> Read the original essay [June 10, 2019] that triggered this debate.
> See the global reaction to it in the media all over the world here
> Below is a translated interview given by Chappatte to French daily Libération, which dedicated its front page and a full dossier to this question on June 22, 2019

Patrick Chappatte: "Intimidated media tend to integrate social media codes"


By Christian Losson and Quentin Girard
[INTERVIEW in French daily Libération, June 22, 2019]

. . .
Patrick Chappatte's contract ended with the decision of the New York Times to stop the cartoons. He goes back to what he believes can lead to "self-censorship". Chappatte, 52, was an editorial cartoonist for more than twenty years for the International Herald Tribune and then for The New York Times (international editions and website). He is one of the few voices inside the American daily to have spoken out against the decision to do away with political cartoons.
. . .

Have you had any news from The New York Times since your blog post, in which you criticized the newspaper’s decision?

No, but I did not expect to have any either. I had been informed of the decision to terminate cartoons ten days before my post and the door was left open to other forms of collaboration, such as comics journalism. I was told I could pitch projects. But it doesn't necessarily replace editorial cartoons, and my contract has come to an end. They finally decided to take the simplest and most radical step: how to manage the freedom of political cartoonists? It's easier not to have one. Their position is that the decision to get rid of cartoons has nothing to do with that cartoon scandal. Basically, they’re saying that editorial cartoons are not for them. How can such a message be received by cartoonists around the world who have paid in their safety, some with their lives, how will it be felt by those in prison or in exile? It still looks like preventive self-censorship.

Is there a fear of subversion by editorial cartoons at The New York Times?

In any case, it is difficult to control political cartoons according the criteria they are used to. In a text, there is editing, proofreading, you can change a word here or there. A cartoon is an image in one block. Sometimes you can decide not to publish a cartoon, but you can also publish a cartoon and find out it will blow in your face. The crisis triggered by that controversial caricature should have allowed for a debate in the columns of the NYT. But when newspapers are the target of attacks, they have a hard time applying to themselves the very principles of their trade: putting things into perspective, taking a step back, analyzing. There is no longer a public editor at the Times, someone who would have played that role, who would have said: "Wait, let's calm down, this is what happened, what did that cartoon mean ? and so on."

Was Antonio Antunes' caricature of a blind Trump pulled by the leash of a guide dog with Netanyahu’s face clearly an anti-Semitic drawing in your opinion?

We can have a discussion about that. But all we had was anathema on one side and apologies on the other. The accusation of anti-Semitism is a killer argument. There is no half anti-Semitism, you are anti-Semitic or you are not. Once the accusation is made, once the infamous label is slapped, we cannot debate much. It was an unfortunate drawing, which had no place in the New York Times.
Antonio is from the good old Pro-Palestinian anti-Zionist left. His intention was clearly political, but he used some problematic tropes. The controversy quickly exploded on social networks, the first voices, the most outraged and angriest voices set the tone: Fox News, Breitbart, Trump's son followed in... All delighted to attack The New York Times. Through a cartoon, it is the newspaper that was attacked.

Can the case lead to self-censorship by NYT journalists on certain topics to avoid problems?

Writing is something they can handle, they have more tools available for nuance and to defend themselves. But, of course, it sends a message inside and outside the Times. Yes, freedom is complicated, it's sometimes slippery, messy. The messages are not always cut out as they should be. But you need to have a solid backbone and accomplish your mission: to manage spaces of freedom and defend them.

Is the cartoonist’s profession increasingly threatened?

It’s caught in the crossfire. First, there’s the economic weakening of the press: newspapers are under pressure and afraid of losing readers. Then, as we saw with Charlie Hebdo and the Danish cartoons controversy, misunderstandings are programmed with visual humor, because humor is local but images are global. And the third factor is political correctness, but I am tired of the word. I would rather say the claim of the offended not only that their offence be recognized, but also to be vindicated. The balance between freedom of expression and these claims is clearly tipping. In that context, any form of humour, satire and healthy caricature becomes impossible.

“Cartoonists are not the soldiers of other people's war.“

But racists, anti-Semites or homophobes also hide behind freedom of expression to spread their hatred...

