Calvin Coolidge, who was the incumbent president, breezed through the primary – the Republican primary because he was unopposed, and you can see the Republicans have advanced unscathed to the election on the fairway, and the Democratic candidates are waging off in the corner – they’re waging a very hostile battle in the primaries. And Coolidge, as you can – sort of foreshadowed in this cartoon, went on to win a second term.

When candidates declare an official bid for election, they begin the phase of the campaign process that is probably most familiar to us. When this cartoon was published, the election was still nearly a year and a half away, although there were no clear frontrunners, and both of the major parties were in need of a campaign platform now that World War I was effectively over and was no longer dominating the national agenda. And this cartoon captures the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey sitting on the same log but fishing on different sides of the campaign issues pool, seeing what they can find.

During a campaign, candidates must identify issues and articulate very explicit positions on those issues, and that can create problems for candidates who change their opinions or flip-flop on issues from one election to another. And in this cartoon, which was printed in – right before the 1948 presidential election, third-party candidate Henry Wallace is shown flip-flopping on defense policy. When he was vice president under FDR during World War II, he had staunchly defended military preparedness as a deterrent to war. However, later in 1948 when he was running for the presidency, he changed his position and argued that military preparedness would not prevent a confrontation, and ultimately, he did not fare very well in the election.

In these couple of cartoons that follow, Berryman shows the role of the voters. Candidates and political parties tend to view the voting population in terms of interest groups, and in this particular cartoon, you can see a number of candidates, different politicians, including Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, shown cozying up to the working man. And Berryman is pointing out here all the attention lavished on the labor vote which was a very powerful voting bloc, particularly during the era of industrialization when this was drawn. There we go.

Taxes are a perpetual issue, particularly lower taxes for the people. When the 1924 presidential election was only two weeks away, politicians from all of the parties began to promise lower taxes in order to woo voters, and here you can see Mr. Taxpayer reveling at all of the attention as the parties try to outdo each other. And the – I think you probably recognize the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, which were commonly used symbols, but here you also see the Progressive Party goat, which was a very short-lived symbol in the 1924 election.

These cartoons capture candidates during the final days of the campaign, and this is one of my favorites. I think the drawing really is pretty self-evident and speaks for itself, but it’s really quite timeless, I think. The cartoon shows the three presidential candidates who are running on the eve of the very contentious 1912 presidential election. On the left is former President Theodore Roosevelt who is running on the – as the Progressive candidate, the Bull Moose Party. And in the middle is Woodrow Wilson, who was the Democratic nominee. And President Taft, who is the incumbent president, was running for the Republican Party on the right. And the cartoon reveals both the anxiety – showing the anxiety underneath the confident public persona that each of the candidates needed to project. And Wilson went on to win the election when Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote.

This cartoon captures one of the most famous political upsets probably in all of American history. In 1948, President Harry Truman, the Democratic nominee, was forecast to lose by a large majority to Republican nominee Thomas Dewey. And this cartoon was published just – in just a couple of days before the election showing Dewey looking very confidently over Truman’s shoulder as they both are reading bulletins showing the prevailing public opinions. And despite the polls that predicted a landslide victory for Dewey, Truman went on to win, and this famous photograph – which you’re probably familiar with, with its very prematurely printed headline – shows just how sure many journalists were that Dewey was going to win that election.

A change in the presidency can cause a major reorganization of the Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch – excuse me – and a drastic shift in both the foreign and domestic policy, but oftentimes, that is not the primary focus of the media in the aftermath immediately following an election. And as I said, the 1912 election resulted in a huge victory for the Democratic Party. In addition to winning the presidency, they also won majorities in both houses of Congress. And here you can see a very surprised-looking Miss Democracy two days after the election carrying the House and the Senate in her hands with the White House tucked under her arm, wondering what this change in leadership is going to mean.

There will always be winners and losers, but this cartoon points to the enduring relationship between the majority parties. The Democratic donkey is cheered by his party’s new power, consoling the defeated Republican elephant as the old year sets over the horizon. And this is a cartoon showing 1931, setting off to the side after the end.

