Editorial cartoonist Bill Day hit his fundraising goal on the crowd funding site Indiegogo this week: $35,000 to keep drawing editorial cartoons for a year. Day is syndicated through Cagle and, like the rest of us, can’t make a full time living with the rates we are paid. Since he lost his staff position a few years ago, Day has been drawing cartoons part time while working odd jobs and Daryl Cagle launched this campaign in order to keep him drawing. Problem is, Day doesn’t do as much drawing as he used to.
Earlier this week Daily Cartoonist posted a recent cartoon where Day pulled an image of a gun created by Zack Fowler and used it without permission. Once caught, he swapped the cartoon out with a version he drew, but you can see from the comments on the post that neither Fowler nor the papers who pay to run Day’s work knew about this until Alan Gardner’s post. Day hasn’t even bothered to issue a response to Gardner, his silence being almost more damning than the evidence in front of our face. Then there is the anonymously written Tumblr account, That Cartoon Critic, which shows repeated instances of Day re-using his cartoons to such an extent that it’s jaw-dropping. Creating new work every day, week in and week out, is difficult, but not plagiarizing others or constantly reissuing old cartoons is not. It’s time for cartoonists and syndicates to stop aiding this. To be clear, I’m not talking about people who may have drawn similar jokes and had an overlap of ideas with another cartoonist. We’re talking plagiarism, using another person’s art without permission, and literally tracing another cartoonist’s work. We’re also talking about reissuing your own work constantly while presenting it as something new. It’s happened enough now to constitute not an anomaly, but an actual thing that’s wrong with the field. Is it wrong to “self-plagiarize”? Most certainly. Let’s hear what Bill Day has to say about it:
Plagiarism, the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own, and its ancillary self-plagiarism, in which individuals republish work that they have already published, represent significant challenges to scientific journals. Authors have a right to be acknowledged as the source of their own work, and new authors must present their work in their own words.
That’s not our Bill Day, the cartoonist, rather Bill Day the editor of Biosystems Engineering speaking about a plagiarism controversy in scientific journals. Perhaps the cartoonist Bill Day can allow himself to absorb some of the other Bill Day’s wisdom. Cartoonists are sometimes loathe to publicize anything that shines a negative light on our dwindling field. But if we want negative stories to stop, we have to stop supporting people we know are doing terribly unethical work. The fault resides first and foremost with the artist, but syndicates and editors who hold up this kind of work are also to blame. There’s no reason Daryl Cagle should be putting forth Bill Day as a cartoonist to “save” with internet donations when he can’t meet a minimum level of professionalism. I’ll even say this about my own syndicate, Universal Uclick, who continues to syndicate Jeff Stahler’s work after he lost his job for plagiarizing recently after multiple instances dogged him for years. They should stop
During my years criticizing lazy and unethical cartooning habits, I compiled a number of examples that, for whatever reason, other cartoonists weren’t willing to publish or even forward in an email. They would send them to me and I tried unsuccessfully for over a year to get someone more prominent than myself to publish them, as I have lots of other things to attend to than being the poster boy for speaking out about these kind of lapses. But many of my peers won’t so much as link to a plagiarism story when it’s published, content to merely complain privately over beers about people who in some cases survived their entire careers while blatantly swiping the work of others. The result is that many cartoonists haven’t even had to so much as publicly explain why their cartoons look so awfully similar to something else, and many editors are unaware it even happens. I made a decision yesterday to publish these myself on Twitter because to hold on to them any longer would feel like I’m actively covering for some of these guys. I discovered none of these myself, having received them all from other cartoonists and editors, sometimes anonymously. You can decide for yourself what you think. But here they are. I’m done hanging on to them. Here is another example of Jeff Stahler straight up tracing and flipping a Mike Lester drawing. It was never published around the time of his most recent plagiarism scandal and was sent to me by an anonymous syndicate editor fed up with seeing his rampant stealing.
Here is another example of Bill Schorr swiping from MacNelly closely enough that it appears traced.
Finally, here is Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Borgman with some cartoons that look so similar to MacNelly’s that they are clearly swiped. Why swipe when you can draw well on your own? No clue. I’m told he was confronted by some cartoonists regarding the similarity and even came up with an excuse – but not publicly of course. Nothing has been written about it until now and I don’t think his editors were even made aware of the charges.
Again, I post these because I can’t hang on to them any longer without feeling dirty. Too much of this debate takes place behind a giant wall hidden from editors and the public. Talking about all this in the open? That’s an idea more cartoonists should copy.
I woke up late Friday morning and posted my latest comic before realizing no one would be talking about it or any other issue that day except the latest massacre unfolding before our eyes – this time involving children. Not “this time.” I mean “again.” As I had done not one week earlier when there was a mass shooting a few miles from my home in Portland, I watched the real time updates, trying to wrap my mind around being a part of the human race.
