This past weekend, Ted Cruz put out a political ad that was actually good and funny. The ad first aired in Iowa during a broadcast of “Saturday Night Live,” a fun take on their ad parodies. You can watch it here:
It features Cruz reading to his family such festive and timeless classics as “How Obamacare Stole Christmas” and “Rudolph the Underemployed Reindeer.” It’s well written and well produced, so of course some people got upset. But no one got quite as upset as Ann Telnaes, an editorial cartoonist whose work is frequently featured at The Washington Post. So mad, in fact, that she inexplicably portrayed Cruz as an organ grinder whose children were monkeys on leashes. To make a long story short, The Washington Post ended up pulling the cartoon, which was actually an animated GIF for the full “Ted Cruz’s children are monkeys!” effect.
There are so many things wrong with Telnaes’ cartoon and the subsequent defense of it that it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s just dig in.
1) All Politicians Put Their Families In Their Ads
Telnaes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, so I’m surprised she didn’t know this, but something approaching 100 percent of all politicians feature family members in political ads. So unless Telnaes was born on Saturday, there is no excuse for being ignorant of this. Maybe she should read her own newspaper for an explanation of this thing she thinks Cruz invented:
2) Children Are Off Limits
You don’t have to abide by these rules, of course, but one key rule governing civilized behavior by the media is that kids are off limits. Many hours before anyone had noticed Telnaes’ cartoons (her cartoons are boring and usually not worth paying attention to), she tweeted out a pre-emptive defense and pre-emptive justification for why she broke this rule.
Again, I believe this was many, many hours before the cartoon was noticed by anyone — perhaps before it was even published — so the defensiveness on display was probably some vestigial conscience showing up. She was also quoted by CNN as saying she thought that the kids were, and I quote, “fair game” because of the ad that showed them being cute and funny. Since all politicians put their kids (and grandkids!) in ads, and this was just a particularly effective featuring of the same, this makes you wonder just how ideologically blinded Telnaes might be. Gabriel Malor had an interesting series of tweets on this matter that I will condense here:
The core problem here is that Ann Telnaes has no moral foundation. She knows there are rules, but she doesn’t know *why* there are rules. So Telnaes simply thought she could reason her way to an exception to the rule: kids are off limits. But her reasoning — Cruz did it, so they’re fair game — does not actually address the reason for the rule. The reason, in case you were wondering, why kids are off limits is because they lack culpability AND the capacity to respond. That Cruz cast his children in a good light does not mean that Telnaes is relieved of the rule protecting them from being cast negatively. Telnaes doesn’t understand this bc, again, she doesn’t know *why* we have the rule, only that there is one. She lacks a moral foundation.
Just because the Cruz kids are adorable and funny doesn’t mean you can go after them any more than you can go after Sasha and Malia for being adorable when pulled out on stage at political events either.
3) Monkeys? Really?
As if going after children weren’t enough, Telnaes thought it would be a grand idea to portray the daughters of the first Hispanic senator from Texas as monkeys. I’m not sure if the dehumanization was done because of that, because of their father’s politics or some other reason, but it compounds the error in ways that make you wonder how in the heck the cartoon received editorial approval from The Washington Post.
Just in general, journalists should avoid portraying and mocking the kids of politicians, including the kids of Hispanic politicians, as dancing monkeys. Does this really need to be said to Pulitzer Prize-winning elites? I guess so.
4) It’s Not Funny
This is actually quite important. The Washington Post has always been a bad page for editorial cartooning. For something like 60 years they featured the ghastly work of HERBLOCK, whose distinctions were drawing like a particularly uncreative five-year-old and labeling literally everything in said drawings. Partly he needed to label because he lacked any imagination at all and kept pushing out the same clichéd metaphor for…everything. Partly, some suspected, it was because he was huffing airplane glue. If you’d like some delicious take-downs of HERBLOCK (his name was Herbert Block, so this all-block-letter-combo-name thing gives you an indication of his dazzling intellect), I’d recommend “Cartoons Without Humor: The underwhelming oeuvre of Herblock, America’s worst political cartoonist” and “Washington’s Blockheads: The perpetual adulation of Herblock.” From the latter, by the great Andy Ferguson:
Vampire bats sweep across a skyline, their bellies covered in writing: “takeover tactics,” “raiders,” “greenmail specialists,” “junk bond finances,” and “stock manipulations.” (This must be Wall Street!) And there’s always a caption, too, another 15 or 20 words. “If you don’t get my meaning,” Block seems to be saying to his reader, “I’m going to make you sit here until you do.” It was his politics, mostly, that lifted Herblock above his lack of technical skill to the Pulitzers and the medals and the honorary degrees. His ideas were as simple as his draftsmanship, and perfectly matched to the prejudices of the powerful journalists he hoped to please.
All of which to say, Telnaes reminds me a lot of HERBLOCK. She can draw better than he could (all humans can), but her ideas are just as predictably progressive, clichéd, hyper-partisan, and so on. She obsesses over the same, few causes (supporting abortion is her favorite and disdaining Christians is right up there, too). In fact, her attacks on pro-lifers are so hackneyed that nobody will be surprised that she’s been given awards by the country’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood. (Interestingly, this pro-abortion cartoon, which passes for perceptive at The Washington Post, also features children on strings, which says nothing about pro-lifers but a great deal about Telnaes.)
5) It’s Overexplained
Another way that Telnaes is as bad as HERBLOCK is the way she has to explain her cartoons. The cartoon makes no sense on its own because normal people know that all politicians have their kids help them pardon turkeys, appear in campaign ads, and whatnot. So she kept trying to explain it in all of these tweets and remarks she made. If your cartoon doesn’t work on its own, scrap the idea. Also if it’s racist, scrap it.