And this is just a small sampling of many of the Berryman cartoons that we have, but I think – although they are quite historic in nature, they really demonstrate some of the timeless scenes in American elections. There are more than 2,400 of Berryman’s original pen-and-ink drawings at the National Archives, and this website – if you go to this website, there’s a link to all of the images that are available in our online catalog, if anybody has any particular curiosity or use for them. Thank you.

MR WUERKER: I hate going after Berryman. This isn’t usually what I have to do. I mean, Berryman is, like, one of the great granddaddies of political cartooning and now I have to show my stuff after that. (Laughter.) I am – but I am a direct descendant of Berryman, who comes from a long tradition of American political cartooning that actually goes back to the Revolution and Ben Franklin. And through almost the first couple centuries, we – we, the political cartoonists – enjoyed a really unique place in the media.

But for a long time, we were sort of unique in that the press was generally polite; there wasn’t a lot of space for political satire. There were satirists who wrote for magazines and things like that, but for many, many, many years, like Berryman, if you wanted political satire, you’d have to go to a newspaper and it was displayed prominently on the front page in many cases, and in many cases, double-page spreads. So we had the whole terrain to ourselves for a long time.

Even though I work in a tradition that’s very similar to Berryman in that I draw on paper with pen and ink and everything and I’m a single-frame political cartoonist, I live in a media landscape that’s entirely different now, and I have to share it with Comedy Central and Jon Stewart and now Twitter and now Facebook and Charlie Hebdo and the world – the media world that I navigate is a really different world even though the way – the little boat that I’m navigating in is pretty much the same boat that Berryman was rowing along in.

And there’s been sort of some despair over the last 10 years that political cartooning in the United States is kind of going away, that the newspaper industry is cutting staff, and there used to be – maybe 10, 15 years ago, there were probably 200 staff political cartoonists around the United States, and now there’s maybe 60 that work as full-time cartoonists. But I’m not a pessimist about it because I think in this crazy media landscape that we’re working in now, there is something enduring and unique about this crazy, old, antiquated format. It’s a combination of caricaturing somebody, wrapping up a political opinion in a – hopefully a humorous illustration that’s a combination of making a political point and, at the same time, making people laugh.

And if you think about sort of – I mean, the transition that’s been happening in the media faster and faster and faster is this low-attention-span culture that we live in, the sort of – the world of Twitter, where it’s – if you can’t say it in 140 characters, a lot of people aren’t going to read it. And the old saying about a picture’s worth a thousand words is kind of true in that I can take – I can take a concept or a political opinion that might take a very talented columnist a thousand words to write out in a long column, but the number of people that are going to stop and read that thousand-word column is getting smaller and smaller, whereas the cartoonist – thank heavens – for instance, Twitter is now using Twitpics. So one of the sources of my traffic on POLITICO is coming in through social media, where people will share the cartoon. People – psychologists have sat around with stopwatches and they’ve timed this activity, and most people can ingest a cartoon in about three to four seconds – like scan it, read it, laugh, hate it, whatever – and on the fifth or sixth second, tweet it.

And so in some ways it’s actually – I mean, when – POLITICO started just nine years ago, and we – they made this sort of odd move of hiring a staff cartoonist like me. And fortunately there were very smart people there who were working the social media part of it and went, “Oh, this works really well on Facebook; this works really well on Twitter. We can drive traffic into the sort of boring parts of a news site by baiting it with these little silly cartoons.”

So, a bit on my process: Most cartoonists that work for daily newspapers have all sorts of editorial oversight, because they’re worried about what the cartoonist might do. I’m one of the very lucky ones in that my bosses are way too busy trying to run POLITICO, and – so I get to do pretty much whatever I want. The only editors I really have to deal with are a copy editor who keeps me from embarrassing us with my bad spelling and grammar, but other than that, I get to draw whatever I want. And not only do I not speak for the United States Government, I also don’t speak for POLITICO.

