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Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend

Transcript: Christopher Weyant

Christopher Weyant:  Thank you. I’m Chris Weyant. I am the second cartoonist to be a Nieman Fellow. I’ll just take a moment to acknowledge the very first, my predecessor, it’s the great Pulitzer Prize‑winning, Doug Marlette.

Doug’s no longer with us, unfortunately, but I feel like he’s very much with us here tonight to celebrate this anniversary. All right, Doug. Here we go.

When people find out that I’m a cartoonist these days, the very first thing that they ask me or say to me is, “You know, you must be having so much fun drawing during the Trump years.” Of course, you have to say, “No.”

No one’s having any fun doing anything during the Trump years…including Trump, first executive order.

Being a political cartoonist is essentially a lot like being a court jester in the traditional sense. We bring truth to the king. When you bring truth to the king, you have to bring your pointed pen, and a little bit of humor can go a long way so that you can actually survive the day.

The thing is, our politicians and our political leaders, they want to control their image. They want to know what they look like. They don’t like us doing it for them. We continue to draw as political cartoonists, chip away through the spin, all the hyperbole, and all the press conferences until eventually an image starts to emerge.

If we do our job really well and continue to draw, we’re able to pull back the curtain and show them for who they truly are.

Cartooning in the Trump era has been very different than anything I’ve ever experienced. When I first started—we’re going to talk about a couple of shifts and changes in cartoons—one of the biggest ones was I had to change my content. When normally an administration comes in, you do the usual: We’re going to talk about new members, how they’re staffing, some new policies.

This administration, I had to quickly recognize the fact that this White House is going to be very different from other White Houses. The world as we know it is going to be upside down. In this White House, nothing made sense. Nothing seems to be the way we want it to work.

Audience Member:  Can you read it?

Christopher:  Oh sure. I’ll read the captions. It says, “When exactly did they switch from ‘Hail to the Chief’ to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’?”

As I switched my content, I needed to start to think very seriously about — there’s so much noise coming from this administration, between the tweets, the Obama-erasing executive orders, the attacks on the press, the attacks on individual citizens, or attacks on kneeling NFL players, or the wall.

There’s just so much noise. There’s so much coming out of this. It’s very hard to find a focus. I followed my cartoons. I shifted and started looking broader. Could I find a through line to this administration? Is there some central policy or something that unifies all of this chaos? Which I think I did.

As this administration goes on, I also had to shift my content to something I have never done in all my years of cartooning, which is start to look at the fact that I had to examine how this White House was having an effect on this nation because America is not the same place as it once was. We’re a very different people now.

My cartooning started to look at the fact that I had to examine us as a whole. Within our country, within our houses and our homes, within our families, that we look across the table now at our family members and they don’t look recognizable. They almost like different species that we can’t agree on the same fact, or even agree on what we want our government to do.

I can read this for you.

It says, “Who are you kidding? You’re all about small government until you get stuck in a tree.”

As my content shifted, there was another change that I noticed. Now this is as prestigious an audience as we can get tonight. I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, but as a cartoonist I get a lot of fan mail.

You see where this is going. Anyway, on a typical year, my fan mail looks something like this.

For a cartoonist, this is considered fan mail because he said I’m first class. Usually, I go coach. OK, it’s all right.

There’s a shift. There’s something that happened that I haven’t experienced before, which is, people started to connect with me via either the social media, through my website, or through my newspaper.

They would start telling me that “I couldn’t have gotten through this period if it hadn’t been for your cartoons.” That “I’d been feeling incredibly isolated, and I needed to laugh.” “Your cartoons got me through a family holiday.” “This news cycle has been getting me so down and so depressed.” “Thank you for getting me through this.”

This is not just my experience. All of my colleagues that I have spoken to had the same exact experience. It’s been really wonderfully touching.

The thing is, with political cartoons and humor, humor is power. What we laugh at we no longer fear. What I’ve never seen with political cartoons in my career that has happened, which is, that political cartoons now actually—we are a humorous dissent. We are the beacon in the newspaper.

We’re shared now all over, thanks to social media. For our audience, the ground seems like it’s sometimes slipping out from under us. The pillars of our democracy are being pulled down. Having this humorous dissent, something as big, broad and strong, that many people are liking and sharing together.

Political cartoonists were able to create community, something I’ve never seen before. Even when we’re not connected through geography, we are through ideology. I notice that was a very special development.

The other thing is as this went on, this engagement and this empowerment happened, something else happened that hadn’t in my twenty-five years, and that was people started asking if they could use my cartoons—and same with my colleagues—to use them to protest.

It was honestly thrilling to watch my cartoons go from the page to the street. People were choosing this part of journalism to represent their voice, to give them voice, to physically give them something to hold as they took an active part in their democracy.

It is absolutely humbling and exciting because these days with political cartoons, it has been a challenge. Like rest of journalism, political cartoons have had a tough time of it.

When I first started cartooning about twenty-five years ago, there were 350 staff positions, and now we’re down to about 30. However, political cartoons have never been more positive and successful in that because they’re tailor-made for social media.

Younger people, of course, on social media share them all the time. When the newspapers and news organizations want to bring younger voices in and younger readers, political cartoons is the way to do it.

When I was a Nieman, I created a study to look at the reader engagement that political cartoons can encourage. Of course, they do. If you go through a political cartoon, through your news site or through the newspaper, you are going to actually keep your readers longer. They’re going to read more articles. It’s an excellent tool for increasing engagement.

At The New Yorker we also have—which is good news—we have a whole new generation of young cartoonists because we have a daily cartoon that we started. We have a whole new generation of young cartoonists who are now coming into political cartooning. There are more freelancers than ever before. It’s encouraging to watch them come in and want to take part in this humorous dissent.

I don’t know, like everybody in this audience, what the future of journalism is going to be. I believe there will be a future, and I think it will be a very strong one.

I really hope and believe that political cartoons—this humorous American art form, this humorous dissent—needs to be a part of it, because whatever our future looks like, I promise you this, there’s going to be plenty to laugh at.

Thank you.