Iraq Is Big Features-of-Year Topic

By: Dave Astor

E&P magazine chose four people in 2001 and four more in 2002 for creating “Features of the Year.” But with hundreds of syndicated people out there, a lot of talented ones weren’t getting their due. So, this year, we’re expanding the pool to cite a larger number of opinion columnists, editorial cartoonists, comic creators, and others who’ve had a notable 2003.

Some distinguished themselves with work focusing on the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the war itself, and the bloody aftermath continuing to this day. One columnist, conservative commentator Michael Kelly of the Washington Post Writers Group, died in April while covering the war as an embedded journalist. Another WPWG-distributed writer, David Ignatius of The Washington Post, was unembedded as he filed absorbing columns from the war zone.

Ignatius — read by a clientele that tripled from 15 to 45 newspapers since he entered syndication this January — continues to periodically write from Iraq and other countries in that region. He has spent four of the past 11 months in the Arab world, and was in Baghdad’s al-Rashid Hotel Oct. 26 when the building was hit by rocket fire that missed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. But a U.S. soldier was killed seven doors down from Ignatius’ room.

“It was a shock, but it’s not the first time I’ve been in a situation like that,” Ignatius says phone interview from his Paris office. “It happens so fast you don’t have time to be scared. As long as you’re getting something for the risk, you can justify it.”

In this case, traveling to Iraq with Wolfowitz gave Ignatius the opportunity to learn more about a man highly praised by many conservatives and sharply criticized by many others as an architect of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies.

Ignatius says that, despite the talk of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration’s “only coherent rationale for the war is an idealistic one” — toppling the tyrannical Saddam Hussein and creating “the possibility of a democratic future.” The columnist adds that when he traveled to Iraq earlier this fall, he found conditions there better than many media reports indicated — and heard a number of Iraqis say they want the U.S. to stay.

But Ignatius questions how much of a plan the Bush administration had for the invasion’s aftermath, and says the media should have asked tougher questions about that before the war began.

Ignatius first reported from the Middle East in 1980, and has returned frequently since. “It’s a part of the world I feel passionately about,” says the former International Herald Tribune executive editor and author of five novels. “I like Arab culture, and have a number of Arab friends who really matter to me. It’s not a region you can cover from a distance. Every time I go there, I learn something that surprises me.”

Other columnists in or near Iraq this year included Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times News Service (NYTNS) and Oliver North of Creators Syndicate.

An illustrating man in Iraq

With photos and stories pouring out of Iraq, a Detroit Free Press duo tried something different — drawings and stories. Artist Richard Johnson and reporter Jeff Seidel traveled to the war zone to do illustrated features about American soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and others. Their three months of human-interest reports were syndicated by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services and then collected in the July-published Portraits of War book.

“The whole point of the project was to tell this humungous story about going to war through stories about individuals,” says Seidel.

Johnson worked in black and white for the stark effect and because he had to keep things simple while doing multiple daily sketches under very difficult conditions. He drew some of his evocative illustrations from life, some from photos, and some from memory. A major difference between camera and pencil? “Photography captures everything,” Johnson says. “With sketching, I can choose which part to give more detail.”

Months after returning to the U.S., Johnson and Seidel have vivid memories of their time in Iraq.

Johnson recalls edgy American soldiers, guns drawn, searching an Iraqi village for combatants. When none were found, the villagers and soldiers became friendly with each other. “That was a miniature of a battle the U.S. may have since lost — the battle for hearts and minds,” says Johnson.

The day Seidel was interviewed for this story, there were 50-mile winds in Michigan that made him think of the horrendous sandstorms in Iraq. He remembers sitting in one of those storms, goggles and mask on as sand pellets pounded his face, observing a soldier watch his deceased best friend being pulled from a canal.

Seidel and Johnson are collaborating again on a December Free Press series focusing on soldiers who have returned to Michigan and on the families of soldiers still in Iraq — or who died there.