And this is becoming more and more common. I mean, in the world of pundits and opinion-makers – once upon a time, Berryman really spoke for the paper. But these days, Tom Toles, who draws for The Washington Post, or Ann Telnaes, who also does animations for the Post –we’re independent contractors who are contracted to express our opinion and have a conversation, and the Post doesn’t have to own it. And we’re not pushing a party line or a corporate line. So I enjoy complete political freedom, and that also gives my editors plausible deniability, so if people go, “That was a hideous cartoon,” they’ll go, “Email Matt. Here’s his email address.”

The social media is also a two-way street. It’s really interesting. I mean, once upon a time, editorial cartoonists like Berryman probably didn’t have to field a lot of hate mail. People would still, I’m sure, write letters and stuff and say, “That was a horrible cartoon; I couldn’t disagree more.” The problem with social media is there’s the immediate channel to respond to the cartoonist – either privately, which is what some people do, or quite publicly, like on the Twitter feeds. And so, like, I’ll do a cartoon, post it at noon, and I’ll – it’s – people are more often prone to expressing negative opinions than positive opinions, so the Twitter response tends to be mostly negative. You get some positive, and now with Twitter I get the little hearts. I get the little, “Oh I like that” or “I love that.” (Laughter.) And we’re all just looking for personal validation.

Some of these are hard to see at that distance or whatever. The other thing that I really like about cartooning is that a lot of messages can be pretty much purely visual. This is let Hillary be Hillary. It’s a very big department. This is way too small. And this is the Iowa State Fair and turning each of the candidates into a ride and stuff like that. The cartoons that are purely visual have the advantage of being a quicker read.

And then the other interesting thing about working as a political cartoonist in this day and age is the international ramifications of cartooning, where the Danish cartoons and Charlie Hebdo would be the prime example where cartoons that are drawn for – I mean, POLITICO, our main audience is sort of a very inside-the-Beltway kind of crowd, and there’s a certain sensibility, a certain sense of humor, a certain – even certain topics or whatever. But those – immediately when we post them online, the audience is international. And I think that part of what the world is struggling with is that the global village is really here now and we all have to learn to get along, even though we have vastly different senses of humor.

And I don’t – it’s a paradox. I mean, I don’t know how you solve that one. I mean, there’s stuff that cartoonists in the UK – the English cartoonists have a sense of humor that’s very bawdy and tends to be somewhat scatological. And most of the cartoons that you print even in London, which culturally is quite close to Washington, editors here would never print because the English just sort of – they love to throw shit into their cartoons, and the editors – I know that my POLITICO editors wouldn’t let me do that. So if you think about that sort of cultural difference, then you’re thinking about the difference between cartooning for Washington versus Lahore, Pakistan or something. And the problem is you really are – I mean, cartoons can be so easily taken out of context and misunderstood because the cultural frame or cultural reference just is entirely different.

These are all – why did I pick such small, intricate cartoons? This one I like. This is Donald Trump. This is the Trump Hotel – you know the Escher images – and the elephants are trapped in the Trump Hotel, and there’s that line from the Eagles, “You can check in but you can never leave.” They’re starting to have that feeling.

I was just thinking watching the Berryman stuff that we have the donkey and the elephant, and the Tea Party is actually in need of an animal mascot. I mean, the cartoonists now are using – I don’t know if I have one here --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR WUERKER: Yeah. Well, we have the little hat with the teabags hanging down, which works okay. (Laughter.) But there’s time for – there needs to be an animal.

So – and this is a good example of a cartoon that – where you skip the words. This is Jeb Bush trying to live the legacy of his family.

So anyway, that’s sort of – I’ll take questions later if you have other questions about POLITICO, but I do have one of the easiest jobs in Washington by far. So, thank you.

MR GOTTFRIED: I’m a little bummed that I have to go third and my slides are not going to be nearly as exciting. (Laughter.)

So I’m going to start out with – I’m presenting some research that I’ve done both at my current position at the Pew Research Center and also, as was previously mentioned, some of the work that I did while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania looking at Colbert’s role on knowledge and political perceptions. But before I get to that, I have to do my spiel about what the Pew Research Center actually is.

