On August 30, 2000, editorial cartoonist Milt Priggee (b. 1953) publishes his last cartoon at Spokane's oldest newspaper, the Spokesman-Review. His work delights the city's liberals but irritates the majority conservatives. Priggee, who has drawn for the paper full-time since 1987, is given the option of continuing on a per-cartoon basis for the Spokesman-Review or moving on. Feeling blindsided by the ultimatum, he auctions his original cartoons, sells his home, takes a one-year Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, and later moves to Whidbey Island. Priggee will prove to be the last editorial cartoonist to enjoy full-time work in Eastern Washington.
The elimination of Priggee's staff position in Spokane was part of a national trend. Newspapers were downsizing. Editorial cartoonists were being eliminated and forced to move into freelance work. Two years before Priggee lost his Spokane job, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer (b. 1929) lost his job as the cartoonist for the Village Voice. Feiffer continued to find piecemeal work with the New York Times and other newspapers. The only staff cartoonist to survive Priggee in Washington was David Horsey (b. 1951), who won two Pulitzer Prizes drawing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before going to work for the Los Angeles Times in 2011.
Staff jobs can shelter or indemnify editorial cartoonists. The cartoonist receives steady checks instead of sporadic piecework, and publishers share the liability if there is a lawsuit. In an interview in 1980, seven years before he took the Spokesman-Review position, Priggee cited the many devilish complications of self-employment and confessed, "I never intended to freelance ... I dislike the disorder, uncertainty, and the constant running around. It's hard to plan for a future this way" ("Guest Cartoonist").
A steady employer proved hard for him to find. Disputes beset Priggee's career, as they have other editorial cartoonists. In 1985, he became a defendant in a prominent libel lawsuit. Working for the Journal-Herald in Dayton, Ohio, he inked a political cartoon that angered two brothers who were judges on the Ohio Supreme Court. The $12 million suit, naming the newspaper along with him, was defeated both in the original cause of action and on appeal.
The Journal-Herald folded in 1986, the same year Priggee told a reporter for a national law journal, "I don't print a cartoon, I just draw it and submit it. If my editors want to stand behind it, then they print it" (Blodgett). He there acknowledged the sometimes-tricky alliance between cartoonist, community, and publisher. By then, he had moved on to the Spokesman-Review, where he continued to court controversy but also earned praise. Five years before his staff position was cut, he had garnered all four honors for Editorial Cartooning from the regional Society of Professional Journalists. Priggee championed a free press as a key to democracy and described his work as "iconoclastic with a left lean" (Astor).
Some 100 of his cartoons were "killed" at the Spokesman-Review. One of those compared Ronald Reagan's Irangate scandal to Nixon's Watergate fall from grace. Priggee qualified this seemingly large volume of axed cartoons by pointing out that almost 3,000 of his pieces ran during his 13-year tenure at the paper.
Despite the thousands of his cartoons the Spokesman-Review found suitable, he believed his editors caused him to censor himself: "But after awhile, you get ten, twenty killed on a certain subject and you read the writing on the wall. You say, 'Hey! That's my blood! That's parts of my brain there! I'm not going to bother to draw a cartoon on that'" (Delzer). Another of his rejected cartoons cast a shadow over the claim of President George H. W. Bush (b. 1924) to be the "environmental president." Submitted for publication on September 19, 1989, the day the president was to visit Spokane and plant an elm tree, the cartoon depicts a sapling with a sign reading "planted by George Bush, the 'Environmental' President" -- it's planted upside down, with its root ball in the air and its top buried in the dirt. Priggee criticized the paper's decision not to run the cartoon as "a great example of censorship based not on taste or libel but on personal political beliefs. So much for a free American press" ("Why It Was Killed").
After he was involuntarily moved into freelance work, Priggee continued to raise hackles. In 2015, a cartoon that ran in the Florida Times Union prompted an angry reaction by police in Jacksonville. A TV station reported that the cartoon "compares the arrest of Dylann Roof, who shot nine black church members in a Charleston, South Carolina, sanctuary, to the shooting of a black man who was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction" (Minor). In one frame, police deliver fast food to Roof after his arrest, allegedly to get him to talk. In a second frame, a grinning cop with a smoking pistol tells a second grinning cop, "Mr. Blackie tried to get away -- so I had to shoot him." Steve Amos, Fraternal Order of Police spokesman, objected strongly in a news interview and asked for a retraction. Amos said that cartoons like Priggee's put peace officers at risk.
At the time it occurred, Priggee labeled his downsizing "a heartbreaker" (Delzer). But he may not have found it completely surprising. In 2007, a columnist criticizing U.S. newspaper editors who "kill" controversial cartoons wrote "Cartoonist Milt Priggee remembers what an editor told him soon after he joined the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.: 'If you want to survive at this paper, you've got to stay under management's radar. Don't do anything good. Don't do anything bad'" (Wallis).