Prescient prognosticators

As most American media outlets supported the war this March and April, a number of columnists and cartoonists bucked the patriotic tide by questioning the wisdom of the U.S. invasion. Their doubts turned out to have merit as no weapons of mass destruction were found and American soldiers, Iraqis, and others continued to die months after President Bush declared the war essentially over. Some of these prescient commentators included “The Boondocks” comic creator Aaron McGruder of Universal Press Syndicate; and editorial cartoonists Scott Bateman of King Features Syndicate, Ann Telnaes of Tribune Media Services (TMS), Ted Rall of Universal, Joel Pett of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and Universal, Ben Sargent of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman and Universal, Steve Benson of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix and United Media, Nick Anderson of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and WPWG, and Mark Fiore, whose does political animation for the Web.

Bateman reports getting plenty of flak for his cartoons, but about 60% positive feedback. “I think by questioning the war all along, I’ve tapped into the skepticism that many people felt but weren’t seeing expressed in the rah-rah cable-news coverage,” he says.

How did Bateman feel seeing his skepticism justified? “I’m actually saddened by how accurate I turned out to be, because a lot of good young Americans have died in this misguided and unnecessary war,” he replies.

Among the columnists questioning the war were Arianna Huffington of TMS, Paul Krugman of The New York Times and NYTNS, the Patrisia Gonzales/Roberto Rodriguez team at Universal, and Molly Ivins and Norman Solomon of Creators.

Like Bateman, Solomon received a lot of supportive mail. “Quite a few readers remarked that my column was conspicuous in that it didn’t shift with the wind or equivocate even when the war seemed to be going well,” says Solomon, who visited Iraq in 2002 and co-authored the 2003 book Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You with Reese Erlich.

Now, with the post-war situation going badly, more media are criticizing the Bush administration’s Iraq policies. “I put this in the ‘better late than never’ category,” says Solomon. “The lies that should have been transparent last fall, winter, and spring are now too obvious to ignore. The rush to war and the media’s strong tendency to defer to top U.S. officials resulted in largely obscuring the readily available evidence of duplicity by the Bush administration. But so much damage has already been done, and most importantly so many lives have been lost. In my column, I’m rather unforgiving toward the journalists who went along to get along with the White House when it counted most, and I give them little credit for shifting with the winds later on.”

Solomon adds that the media still isn’t giving enough attention to issues such as the Bush administration’s “grab for control over oil” in Iraq and the war profiteering of some U.S. companies.

Adults weren’t the only readers provided with Iraq information. Hollister Kids, which syndicates Newspaper in Education content and other material, focused on the war for several installments of its weekly “Newspaper Plus” feature and published a 16-page supplement called Iraq: How We Came to War.

A different kind of Iraq-related event this year was the two-millionth letter sent to military personnel via OperationDearAbby.net, notes “Dear Abby” columnist Jeanne Phillips of Universal. The Web site is operated in partnership with the Department of Defense.

The write stuff in columns

Syndicated creators also made their marks this year in other ways. For instance, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite entered syndication at age 86 with a liberal opinion feature distributed by King. The weekly column was purchased by more than 100 newspapers — a very successful debut in tough economic times.

On the conservative side, Kathleen Parker of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel and TMS hit the 300-newspaper mark. Also, Charles Krauthammer of WPWG and Thomas Sowell of Creators were among four recipients of the first $250,000 prizes from the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. And Bill O’Reilly of Creators had another bestselling book this fall — Who’s Looking Out for You? — while continuing to host his highly rated O’Reilly Factor show on the Fox News Channel.

One columnist whose commentary defies liberal/conservative categorization is Froma Harrop of The Providence (R.I.) Journal and Creators.

“The issues defy categorization,” she explains. “At what point did running up massive deficits become ‘conservative’ doctrine? And what’s especially ‘liberal’ about letting tort lawyers close down emergency rooms through ruinous malpractice suits? Politically, I’m not that much of a strange duck. The surge in independent, or swing, voting reflects a much-shared frustration with the package of views offered by the two parties. I’m issue-oriented, and sometimes the conservative acts for me, sometimes the liberal, sometimes neither. Independents often find themselves pulling the lever based on whatever issue most obsessed them that day.”