So we are a nonpartisan fact tank in which we look at the trends and issues and attitudes in America and around the world. We do it in a variety of different methodologies. What I’m going to be presenting here is a lot on public opinion polling, but we do not take policy positions. We do not advocate and we don’t provide any recommendations whatsoever. But you can follow us at – go to – all of our research and all of the research that I’m presenting today from Pew is available on our website.

So I’m going to – I’m not talking about cartoons here, but I’m – the data that we have on really is about Colbert – The Colbert Report, specifically, and The Daily Show – and how that fits into people’s habits and how they are informed about politics.

And so last year in the spring, we did a giant study that looked at how people are becoming informed about politics. And we released a report last October that looked at the relationship between political polarization in America and people’s media habits, and this past spring, looking at how people in different generations are informed about politics.

So one of the questions that we wanted to answer in the study, first off, is generally, are just people aware of various news sources, and at what levels? So I know that’s probably really tiny to see, but I’ll zoom in on what I’m actually going to – what I’m focused in here is to look at the extent to which people are actually aware of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show as sources of news about government and politics. And about six in ten online Americans are actually aware of these sources, which I think is actually a fairly high percentage. It’s more heard of than other sources like NPR or The Economist or BuzzFeed. It’s sort of – it’s on par with other things like Huffington Post. But clearly, it’s not going to be as high as some of the top cable news networks, the national news networks, and national papers.

But also it rivals many of the traditional sources in the actual audience sizes. Again, I’ll zoom in into what’s the actual important part there. So about 12 percent of online Americans said that they got news about government and politics from The Daily Show (inaudible) The Colbert Report. So, although, again, while it’s not as high as some of the cable news networks or national networks, it attracts a similar audience as some of these major national outlets, such as national papers such as USA Today and The Wall Street Journal and digital outlets such as the Huffington Post. But something to keep in mind here is that there are clear ideological differences in who is actually going there.

So clearly, if you look at this chart here, you can see that these two satirical news programs are attracting viewers much more so from the left than they are from the right. About a third of those who have consistently liberal political values said that they’d gotten news from The Daily Show in the previous week, which I think is fairly high. And that plummets to 1 percent of those who say they have consistently conservative political views, and we see a similar pattern here for The Colbert Report as well.

But beyond just where they – if they go there, it’s also we wanted to look at their attitudes towards these sources. And specifically we asked about whether they trust or distrust these sources for news about government and politics. And again, we see this large ideological split here. Nearly a half of those with consistently liberal political views trust The Daily Show for news about government and politics, and again, this plummets for consistent conservatives to less than 1 percent. And we can see the inverse here when we’re looking at the level of distrust for this source. Nearly a third of those who are consistent conservatives distrust the Colbert – The Daily Show for news about government and politics, and we see a very similar pattern here for The Colbert Report.

So we see that there is something clear here and something ideologically stark here, but there’s also importance when we look at age and generational differences. So compared with many of the cable and national news shows, Colbert and Daily Show really had lower age audiences, much lower than TV shows such as O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, and Rachel Maddow. And younger males particularly stand out for their level of consumption and trust for these two programs. And again, thinking about distrust levels, there is a stark difference when you look at it by generation. I’m going to zoom in on what is actually important there.

So what this chart is showing is that the purple boxes are those in which there’s more – higher levels of trust than distrust for that source in that generation. Yellow is there’s more distrust than trust, and gray is there’s about equal levels of trust and distrust. And what you can see here, there’s a stark difference when you look at The Colbert Report and when you look at The Daily Show. For both of these shows, for millennials there is higher levels of trust than there is to distrust, and there’s the reverse for Gen Xers and for baby boomers, in which there’s higher levels of distrust than there is trust.

So another thing that we looked at in a previous study in 2010 was to look at the motivations for why people are actually going there, and I’ll highlight the two at the bottom are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. So regular viewers of these two shows said that they primarily went there for entertainment purposes, which probably isn’t that surprising, and you can see how these differ from the other sources that we asked about. So while many people are saying that they are going to these sources for news about government and politics, and while much of the content on these programs is political and a lot of political figures are appearing on these shows, people are still saying that they are going there for entertainment purposes, not for in-depth reporting or for views and opinions.

