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Constance Alexander: Herald-Leader cartoonist Pett understands challenges facing his contemporaries

Long before he earned the Pulitzer Prize, editorial cartoonist Joel Pett was an angry young man who also happened to be a good writer. Through a 7- to 8-year learning curve, he developed and refined the other skills his vocation requires but, keeping it simple and direct, he describes his calling as a hybrid of writing and drawing.

“Most anybody who didn’t have anything else to do could come up with something passable,” he says, notably modest in his description of creating political cartoons.

But cartoons that grab viewers by the lapels demand more than that.

For Pett, the process begins with daily reading that includes opinion columns, stories on National Public Radio, and news feeds covering a range of topics. It doesn’t matter if he agrees or disagrees with the content he encounters; more important is the continuous effort to stay informed.

“They do all the work,” Pett says of the plethora of his online and media news sources. He remembers days past, when a simple question might require a couple of hours in the library to verify facts before composing the day’s cartoon.

Today, with so much information a keystroke away, he spends time sorting reliable from unreliable sources, and mourns the devolution of the media industry.

“Reporters are typically the best source of information,” he insists, but their ranks are being decimated by downsizings, and the mergers and acquisitions that spawn them.

On Sunday, July 17, at 3 p.m., Pett will reflect on these and other aspects of editorial cartooning for the Lexington Herald-Leader and other publications at the Wrather West Kentucky Museum on the Murray State University campus. The event is free and open to the public, and a reception will follow the presentation.

Pett is part of a long history of caricature and satire that became available for public distribution through the development of technology. During the Protestant Reformation, the printing press helped spread awareness and acceptance of Martin Luther’s reforms. Moreover, the high illiteracy rate of the era made this mode of graphic communication accessible to a broader swathe of the population.

With bold strokes and visual shorthand, cartoonists often clash with those in power, raising issues and perspectives that give voice to popular discontent.

In countries where honest reporting can be a subversive activity, cartoonists are often the first journalists targeted by “extremists, thugs and tyrants,” according to Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI).

Currently serving as President of CRNI’s board of directors, Pett understands the challenges confronting cartoonists around the world, not particularly including America. “There are a lot of places in the world where the job is dangerous,” he admits, “but this is not one of them.”

Readers everywhere, however, take offense to editorial cartoons they disagree with, and Joel has ample experience in responding to vehement criticism. For instance, in November, 2015, some Herald-Leader readers expressed outrage over a Pett cartoon aimed at a position taken by newly-elected governor Matt Bevin on Syrian refugees.

Pett’s response to critics said, ”I understand that, for many readers, this cartoon may have been a bridge too far. But here’s an idea: Suppose we just use the means at our disposal here, while we still live in a country where freedoms are cherished, to discuss political issues?”

He welcomed the negative feedback from readers and thanked them for sharing their opinions.

“This is a great job, in a great country,” he concluded, “where freedom of speech is celebrated and satire and ridicule have deep roots, upheld at every turn by a broad and thoughtful Constitution and an open-minded court system…”

A link to the op-ed by Pett is online at http://goo.gl/GWviOU. Information about the Cartoonists Rights Network International is available at http://cartoonistsrights.org/. Background on the history of political cartoons can be accessed through this link.


Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommuications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit her website.

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