Jack Ohman

After Charlie Hebdo, a cartoonist’s world has changed


When I started cartooning professionally in 1978, there were no cellphones, Internet or home computers. Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves. Newspaper city rooms had AP and UPI teletype machines, adding a soothing rhythm to the clattering typewriters and screaming editors, all of it thick with cigarette smoke.

Now, I do video, blog, draw most of my cartoons in Photoshop, Tweet, and post on Facebook. I never expected to see what happened in Paris to the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine. After Charlie Hebdo, my world feels different.

For most of my career, I have not had personal fear about the reaction to my work. Sure, there are borderline people out there, and they read the cartoons. I get nasty unsigned notes and emails and abusive phone calls.

Mostly, I draw my cartoons and go home. The cartoons get reprinted in hundreds of newspapers and websites, and the primary reaction I get is mostly positive. The negative comment is usually from a small group of usual suspects. I try not to take it personally. I put my work out there to get a reaction. If readers react, well, that’s the desired effect. But this is a very different world from the one in 1978.

I found out just how quickly information moves in April 2013, and how fast a political gesture can turn into something very different and frightening.

I drew a cartoon about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s lackadaisical regulatory policies as they related to an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas. The cartoon did not mock the victims. However, Perry decided he could make some hay by calling for my resignation. He also decided to gin up the reaction by misconstruing the message to turn the attention away from himself.

Normally, I would view this as a small attaboy. Indeed, a fellow Texas cartoonist bemoaned the fact that Perry had never called for his resignation. When I got up on Saturday morning to stumble into the kitchen to get coffee, I turned on CNN. I noted the crawl on the bottom of the screen: “GOV. RICK PERRY CALLS FOR RESIGNATION OF SACRAMENTO BEE CARTOONIST.”

Uh, I was The Sacramento Bee cartoonist. Cream and sugar with your morning CNN crawl?

Later in the day, Sen. Ted Cruz called for my firing, as did Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. CNN.com received more than 10,000 comments. And then I went to check my Twitter feed. It included threats of a legally questionable nature.

One said a group of people were driving up I-40 to pay me a visit. Others were subtler, noting that I should be careful, or not ever, ever come to Texas. One disgruntled reader decided he would call one of my sons. You know, just to prove he could do it. Emails observed that writers knew where I lived, and that one never knows what could happen.

I remembered all that when I heard about the carnage at Charlie Hebdo.

I am not suggesting, exactly, that Perry and Cruz knew they would light up a bunch of lunatics, though it is not difficult to think they would. And by lighting them up, maybe they thought I would be intimidated. Well, it was intimidating. But it didn’t shut me up.

Perry and Cruz want to be president of the United States.

I can hardly wait.

Opinion is opinion, and one shouldn’t have to face physical harm from expressing it. Unless you count caricature as physical harm, which I don’t.

Many of my colleagues have faced threats similar to the ones I experienced. Overseas, many provocative cartoonists have been maimed, have been forced into exile, have disappeared and been murdered.

Killed for a cartoon. Killed for an opinion. Killed for an idea.

After 9/11, we know that things we took for granted as impossible, such as a foreign attack on our soil, can happen here. And it has happened in the heart of Paris. It happens all over the world, every day. People die for ideas they hold.

Most people do not have a pulpit. Their opinions are shared at the bar, in a fishing boat, on the golf course, in the beauty shop or at a family gathering. They know the people they’re addressing. Now multiply your audience by millions or even tens of millions.

Will everyone appreciate your opinion? Might there be someone in those millions who doesn’t agree with your opinion about the 49ers, Obama or your brother-in-law? Yep. Will some of them be so moved as to confront you about that opinion? Oh, yes. They will. Will you be in danger?

What would you do if you were? Would you think twice about expressing that particular opinion? I don’t know. Neither do you. But I guess that you might be careful in the execution of that opinion. I am. One thing cartoonists and columnists do is make sure that what they mean to say is said in the most exacting manner they can craft it. They do not want to create unintended offense.

In France and around the world, people are grieving, but they’re also celebrating a small but necessary victory by freely expressing their opinion. This assassination isn’t just about cartoonists and journalists. It’s about you.

By assuring that I have my right to express my opinion without fear, you preserve something even more precious: Your right to express an opinion.