So this brings me into some of the work that I did at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. So again, if you don’t like this part, don’t blame Pew for it. Blame me. (Laughter.) And what we wanted to do is that since we know that people go there for news, and we know that people are going there for entertainment, what impact can viewing these types of programs have on viewers. So I don’t know if many of you remember what happened in 2012 with Colbert, where he actually created his own SuperPAC, his own independent expenditure group, and he created this really intricate narrative. He inserted himself in that process in a very sophisticated way that no other news organization was doing. And so what we wanted to do was to find out whether people viewing that program had different levels of knowledge about campaign finance than they – than any other source.

And so what we did is we asked respondents three questions about campaign finance, about SuperPACs and about the 501(c)(4) groups, and we combined these into a single measure to get an assessment of how knowledgeable people were. And what we found was that, as you probably saw in what was sent out, was that viewing The Colbert Report increased knowledge more so than any other news organization. This includes cable news programs. This includes national news programs, newspapers, radio, and so forth.

And so overall, what we found in that paper was that we know that people who are generally more knowledgeable are going to be more knowledgeable about campaign finance. But again, watching The Colbert Report increased knowledge above and beyond people’s political knowledge, and it did so more than any other news source. But we also wanted to take that one step further and see how that influences people’s perceptions, and so we asked people their assessment of – to talk about – to assess what their thoughts on the role of money in politics was. And so we found that people who were generally more knowledgeable about campaign finance were more likely to have a negative view about the role of money in the political process.

And so what that meant then is that because Colbert increased viewers’ knowledge of campaign finance, he also indirectly influenced people’s perceptions of the role of money in the political process. Now, I want to caveat all of this by saying that this was a very unique case study. Whether other media organizations can replicate something like this or whether Colbert could have even replicated it himself with another topic is up for further study, but it was a very, very unique case study wherein he was able to insert himself into the political process.

And I’d be happy to take any questions on any of this. Thank you.

MS REAM: Thank you, all of you. And now we’re going to go ahead and open up the floor to questions. If you have any, please raise your hand. We’ll call on you and we ask that you wait for the microphone and just state your name and outlet for the record.

Are there any questions? The gentleman right here.

QUESTION: I’m Gilles Paris from the – sorry. My name is Gilles Paris working for the French newspaper Le Monde. I’ve got a question about the candidates. Do you have the feeling that they are going further and further on your field, the field of humor, and that it could make it more difficult for you because they are kind of competitors now? (Laughter.)

MR WUERKER: I assume this is for me. (Laughter.) Yeah. No, they – when reality starts to outstrip satire, it’s a problem for the satirists, and we’re definitely experiencing that with this election. Every year it seems like you feel like it’s gone as far as it’s going to go, and then the next campaign it seems to go farther.

I’m surprised, though. I mean, one part of your question is the way the campaigns might use humor. I’m surprised the campaigns don’t use more humor because it’s such an effective way to communicate with people. You would think that they would hire satirists or cartoonists or generate more humorous content, especially out there – and they’re pushing a lot of stuff out in social media. And there’s this really popular thing over the last five, six years of these memes that people grab a photo from the news and they put a couple of words over the top of it, which – and it’s basically a do-it-yourself political cartoon done with a photo. And some of them are really, really funny, and I’m surprised that some of the candidates don’t have, like, a staff of memers just pushing that stuff out. They might, actually. I don’t know. Maybe you should look into that. Maybe they’re all coming from the campaigns.

You have a great cartoonist too, Plantu, who they run on the front page. (Laughter.)

MS REAM: The gentleman in the third row.

QUESTION: My name is Alex Panetta. I’m with the Canadian Press News Agency, and I just had a couple questions for Matt. First, you mentioned foreign audiences that you – that now have access to your work because of social media. So I was wondering if you detected any difference in – as to what plays abroad about American politics as opposed to at home, if you see a big difference or not.

