BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In last week's New York Times Week in Review I was astounded by a political cartoon. In one panel we see an ovum sporting an American flag. The caption reads: Felicia Patterson hasn't even been born yet, but she'll be raped by a prematurely-released mental patient so the rich can get their tax cut. And the ovum says: Sure it's inconvenient, but we'll never defeat terrorism unless we have the right budget priorities. That's unusually strong stuff for the Times, but standard fare from syndicated cartoonist Ted Rall, an unabashed left winger who recently traveled to Afghanistan so that he could offer more informed pictorial rants on our war on terrorism. The trip turned his ordinarily sour perspective positive acid.
TED RALL: The truth is I wanted to go to Afghanistan and see for myself what things were like and to see to what extent we were being lied to and told the truth. The int-- my interest in Central Asia goes back a long time. I've been out to that region four times before, and I've tried to get into Afghanistan numerous times before, and even under the Taliban things were so unstable that it was impossible to get in. So ironically now that there's this sort of war tourism going on for journalists it's a rare opportunity to get in, although of course it does involve some meaningful risks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well when you arrived in Afghanistan you immediately hooked up with other foreign journalists, but as a cartoonist did you feel like an outsider?
TED RALL: Well-- they didn't really know what to make of me, and it really had less to do with me being a cartoonist than the fact that I wasn't chasing down every little pinprick story that these other guys were chasing. I was there to find out how things were for ordinary people as the result of our war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you came in with attitude and you went out with attitude. How did your attitude change?
TED RALL:Well I-- I'm not going to lie. I was scared to death. I was with -- in a convoy with 45 journalists total, 3 of whom were killed, so 42 of us came back. And really from the moment that I entered the country to the second that I left on the barge with the coffin of one of the 3 who were killed, I was terrified. And in that respect my attitude did change to one of utter humility. At the same time I also found myself becoming incredibly more cynical than I already was before I left in that I expected, for instance, some mistaken bombings of-- of, of civilian targets when in fact there was wholesale carpet bombing of entire cities and districts that had been firmly in Northern Alliance hands for weeks, and in my view the, the United States and its allies were more interested in leveling Afghanistan completely than in running any kind of sort of precision war as Rumsfeld would have us believe. And at the same time I was kind of disgusted with the local Afghans for viewing us as walking money bags and trying to rob us and, and kill us for our money, simply because, because we had it when we were there-- we were the only people who were going to be their advocates and tell the truth for them, and there was -- just nothing was like I expected it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you translate these experiences into your cartoons?
TED RALL:It's hard to convey how going to a place and doing research translates itself to cartoon form. Some people e-mailed me and said you know I couldn't tell from your cartoons that you'd actually been there. Other people said they could, and I sort of know it, because I have a - a real true sense of what - at least my part of Afghanistan looked like at a certain point in time. And one of the great criticisms I have of political cartoonists in general is that we tend to just read the paper and react to the headlines and then spew off an opinion, so generally I don't do a lot of foreign affairs cartooning, because you know what -- I never went to Kosovo. I've never even been to the Balkans. So what do I know about it? All I know is what's being reported which is doubtlessly being spun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What has the reaction been in general to your work post-Afghanistan?
TED RALL:Of course I've been catching a lot of abuse since September 11th for being so-called quote/unquote "un-American," which of course means left of center.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But no big change?
TED RALL:It's-- Well you know what? The change is probably-- is - isn't really that noticeable to me for a couple of reasons. First of all I'm not on staff at any papers. I'm, I'm, I'm a syndicated cartoonist, so no one editor can ever fire me. And in essence I don't get a lot of pressure from my subscribers because the papers who buy my cartoons know that I was always an ornery, cantankerous pain in the butt for the ten years that I've been selling them my cartoons. They buy my cartoons because I offer a different point of view from mainstream political cartoons. They expected a different point of view and they got it, so the big difference has been to be demonized by major media outlets like The New Republic and the Wall Street Journal. Also what's interesting is that the people who are opposed to my coverage seem to have taken a different tack than they used to. In the past it was really common to write a pa-- a letter to the editor of a paper and say okay, I'm going to cancel my subscription. I can't stand this, this guy's cartoon. Now they write to the advertisers of that newspaper and ask them to pull their product placements from the newspaper unless the newspaper cancels my cartoon. They've become savvier but also they're really into silencing people's voices, and also I've, I've - have to say I've never had - collected such an awesome array of death threats.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Syndicated cartoonist Ted Rall. You can find a link to his cartoons on our web site at onthemedia.org.