Harrop says “independent” doesn’t necessarily mean “moderate,” noting: “Some independents come with strong libertarian views. Some became independent out of the conviction that only radical approaches can solve certain problems.”

When asked which issue she found most compelling this year, Harrop says: “Health care. The prospect of not being able to afford good medical care terrifies most Americans. And there’s a sense that our health-care system is descending into anarchy.”

Some topics Harrop addressed this year contradicted the assumptions of many readers. “A piece detailing how the Bush tax cuts would benefit the rich regions that voted for Gore and hurt Republican strongholds was popular. Many readers had not considered that irony before,” she says. “Another column called the Sierra Club cowardly for refusing to address the issue of immigration and its role in accelerating U.S. population growth.”

Harrop — whose column has built a client list of 100 papers since entering syndication in 2000 — also spent time this year chairing the 2003 National Conference of Editorial Writers convention in Providence and serving as a Pulitzer Prize juror in the editorial cartooning category.

The art(ists) of persuasion

Winning that category was David Horsey of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and TMS. Harrop says he has “a rare talent for combining political and social commentary in the same cartoon” and “a genius for picturing the nation’s cultural divides,” among other attributes.

This was Horsey’s second editorial cartooning Pulitzer; he also won in 1999. The drawings that put him over the top in 2003 addressed subjects such as corporate corruption and the lead-up to the Iraq war — all executed with much more polished art than most cartoonists do.

Other award-winning editorial cartoonists in 2003 included Mike Thompson, of the Detroit Free Press and Copley News Service, who took home a Sigma Delta Chi prize from the Society of Professional Journalists. Bruce Plante of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press won the Fischetti Award for his work in a year that also saw him sign a syndication deal with Universal and serve as president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC).

In September, Mike Ritter of Arizona’s Tribune Newspapers and King succeeded Plante at the AAEC helm for a 2003-4 term. And Rob Rogers hosted the AAEC’s June convention in Pittsburgh while drawing cartoons for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and United. “Rob, who I had always considered one of the main ‘ha-ha boys,’ has been energized since the 2000 election. Since that time, he has produced hard-hitting cartoons of substance,” says editorial cartoonist Scott Stantis of The Birmingham (Ala.) News and Copley.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Bateman was a multimedia marvel in 2003 –publishing the SCAN graphic novel and a children’s book, self-releasing two CDs of his music, and more. That was in addition to his editorial cartoons, for which he developed an unusual style. “I’ve really pushed the envelope on what an editorial cartoon is allowed to look like,” says Bateman, noting his work doesn’t include traditional panels or word balloons.

As a freelancer syndicated in a package with other cartoonists, Bateman doesn’t make a lot of money. This helped give his 2003 work strong insight into what it’s like living on a modest income in America. “The big economic story of the past few weeks is how the economy improved so much in the third quarter,” Bateman says. “But at my level, people are still either unemployed or underemployed, health insurance is too expensive, and we’re still seeing a net loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs that helped create a middle class in this country.”

The cat’s meow in comics

Comic creators were also in the news. Jim Davis marked the 25th anniversary of his “Garfield” strip in various ways — including a special-edition Monopoly board game, a coffee-table book, a May 17-24 anniversary cruise, a June 19-21 birthday party in Indiana, and work on a movie scheduled for 2004 theatrical release. Davis is the world’s most widely syndicated cartoonist, with nearly 2,600 newspapers via Universal.

Speaking of milestones, Mort Walker continued working on the 1950-founded “Beetle Bailey” past his 80th birthday this September. More than 100 King executives, cartoonists, family members, and friends gathered in Connecticut for a party marking that birthday.