The second thing I wanted to ask you is on a – in a resolutely unfunny week like the one we’ve just had, how do you deal with that? How do you adapt to the sort of the mood of the time? And do you find it more difficult to work in less funny times?

MR WUERKER: Definitely much harder to work in less funny times. And a lot of cartoonists in weeks like this will sort of fall back on there’s a very traditional cartoon trope of sort of sad cartoon – the Statue of Liberty crying and things like that. And I’m – I actually think that if you look at the way Colbert or Jon Stewart react to those things, it’s a much better example where they just sort of say, look, satire and humor are something – it’s a voice that’s good for dealing with a lot of things in the world in life. Grief and shock are not really suitable. So I tend to skirt it, and I did a cartoon that’s in POLITICO today that’s actually sort of making fun of the – sort of the automatic response of the weeping Statue of Liberty and stuff like that. It’s a little bit of an inside cartoonist cartoon sort of take.

But I – just the voice is all wrong, some things are just unfunny. And I think that the danger with cartooning in particular but satire in general is that you’re – you can trivialize things that really shouldn’t be trivialized. So in moments of great tragedy, my recommendation for most cartoonists is just steer clear; leave that to the people that speak in serious voices, if that answers your question.

And then the first one about the international audiences, the cartoons that don’t use English work really well internationally. The pure visual one, like the one of Bush, that one works for a Chinese audience or – just as well as an English audience, assuming the caricatures are discernible or something like that. But there’s – the other – the main problem for a lot of editorial cartooning is the politics are local and then also the metaphors are local.

A friend of mine, Roman Genn, who does a lot of cartooning for sort of conservative media like the National Review – he was raised in Moscow and he moved here in the ’90s and he’s a very talented cartoonist and caricaturist. And he started to do political cartoons for an American audience and he kept tripping up on the right metaphor, so Roman would call me up and he’d go, “Matt, I’m confused. In Russia, we have this expression that you don’t stick your head in a beehive,” or something like that. And I’d go, “Oh, that’s kicking over a hornet’s nest,” and he’d go, “Hornets?” And it’s like, well, that’s what we call it here. So, I mean, cartoonists – you have to use fairytales and figures of speech, and those don’t translate.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Mony Say, working for Voice of America. My question is for Matt. I was wondering, how do you kind of prevent yourself from – I mean, of course you don’t put your personal opinion on the cartoons you draw. But how can you just make sure it is not something that each political party can accuse you of maybe political bias by your cartoon?

MR WUERKER: Oh, I’m allowed to have a bias, and I’m also sort of encouraged to express my own opinion. The confusion sometimes is that people think that it’s the opinion of POLITICO, the company I work for, and it’s really just my opinion, so – and there’s a certain – there’s a certain value to going ahead and being provocative. In fact, some cartoonists intentionally are provocative because if you create conflict and provocation on the internet, that draws eyeballs.

So in the wake of things like the Danish cartoon thing or Charlie Hebdo, the thing that I found quite disturbing is that there were a number of people who took advantage of the situation to elevate their own visibility as a cartoonist by intentionally doing provocative stuff, which to me seems really irresponsible. I mean, there is some – we’re supposed to be just sort of care-free and I believe in completely unfettered free speech. But at the same time, with that complete freedom, there’s some responsibility to act responsibly. So there is levels of provocation that are just part of a democratic discourse, and then there’s provocation for provocation’s sake that – where you’re just exploiting the fact that if I pick a fight or I step on someone’s toes, it’s going to create a lot of heat and noise and that raises my visibility. So --

QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian from Egyptian (inaudible). First for Matt – and Matt, you mentioned the number is decreasing of – as a matter of fact, in the last 15 years, it’s like, from 200 to 60, or even less, even. And so why you are – when you say in the same sentence that you are optimistic, how you can be optimistic if it’s the editorial cartooning in general? I’m following it in the last 20 years, any – all over the world is shrinking.

The second question to you again, it’s: The so-called or whatever its phrase is, politically correct – how do you handle it and how you feel it’s – like staying next to you and saying do this or not do that?

