By: Dave Astor
As a panel of editorial cartoonists discussed the hate mail they receive, several expected and not-so-expected themes emerged: war and 9/11 are sensitive subjects, firefighters can overreact, and angry readers often describe cartoonists with a certain homophobic slur that begins with “f.”
Panelist Rex Babin of The Sacramento Bee and King Features Syndicate — speaking at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) convention Friday — recalled an orchestrated e-mail campaign by firefighters angry with a 2005 cartoon he did. One correspondent even said Babin might not get any service if his house was burning.
The AAEC vice president drew the three-panel cartoon after some on-duty Sacramento firefighters attended a porn-star costume ball, drank on the job, and cruised city bars looking for young women and then giving them rides on firetrucks. One of Babin’s panels played on the famous 9/11 photo of the American flag being raised by three firefighters at Ground Zero; this time, the men were hoisting a flag with the Playboy bunny logo. Another panel played on the famous 1995 photo of a firefighter holding a baby who died in the Oklahoma City bombing; in Babin’s version, a firefighter was carrying a scantily clad woman.
Panelist Ted Rall had a much more frightening experience with firefighters. As many readers know, the Universal Press Syndicate creator did some hard-hitting cartoons after 9/11 — including the “Terror Widows” one about how some women seemed to be capitalizing on their husbands’ 9/11 deaths.
Firefighters not pleased with Rall’s work came to the cartoonist’s New York City apartment building one day. “I was on the sixth floor, and I looked out the window and saw a big red truck,” remembered the AAEC president-elect. “There were 40 guys in front of the building with axes telling the superintendent that they were going to kick my ass.”
Rall at first didn’t know what to do. “Calling 911 wouldn’t have helped — they would have told me ‘don’t worry, firefighters are on the scene,'” he joked at the AAEC session. The cartoonist decided to call a friend, who had the idea of rushing to the building to take photos of the firefighters, who soon dispersed.
Another time, a police sergeant phoned Rall (who could see the precinct number on his caller ID), introduced himself by name, and politely threatened to slit the throats of Rall and his wife. The cartoonist contacted three TV stations and other media outlets, but none of them would touch the story.
Session moderator Clay Bennett recalled that, when he opposed the first Gulf War while with the St. Petersburg Times in 1991, a reader sent him a mailing smeared with excrement. Bennett, now with the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press and Washington Post Writers Group, also recalled a message from someone who alleged that Universal columnist “Ann Coulter has more patriotic blood in one of her used tampons” than Bennett does in his whole body.
Panelist Bruce MacKinnon of The Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia, Canada, described receiving lots of flak for a 2008 cartoon showing the wife of a man suspected of terrorism. The cartoon’s burka-clad woman (she’s a devout Muslim in real life) was pictured holding a sign that read “I want millions!” as she said “I can put it towards my husband’s next training camp.”
MacKinnon, who has a history of promoting tolerance and minority rights in his cartoons, was hit with a “hate propaganda” criminal complaint (since dropped) and a human-rights complaint (still pending) from an Islamic group in Halifax.
Mike Lester of the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune and Cagle Cartoons was one of the panelists mentioning the frequent use of the homophobic “f” word in some hate mail.
When readers demand why he doesn’t draw “positive cartoons,” Lester’s stock reply is: “Because those are greeting cards.”