“Get Fuzzy” creator Darby Conley of United cracked the 400-client mark despite entering syndication just four years ago. And his cat-and-dog comic was named top strip of the year by the National Cartoonists Society. Best comic panel honors went to “Speed Bump” by Dave Coverly of Creators.

The top NCS prize, the Reuben Award, was presented to Matt Groening — mostly for The Simpsons TV show, but there’s also a weekly “Simpsons” comic strip from Universal. “Wee Pals” cartoonist Morrie Turner of Creators received the organization’s Milton Caniff Award for lifetime achievement. And versatile “Duplex” comic creator Glenn McCoy of Universal won two non-newspaper awards from the NCS for gag cartoons and greeting cards.

One speaker at the NCS convention this May was “Bloom County” creator Berkeley Breathed, who hinted he might return to newspaper syndication. Sure enough, WPWG announced in late summer that Breathed’s Sunday-only, half-page “Opus” comic would launch Nov. 23. A large charter client list of 170 newspapers will make room for Breathed’s cartoon penguin.

Darrin Bell also had a big year at the age of 28. Newsweek on the Web named “Rudy Park” — the United strip Bell does with Theron Heir — one of this decade’s three seminal comics along with “The Boondocks” and “Get Fuzzy.”

Bell’s reaction? “I felt like a kid who’d been acting up in the back of the class for ages, and the teacher finally came over to see what all the noise was about,” he replies.

“Rudy Park,” collected in its first book this year, is set in a cybercafe. “Sort of like Cheers meets Starbucks,” says Bell. It’s character-driven, but also includes topical content about everything from unemployment to the Iraq war.

This October, Bell started a second strip about a young African-American writer and his diverse group of friends in a large city. The WPWG-distributed “Candorville” also has a Spanish version Bell does in collaboration with his fiancee, translator/TV reporter Laura Bustamante.

What’s it like juggling two comics? “It’s a grind,” Bell says, “but I’ve never had so much fun working this hard in my life. Many cartoonists have to work a day job and then crank out their strip at night and on weekends. I think those cartoonists have it harder, because [many of them] switch from left-brain to right-brain work.”

John Deering, too, began a second comic: “Zack Hill,” which stars a single mother and her 10-year-old son. He collaborates on the strip with John Newcombe. The Creators-distributed Deering also does the syndicated “Strange Brew” comic panel and editorial cartoons for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“Lucky Cow” creator Mark Pett of Universal literally had the biggest comic of the year — a 135×47-foot strip he put together this spring with the help of students at Gentry High School in Indianola, Miss.

Abby’s road to a good year

Other features doing well include “Dear Abby,” whose client list rose this year to 1,400 — by far the biggest total of any column. After the 2002 death of Ann Landers, “I feel honored that newspaper editors have turned to ‘Dear Abby’ as another trusted and recognizable name in advice-giving to fill that space,” Jeanne Phillips says.

Two examples of the Universal feature’s reach: “This year, the column mentioned a free government consumer publication and immediately more than a million copies were ordered,” recalls Phillips. “Another column mentioned a fire-safety Web site and again, almost immediately, more than a million hits to the Web site were logged.”

Also, Phillips this year joined the advisory board of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and served as the Alzheimer’s Association national spokesperson in a public-service announcement for TV. Alzheimer’s is the disease affecting Phillips’ mother, who originated “Dear Abby” in 1956.

“Annie’s Mailbox,” written by former Landers assistants Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar of Creators, had a list of about 700 newspapers when it reached its first anniversary this July. Mitchell and Sugar also received more than 40,000 letters in late summer after asking readers whether they divorced or forgave a cheating spouse.

Amy Dickinson was chosen to succeed Landers at the Chicago Tribune in July, and entered syndication with TMS in September.

And the 550 creators distributed in various Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate packages had a memorable year: They suddenly had more marketing heft behind them when CWS inked a deal to be represented by the New York Times Syndicate. The 550 cartoonists hail from 75-plus countries — including nations not far from Iraq.

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