And for Jeff, if you may ask: I mean, we are talking always about this program – satirical programs in case of Egypt, Arab world, Bassem Youssef in the same way. But, I mean, people are making like – as if they are feeling, okay, they feel that these – Jon Stewart and all these – Colbert – they are there, they are – have an impact, but in the same time, they said – as if, like, a danger for the other media.

Do you think that – how we can – what is the future of the satirical news program playing a role in shaping people mind in the coming days? I mean, maybe you may use two heads of Pew and the other one. (Laughter.)

MR WUERKER: Do you want to go first?

MR GOTTFRIED: So what are the future of – I mean, it’s really seemed to have stuck with the liberal side. They really have gotten liberal audiences and with younger audiences, and they seem to be ways in which you can get a different audience that you couldn’t get otherwise to engage people. And something important to mention in some of that research that’s in that paper is that satire lowers that bar, sort of, of being able to engage and to learn, and that’s why perhaps Colbert was able to be so successful in informing people, because you lower that bar to be able to get people engaged with that narrative.

And so whether – what’s the impact on future things? I don’t – that’s going to need future research. And what’s the future? I mean, we have to sort of see how Trevor Noah plays out, we have to see how – I mean, John Oliver seems to have been quite successful. But on the conservative side, there’s been attempts to – with conservative audiences – Fox News, at some point, I believe had a short-lived program. So it hasn’t been quite as successful for a conservative as it has been, but – I know I skirted your question a little bit, but I always end on a – from my academic hat that future research is always needed. (Laughter.)

MR WUERKER: To answer your question about why I’m optimistic, you have to realize that – now I’m just speaking for cartoonists, but you could broaden it to political satirists in general. Political cartoonists, we’re sort of an opportunistic parasite if you think about it. We – what we do is this odd little activity, and we managed to latch on a couple centuries ago to newspapers, and it was a big fat – we’re like some little flea that jumped on a great big dog, and that was a very healthy dog for a really long time. But that particular dog, the daily newsprint, as you all know as journalists, is dying or having to give way to other platforms.

But the reason I’m optimistic is those other platforms are – there are many, many new dogs, and so for little parasitical fleas like me, you can jump on – 10, 15 years ago, people didn’t understand what Twitter and Facebook were going to mean to the media and how cartoons work like that, and I think more and more websites and bloggers are understanding that the internet is primarily a visual medium where images that are striking and colorful draw people’s attention, humor draws people’s attention, political commentary – you mix all that together and you’ve got cartooning. So the trick for everybody – and again, I’m talking to a room full of journalists – is how do you monetize content? And hopefully, there’s some healthy dogs out there that we can all jump on.

QUESTION: And the other question?

MR WUERKER: Oh, about political correctness? I think that it’s a thing where every cartoonist has to make sort of a choice about who they’re communicating with and what kind of audience they want to reach. And it used to be a simple question, like you could work for a small little satirical magazine in Paris like Charlie Hebdo and your audience was a small, sophisticated, jaded audience in Paris that got this dark sense of satire, or the same with a small magazine in Denmark or something like that.

So in the international sense, it’s become much more of a quandary. You can’t just narrowcast – and people do, and there are niches for cartoonists. If you want to speak to just the rabid right wing or the crazy left wing, there are publications where you can do that, and that gives you a certain amount of latitude in terms of how un-PC or PC you need to be.

If you’re trying to speak to a general audience and not limit yourself – political correctness is a confusing term to me – it’s just – you choose a certain level of bile or satire, and you can dial it up or you can dial it down. And if you dial it up, it’s going to limit the number of people that are going to appreciate the humor or get the message; and if you dial it down, you can dial it down too far and it’s not funny, or whatever. So you have to find the happy medium depending on who you’re trying to reach.

