By Tim Whyte
I’ll never forget the day Randy Wicks died. It was 1996. My wife and I were on a camping trip to the Santa Barbara wine country with family and friends. We returned from a day of wine tasting and shopping in Solvang — I bought a straw cowboy hat, which I still have to this day. And when we got back, there was a note on our tent — we hadn’t graduated to RV’s yet — and it said to call John Boston, my pal and columnist for The Signal.
This was before we all had smartphones surgically attached to our hands, and a Post-It note on my tent was the fastest way for the campground hosts to relay a message to me.
I called Boston, and he said, “Buddy, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Randy Wicks died this morning.”
I was young then. Thirty-ish. It was the first time I’d ever been told directly that a close friend had died. I was flabbergasted.
Wicks was The Signal’s editorial cartoonist. He was a larger-than-life character, and a good friend, a guy who consumed information voraciously and laughed with his entire body. At 41, his death — due to a heart attack — was wholly unexpected.
When we got that news, Erin and I briefly debated what to do, and we pretty quickly decided to break camp and run back to Santa Clarita. We got back just in time for the candlelight vigil that night on the front porch of the newspaper’s offices on Creekside Road.
Wicks was a treasure in this community, and was regarded as such even by those he targeted with his editorial cartoons. His license plate said
PSN PEN, and he meant it.
In the years following his death, we started a scholarship program in his memory. Regrettably, the newspaper’s then-owners let it lapse around seven or eight years ago, but before we were done, we raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship funds for local students pursuing First Amendment careers, and some of them have gone on to stellar careers in journalism.
Today, I often wonder what Wicks would be contributing to our opinion pages if he were still around. Local politics? He’d be taking great joy in the political shift that has been occurring in the formerly red, now purple Santa Clarita Valley. Randy was quite the liberal, at a time when most political voices in the SCV were decidedly not. And oh, he’d be having a field day with President Trump…
Why do I bring this up now?
I bring it up because, even in Wicks’ heyday of the 1980s and 1990s, he was something of a luxury for a community newspaper: A full-time editorial cartoonist whose job was to illustrate the issues of the day, and to make people think, even if they disagreed with him. Even then, community newspapers like The Signal could scarcely afford a full-time editorial cartoonist — but even after we lost Wicks, we always knew the major metro papers had such bases covered.
Now, one of the most venerated newspapers in the world, the New York Times, has decided that editorial cartoons are no longer a necessity. The Times announced last week that they will no longer publish editorial cartoons in their international edition, and they have jettisoned their own contract cartoonists.
Was this a move made out of financial necessity? No. It was a move made out of fear.
It started with a recent editorial cartoon that somehow got past the Times’ highly paid opinion page editors. It contained anti-Semitic imagery, depicting Trump wearing a skullcap and being led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was portrayed as a guide dog wearing a leash attached to a collar bearing the Star of David.
That’s a pretty big “miss” for an editor. I feel their pain, because I am human and I, too, have made mistakes. I’ve had things get past me, despite every intention of vigilance.
But, there’s a “throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater” metaphor to be had here.
One of the Times’ two fired contract cartoonists, Patrick Chappatte, wrote about it on his website:
“In 20-plus years of delivering a twice-weekly cartoon for the International Herald Tribune first, and then The New York Times, and after receiving three Overseas Press Club of America awards in that category, I thought the case for political cartoons had been made (in a newspaper that was notoriously reluctant to the form in past history),” Chappatte wrote. “But something happened. In April 2019, a Netanyahu caricature from syndication reprinted in the international editions triggered widespread outrage, a Times apology and the termination of syndicated cartoons. Last week, my employers told me they’ll be ending in-house political cartoons as well by July. I’m putting down my pen, with a sigh: that’s a lot of years of work undone by a single cartoon — not even mine — that should never have run in the best newspaper of the world.”
He continued: “I’m afraid this is not just about cartoons, but about journalism and opinion in general. We are in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow. This requires immediate counter-measures by publishers, leaving no room for ponderation or meaningful discussions. Twitter is a place for furor, not debate. The most outraged voices tend to define the conversation, and the angry crowd follows in.”
Exactly. The Times has yielded to the angry mob rather than address the hiccup in editorial scrutiny that allowed an objectionable cartoon to appear on the opinion page.
Now, one year into my second tour of duty with The Signal, we no longer enjoy the unique local appeal of a Randy Wicks. But syndicated editorial cartoons are still a daily presence on our opinion pages. They convey opinions, in a visual way, that may make you laugh, cry or explode in anger. Whatever your political views are, a good editorial cartoon forces you to think.
It’s a unique form of art and commentary. It’s often funny, but often not, despite being identified as a “cartoon.”
For all those years when we were fortunate enough to have Wicks at The Signal, as a small-town community newspaper, a full-time cartoonist was a luxury.
It shouldn’t be a luxury for the New York Times. It should be a staple, and it’s a sad commentary that the newspaper that gets millions of eyeballs on the internet — and still buys more barrels of ink than just about anyone — is running scared.
Wicks would’ve had something to say about that, too.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.