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Clay Bennett – Editorial Cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize Winner (Part 1 of 3)

By Admin | November 10, 2008

Clay Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist on staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He gives us his thoughts on cartooning.


Where are you from?

I grew up an army brat, so, I’ve lived in many places. I was born South Carolina, but lived in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Virginia, and Alabama before moving off on my own.

As an adult and I use that term loosely, I’ve lived in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts and now, Tennessee.

With a history like that, it’s hard to say that I’m from any of these places. But in a very real way, I guess I’m from them all.

Where did you go to college and what was your academic major?

I attended the University of North Alabama (Florence, AL), where I majored in rabble-rousing. Technically, though, my degrees were in Art and History.

What has been your career path from college to your current position?

After graduating from college in 1980, I worked as a staff artist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There, I drew maps, charts, graphs and illustrations.

I spent just six months in Pittsburgh before joining the staff of the Fayetteville Times in North Carolina. Unlike the Post-Gazette job, this position included the opportunity to draw five editorial cartoons a week.

That experience helped me land the job as the staff editorial cartoonist for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida in 1981.

I worked at the St. Pete Times for eleven wonderful years. Unfortunately, I was there for thirteen.

In 1992, Robert Pittman, the editor who hired me retired, and was replaced with a much lesser man – sealing the fate of the Times editorial page and my position as its cartoonist.

My own demise, however painful, came quickly, being fired in 1994. The decline of the Times editorial page, though, was both painful and protracted.

The next three years of my career were spent in professional oblivion. Passed over for the few cartooning jobs that were available at the time, I weathered the storm the best I could.

I continued to draw editorial cartoons for the Tallahassee Democrat and for syndication through King Features with modest financial return. This forced me to increasingly turn to freelance artwork and teaching to pay the bills.

By December of 1997, I was beginning to think that my career as an editorial cartoonist was over. That’s when I got a call from The Christian Science Monitor.

Three years since my last staff job, and three months since drawing my last cartoon, I was hired as The Monitor’s new editorial cartoonist.

Given a second chance at my career, I worked harder than ever. In return, I had a great run over the following decade.

In my 10 years at The Monitor, I was a nominated finalist for the Pulitzer Prize six times, winning it in 2002.

I received the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Journalism Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

I won the Overseas Press Club Award twice, the John Fischetti Award twice, the National Headliner Award three times and was named ‘Editorial Cartoonist of the Year’ by Editor & Publisher magazine in 2001.

I left The Monitor in late 2007 to join the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. A return to metro journalism, the promise of editorial and artistic freedom, and an opportunity to live in the south again, proved irresistible.

I currently draw five cartoons a week for the Times Free Press, and my work is syndicated internationally through the Washington Post Writers Group.

Why did you get fired by the Times in 1994?

The official reason for my termination was that “my work no longer met the standards of the St. Petersburg Times”.

That’s what I was told by the man who fired me, and that’s what was written on the form I signed during my exit interview. But there was much more to to the story than that.

My termination followed months of rancor between myself and the newly appointed editorial page editor, Phil Gailey. Although it was becoming increasingly apparent that he liked neither me, nor my politics, I was confident that my position at the newspaper was secure.

Big mistake! Months of friction with my new editor finally took its toll. On Monday, Oct 10, 1994, after 13 years of service to the Times, I was invited into Gailey’s office and fired.

Even though I was strongly encouraged to resign my post instead of suffering the shame of termination, I wanted the truth to be told. So I chose to have my departure reported as what it really was- a firing.

As devastating as it was to have my career at the newspaper end, it was what happened after that day that was most disturbing.

When pressed by various media outlets covering the story of my dismissal, Times Publisher Andrew Barnes consistently refused to give any reasons for the action, stating that doing so would “violate my privacy”.

So, instead of an honest answer, the newspaper resorted to a campaign to fuel any and all suspicions as to the cause of my termination. It was an intentional effort that lead many, including some my closest friends, to speculate that there must be something that they weren’t being told.

I never respected the editor who fired me, so his behavior meant nothing to me. But I always thought highly of Andy Barnes. So, his callous disregard for the truth, not mention my reputation, was a tragic disappointment to me.

Copyright 2008 DailyInterview.com

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