MR GOTTFRIED: Just if I can jump in for a bit to just do a – kind of a shameless plug: So at the Pew Research Center we did a little bit of research on the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo and looking at whether Americans actually think that it was appropriate to publish the cartoons. This is all available, again, on the Pew Research website. Just to show that Americans – a majority of Americans actually thought it was okay to publish those cartoons, and you can go in there and look at the reasons why, but we asked them the reasons why they actually thought that it was okay, and among those who thought it was not okay, what the reasons they provided for doing that was. So I encourage you to go look at that.

MS REAM: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Nicolas Richter from Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Germany. Two questions for Matt: There’s a lot of – in the Republican Party and the conservative media, they make people afraid a lot; there’s a lot of fear – the immigrants, the Muslims, the terrorists that come through the Mexican border. Is that something that you can make fun of? Is it easy to translate in a cartoon? Or are you also afraid that something might happen and then it would look silly to have made fun of that?

And the second question is Obama – I saw this press conference yesterday, and he seems very cool and very – and he – but people don’t really feel reassured by him because they feel he’s not doing enough in Syria. And is this an issue that you can make fun of? Have you done so sometimes? Thank you.

MR WUERKER: In terms of sort of taking on the xenophobia in the right wing, there’s lots to make fun of with that stuff, I mean, because they oversell it so much. There’s a – if you look at the conservative cartoonists, there’s a lot of stuff now that they’re doing. I mean, there was one that I think appeared just yesterday that’s been making its way around Twitter of people sweeping the immigrants out of the United States, and the immigrants are rats. It’s a cartoon out of the 18th century. It’s sort of from the worst tradition of American sort of xenophobia. But yeah, you can certainly make fun of that.

Whether or not you end up doing that at the wrong day and then you end up looking like a bleeding-heart liberal or something like that, that’s just – anybody who’s offering opinions in the media runs that risk, and that’s just a risk you run.

In terms of Obama, I mean, I tend to criticize Obama actually from the left in that I – he’s – in terms of his foreign policy. He’s been maybe too close to sort of the Bush-Cheney things. I’m one of those that was rooting for Guantanamo to be closed six years ago, like he promised. There’s a – and there’s a big range of opinion. There’s plenty of stuff to criticize the Administration on.

And in the beginning – this is a bit of an aside – in the beginning there was a little hesitancy, frankly, especially for cartoonists, because he was the first African American president. And again, if you go back to 19th century American cartooning, there was a very rich tradition of hideously racist cartooning, and so this – it’s not piece – I don’t – I get into arguments with right-wing cartoonists all the time about this. Some sensitivity to the actual history of the image-making and the culture isn’t political correctness, it’s just an awareness of history and not wanting to fall back into that stuff was kind of – it was a dangerous issue when Obama was running, because you could take the caricature too far and you’re starting to tread into these horrible racial stereotypes that were a very deep tradition here. But we got over that pretty quick, and pretty soon his ears were getting really big and we could – and everybody sort of relaxed.

And the other thing that was kind of great was John Boehner became speaker of the House two years later, so we were – so we had a – when we were all uptight about drawing people of color, we had the first black president and the first orange speaker. (Laughter.) So everybody could relax.

QUESTION: Can I follow up with – about this?


MS REAM: We have time for one more question (inaudible).

QUESTION: I mean, just the same way with – you talk about Obama, the issue of – I mean, Hillary is running. To be, like, labeled a sexist – what do you think about it?

MR WUERKER: Again, I think that it depends on what audience you want to reach. I mean, I could be really mean when I draw Hillary, but I don’t want to get that phone call from my mother. (Laughter.) So why would I do that? You know what I mean? It gets in the way of the message. That doesn’t – there are some – if you look at the range of the cartoon approaches to Hillary, there are some right-wing cartoonists that do just hideously witchy Hillarys, but again, they’re speaking to their narrow audience that they want Hillary to look as bad as possible. If you’re trying to sort of speak to a middle ground, you’re not going to go too far. I mean, we can be terribly mean, and it’s a matter of, again, turning the dial up or turning the dial down.

MS REAM: I think we’ll end on that note. Thank you all for joining us. We will provide the transcript and a download link for the high-quality video as soon as it becomes available. Thank you. (Applause.)

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