That’s all, folks
Chris Britt leaves the State Journal-Register
Chris Britt sounds like crap.
What started out two weeks ago as a bad cold has morphed into pneumonia, and his words come as croaks between coughs. The career of the State Journal-Register’s erstwhile political cartoonist, fired a week ago, is likely over, and Britt knows it.
“I don’t really know what’s next,” Britt says. “I’m just trying to get over this pneumonia. As soon as I can get healthy and think straight, I’ll get something figured out.”
Has he ever been healthy and thinking straight? Britt rasps a chuckle.
The ride that ended in Springfield began more than two decades ago, when newspapers were big and rich and proud and seemingly incapable of anything less than 30 percent profit margins, no matter what they printed, or didn’t print. For Britt, it started out with a gig laying out legal notices at the Arizona Business Gazette, which allowed him to draw one cartoon a week. He got his first full-time cartooning job in 1990 at the Sacramento Union, the oldest paper west of the Mississippi River, which closed four years later. After less than two years at the Union, he got a call from Lynn Ashby, then editor of the Houston Post.
“He calls me up: ‘Chris, Lynn Ashby, editor of the Houston Post. How are you doing? We really like your cartoons. How would you like to come to work for us?’ That doesn’t happen anymore.”
The halcyon days were numbered, but no one knew it. The Post battled the Houston Chronicle in a classic newspaper war that pitted vendors for the competing papers hawking editions on opposite street corners. The Post alone had a daily circulation of 380,000 and more than 600,000 on Sundays, Britt recalls.
“I thought I’d landed in hog heaven,” he says.
Britt cites a Post cartoon as one of the toughest in his career. It came during the first Gulf War and featured a depiction of President George H.W. Bush.
“He had a dead GI in his arms in full camouflage,” Britt recalls. “Bush is just looking at the reader, saying ‘God bless America and its renewable resources.’”
When Britt got to the office that day, a message was waiting. Dean Singleton, the paper’s publisher and owner, wanted to see him.
“I walk into Dean’s office – it’s a long walk across those oak hardwood floors,” Britt says. “Dean’s sitting at his desk with the Houston skyline behind him. He has a copy of the paper in front of him. He looks up and says ‘Have a seat, Chris. You see over there? That’s where the president of the United States lives – that’s his home. I know him. I go out to dinner with these guys. I don’t want any more cartoons of the president of the United States carrying a dead GI in his arms.’ It was a short, curt conversation.”
A drawing of a different person holding a different corpse got Britt in national crosshairs a few years later at The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., which hired him after he’d been in Houston less than two years. This time, it was a depiction of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a firefighter carrying the body of an infant away from the rubble of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City. A bubble quote showed the firefighter thinking “Damn right-wing radio.”
Before the bombing, conservative talk show host G. Gordon Liddy had told listeners not to register their guns and to aim for the groin or head if confronted by federal agents. After the tragedy, President Bill Clinton warned that things said over the airwaves had spread hate and invited violence. When Britt’s cartoon ran, Rush Limbaugh urged listeners nationwide to call the newspaper. Chris Fields, the firefighter in the photograph, denounced the drawing. Britt never backed down.
“That’s what cartoonists do,” Britt says. “We put words in people’s mouths every day, we have the president saying something he never said to make a broader point.”
The Tacoma publisher resisted calls to fire Britt and came to his defense a year later, when the governor, caught in a sexual-harassment scandal involving a former aide, accused Britt of bias, saying without evidence that the cartoonist had once dated the aide. The publisher labeled the accusation “silly, flimsy stuff,” and both Britt and the former aide denied any relationship. One of his offending cartoons depicted the cast of the Wizard of Oz, with the Tin Man saying “If I only had a heart,” the Cowardly Lion saying “If I only had some courage,” the Scarecrow saying “If I only had a brain” and the governor with his hand on Dorothy’s posterior saying “If I only had a chance.”
“I’m embarrassed that I have to answer these questions,” Britt said at the time. “But I am delighted that the governor is taking the time to read my cartoons.”
After more than six years in Tacoma, Britt moved on to the Seattle Times, which fired him less than a year after recruiting him. Britt landed in Springfield in 1999, and it proved his longest tenure as a cartoonist. He considers former Gov. Rod Blagojevich a gift no money can buy, and he praises departed colleagues such as Barry Locher, the editor who hired him and who now works for the Illinois Press Association, and Mike Matulis, former editorial page editor who now works for attorney general Lisa Madigan.
“It was a great, great working experience,” Britt said.
Britt declined to discuss specifics about his departure, but former publisher Patrick Coburn said that he believes it was all about money. GateHouse Media, parent company of the State Journal-Register, is in financial trouble, with its stock virtually worthless and more than $1 billion in debt coming due in 2014. Last month, the paper announced that it will eliminate 10 copy-editing jobs this summer, and at least a dozen additional employees, including Britt, were given pink slips.
“Most people who did not know him thought he had horns or something,” Coburn said. “He’s been a real treasure.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.