CNN named Ryan Lanza as the suspect before noon based on a police source. Within minutes, journalists at several outlets were not only reporting the name, but passing around a link to Ryan’s Facebook account. And people I knew were suddenly telling me, dude, you are Facebook friends with the suspect. His wall was set to private so I was one of the only people seeing Ryan post “Fuck you CNN it wasn’t me” and “IT WASN’T ME I WAS AT WORK IT WASN’T ME.” Networks were broadcasting photos pulled from the account on national television. Buzzfeed and Gawker, in a race to snatch traffic, ran headlines speculating if this was the shooter. (Headlines with question marks now being a thing that media does.) I posted a screen shot to Twitter and Facebook to let everyone know that this Ryan Lanza, at least, was not dead at the scene of the crime. That’s when things got crazy for me.
The screen caps spread fast and I found myself inundated with messages, some from journalists seeking confirmation, many from people saying angry and bizarre things to me or about Ryan. One demanded to know how I could be friends with such a monster. Could I help a random internet sleuth create a “psychological profile”? Did I see warning signs in Ryan? Why did I suspiciously post cartoons about mass shootings only days before? That was very tasteless. A text to my phone from an unknown number read “looks like this killer is a fan of yours.” A Twitter user declared me a “snitch” for sharing Ryan’s post. Someone accused me of having something to do with the killings, “which you take delight in,” they wrote, and hoped the FBI would hold me accountable.
I don’t know Ryan Lanza. I assume he’s like most of my Facebook friends in that he likes to follow my work, which is what my account is for. He’s someone who today is dealing with his brother murdering his mother before massacring school children, and the fact that he was accused of the killings.
There a lot of things we need to have “national discussion” about in America. Gun laws and access to mental health care being the two most important. For decades we’ve hidden our mentally ill in prisons and under bridges instead of dealing with them humanely. We’ve decided that access to guns is more important than our safety, that more guns equals safety, or that it’s a settled political issue that just isn’t going to help some Democrat win another term. But another problem brought to light by this story is journalism in the age of the rolling news cycle, and how social media shapes not only coverage of breaking news, but us as people. In other words, the same old shit.
We have a problem with rushing to judgment.
News organizations racing to be first know that an article with a snappy headline thrown up when people are hungry for information can bring in incredible amounts of traffic – fuck glory or prestige, keep the servers running ads. But accuracy and being first seem to conflict. Gawker’s first headline was “Is This Ryan Lanza, the Connecticut School Shooter?” which was later updated with my screen shot changed to “This ‘Ryan Lanza Facebook Profile Is The Connecticut Shooter’ Stuff Is Fucking Up Everything” (which seemed to admit they were fucking everything up). In response to criticism from Adam Serwer and Poynter, Buzzfeed’s editors detailed some of their thinking today.
We are feeling our way through very new ecosystem, and trying to understand how breaking news ought to work in the era of social. And this is not solely a media story about getting things wrong: In the end, social media got to the answer of who Ryan Lanza is much more quickly than a dozen local reporters would have done. But social media also creates a world in which we are watching the investigation — and reporting — unfold in real time.
“Social Media” didn’t get anything wrong or right. Reporters got things wrong – people who made choices about what to post and how to headline it – and they looked like fools for doing so. You might as well credit phones and typewriters for everything reported correctly before 1999. I got out what information I had as accurately as I could and people reported on that. Lanza’s ability to post about his innocence, and mine to see it and relay it to people, is only a social media success story if you don’t question the necessity of dragging an alleged suspect’s possible Facebook profile into the limelight where he’ll be called a mass murderer of children. Other than that, yeah, tweeting’s fun. Social media is simply a tool, and from what I saw yesterday, not one that’s bringing out anything social in us.
The outpouring of vitriol directed at me I’m still trying to figure out. I was feeling shitty about the human race due to the shooting, this wasn’t helping, and as someone used to getting their share of criticism and trolls, it was on a level that surprised me. People all over the web were immediately passing around unverified nonsense, creating fake profiles of Lanza, burn-in-hell Facebook pages, raging on people they don’t know – like me – with the most tenuous connection imaginable to Lanza.
We’re not thinking straight.
Social media purports to connect us but it often does the exact opposite. The barrier, the anonymity, the lack of accountability; all encourage the worst in people.
We’re operating in a world with less agreed upon facts by the day, with the complete erosion of trust in media, trying to tackle problems like gun control and mental health. It’s not going to work well. The solutions are far more complex than a simple political fix – as if we’re even capable of that. We’re passing along claims that cause damage to real people, that deliver traffic to craven unethical websites, saying things that later make us look like fools. Social media has put zero seconds between events and public reaction. People are firing from the hip, unloading into the crowd – whatever tasteless gun metaphor works here – without much thought or empathy on every daily outrage we’re served. The next one is a moment away. We could start thinking about it now.
Not two hours after accusing me being involved in the killing of 20 children, the man on Facebook was back: “I apologize for jumping the gun.”