Yes, we saw that with the Muhammad cartoons controversy [back in 2006]. What I am defending is the freedom of expression of professional cartoonists. We are not the soldiers of other people's war. Nor are we pawns in the hands of those who, under the banner of freedom of expression, are hiding their anti-Muslim agenda, as Marine Le Pen did at the time. We don’t want to be an alibi for those who call for censorship when religions are criticized. Attempts at manipulation come from both sides. The only war that editorial cartoonists must wage is the war against stupidity and atrocity.

Have you had any major problems with your cartoons?

Strangely enough, no, I have never been at the origin or victim of an international scandal in my nearly 20 years of exposure through the International Herald Tribune or The New York Times. Either that means I got it all right - or all wrong... But some cartoons got reactions. One of them, with the divinity Shiva, caused campaign of angry letters from India. My editor at the time stood up, defended my work, and only informed me long after the facts. Another cartoon, about Netanyahu's visit to the United States, which appeared before Congress without visiting Barack Obama, provoked attacks against the NYT. Some individuals on social media started stirring up things on Saturday, making comparisons between the NYT and Goebbels ! It was a hot week-end. But on Monday, my editor at the NYT asked me… to do another cartoon on the same topic! I was so relieved.

Have times changed over the last twenty years, with that feeling of not being protected by editors anymore?

That is why I wrote that we must wake up, and start pushing back. Not give up. The balance of power is now totally asymmetrical between the traditional media, on the defensive, and hyper powerful social media. On the one hand, you have a process of information, verification, curation, a long-term work. On the other hand, it’s a free-for-all open buffet, the place for instantaneity and rumours, built on technologies that are amplifiers of anger. Editors have no reason to back down, they need to draw a line. After all, social media are not their publishers, nor are they necessarily their readers.

Do you feel supported?

This story had a rather surprising echo. Because The New York Times is a major iconic newspaper, but also more broadly the questions raised about social media seem to encourage a real debate on the role of satire, humour and editorial cartoons.

“We seem to be all acting like teenagers, we are letting social media
and smartphones dictate our lives and make them stupid“

Does the capitalist situation of major newspapers, now owned by billionaires, play a role in this collapse that you are denouncing?

I don't see it that way. Each newspaper has its own story. And it's not certain that self-censorship is coming from so high above. The problem is that at the societal and individual level, at the level of democracy and civic debate, and in our exchanges as individuals: we seem to be all acting like teenagers, we are letting social media and smartphones dictate our lives and make them stupid. The media, intimidated, tend to integrate the codes of social networks. On their websites, they highlight the most-read, the most-shared stories, and so on... It turns the media into substitute social media. And it makes them more vulnerable than ever.

Are there any topics that you do not cover, or no longer cover?

No, not if you have confidence in the editorial team, and people who support you. I show several sketches to five, six people, among whom the editor-in-chief has one voice like any other, and then I choose which sketch to finalize: not necessarily the first in the poll, but never the last one, because I trust the journalists I work with. It is a welcome elimination process. Let’s not forget that the paper bin is an integral part of this profession. There are some good ideas, and others good for the trash.

Are there any topics that you do not cover, or no longer cover?

I don't see it that way. Each newspaper has its own story. And it's not certain that self-censorship is coming from so high above. The problem is that at the societal and individual level, at the level of democracy and civic debate, and in our exchanges as individuals: we seem to be all acting like teenagers, we are letting social media and smartphones dictate our lives and make them stupid. The media, intimidated, tend to integrate the codes of social networks. On their websites, they highlight the most-read, the most-shared stories, and so on... It turns the media into substitute social media. And it makes them more vulnerable than ever.

Are there several schools of cartooning; one Anglo-Saxon, more poetic, the other Latin, more political and polemical?

No, American cartoonists can be very much "in your face". Very strong. But there are different kind of humor because humor is very cultural. When Charlie Hebdo's tragedy happened in January 2015, I was living in Los Angeles. I spent weeks explaining to American audiences what French humour is, the spirit of "bête et méchant" [“silly and evil“, a claim for unbound satire born after May 68], the “second degré“ [where you should not take a message literally], the differences in sensitivity. The consideration of minorities is very acute in the United States: people should not "insult" each other. But politically, U.S. cartooning can be marvelously aggressive.

Read the original essay (June 10, 2019) that triggered this debate. | See the global reaction to it in the media all over the world  here | Below is a translated interview given by Chappatte to French daily Libération, which dedicated its front page and a full dossier to this question on June 22, 2019