6) Did Any Other Politicians Feature Children In Their Campaigns Yesterday?
Wait, what’s this?
Oh, Hillary Clinton put out a picture of herself with her older grandchild (the second one is due this summer) as part of a campaign called “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela”? I can’t wait for Telnaes to take her to task for exploiting these grandchildren!
7) It’s The Ghastly Double Standards
Last year, a low-level Capitol Hill staffer made some critiques on Facebook of how Obama’s daughters were handling themselves during a political event. The Washington Post more or less lost its mind. I wrote about it a few days after the story broke in the piece, “Dear Media, This Nonsense Is Why Everybody Hates You.” They had already run something like 14 stories on the matter, including having a reporter dig up dirt from the staffer’s adolescence. It was disgusting. As I wrote then:
I’d like someone to go ahead and circle back with [Post Executive Editor Martin] Baron and have him explain himself. In what world — in what mother-freaking world — does he justify taking a foreign affairs reporter and having him dig up dirt on a low-level former staffer who said nothing worse about presidential children than the Post’s own columnists did in the Bush era? One of the items linked above is a Ruth Marcus column where she bashes this low-level staffer for critiquing the daughters, then notes she herself did it to the Bush girls –including attacking them for showing so much “cleavage,” being churlish, and their speaking style — but that it was OK because she did it under the guise of parody and they had notable busts. I’m not joking. You can read it for yourself. As John Podhoretz said, “Ruth Marcus’s double standard FOR HERSELF is absolutely astonishing.”
It’s so tiring, so unbelievably tiring. Everyone knows that there is one standard for how you may treat the children of Democratic candidates and an entirely separate and unrelated one for how you treat the children of Republican candidates. The disparity of standards is even more dramatic for progressive versus conservative candidates and their families.
8) Media Coverage
Another tiring thing is the frame offered by the media for covering this. When a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist with media elite friends pens a cartoon portraying the children of a Hispanic senator as dancing monkeys, what should the headline and lede be? CNN went with “Washington Post pulls cartoon depicting Ted Cruz’s daughters.” I guess they thought adding the words “as monkeys” would have made it too descriptive. But note the lede: Yes, the newsworthy thing is that Cruz obtained new ammo to shoot at the media. Wait, what? I…I… I…honestly don’t know what to say to this. Also, in what sense are they portrayed as “monkey-like” creatures and not “monkeys”? I have no idea what is meant by this, although the reporter goes on to describe them as being portrayed as “two hatted creatures,” which is, again, quite weird. Many media outlets were reticent to mention the monkey problem. For example:
Why would Cruz be upset at a cartoonist for drawing his daughters? Oh, she caricatured them crudely as “chained dancing apes“? Why, that changes everything and should probably be what you lead with, eh? (In Politico’s defense, they later updated the story to not only mention the monkeys, unlike the first version online, but to emphasize it.) In any case, this focus on Cruz being inexplicably upset (or is it “gaining ammo”?) instead of on the fact that a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist portrayed his children as chained monkeys is part of a pattern of disparity. The initial story should be the fact of the cartoon running, not Cruz’s reaction to it.
9) Ridiculous Defenses
Telnaes was deleting tweets last night as she managed to convince no one of her cause (I’m sure Vox or Salon or The New Republic are working on it as we speak), but she put a note on Facebook telling people to stop complaining about the cartoon. And she put these tweets on Twitter: Um, no. The lower tweet looks like an attempt to portray herself as a victim, something made ever-so-slightly difficult by going after a pre-schooler and a seven-year-old in that day’s work. The upper is so stupid — yet presented as if it’s somehow informative if not erudite — as to be hilarious. But perhaps more disconcerting is the editor’s note for why they pulled the cartoon:
Editor’s note from Fred Hiatt: It’s generally been the policy of our editorial section to leave children out of it. I failed to look at this cartoon before it was published. I understand why Ann thought an exception to the policy was warranted in this case, but I do not agree.
What’s this “I understand why Ann thought an exception to the policy was warranted” business? That’s, again, just stupid. Politicians feature their children in ads all the time, as the easy-to-find examples of Obama and Clinton demonstrate above. What is there to “understand” about Ann’s perspective, exactly?
Further, is the only thing worth noting about this cartoon that it went after children? I mean, the same editorial page wrote a story just a few short months ago about how it was pretty sure Cruz was using a racial dog-whistle in an ad, although it couldn’t quite figure out exactly how. (I’m actually making the editorial seem like it made more sense than it did.) It said the ad only seemed to be about terrorism but was probably also a racist attack on Latino immigrants, Syrian refugees, or Iranian Muslims. They didn’t know which, but they were pretty sure that it was one of them enough to call the ad “revolting.”
But portray some Latino kids as dancing, chained monkeys and the only thing you can say is “leave children out of it”? Really? Such funny dog-whistle-hearing capabilities at the Post there, eh? Almost seems to fit a pattern, no? I’ll only add that a search for “dog whistle” on the Post’s search mechanism returns more than 500 results since 2005 alone.
10) Problems At The Washington Post
In Hiatt’s odd note that raises more questions than it answers, left unnamed are the editors who did look at it prior to publication. I have no reason to doubt Hiatt that he didn’t personally review the cartoon before it ran. Sometimes editors can’t review everything. But some editors reviewed it before it ran, even if they aren’t named Fred Hiatt. Presumably many eyes were on that cartoon before it ran.
Was there no one to say, “Maybe we shouldn’t publish the racist thing”? Is everyone reviewing what goes up so far left that they didn’t see the problem with this unfair attack on the Cruz family? Is everyone so stupid and uninformed to not know that 100 percent of all politicians feature family members in ads?