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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    My Life As… Returns, With An Emphasis on Laughter

    The School of Journalism’s ever-popular “My Life As?” lecture series began again on Feb. 20 when students, staff and other members of the community welcomed Newsday’s editorial cartoonist Walt Handelsman. Handelsman’s work is nationally syndicated by the Tribune Company, which owns Newsday, to over 250 newspapers in almost every state in the country on a daily basis. His work has earned him two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning in a time when the profession is, as he puts it, “a vanishing breed.” Howard Schneider, the Dean of the School of Journalism, introduced Handelsman to a crowd of almost 100 people in the Student Activities Center Ballroom A, comparing Handelsman’s rarified position to a “diva at the opera house.” “I have a very very unusual job,” Handelsman said, describing a typical day at the office which consists of arriving to Newsday’s Long Island office at 10:30am, grabbing a cup of coffee, and situating himself in front of a television in his office to catch up on the latest developments in the news. As an editorial cartoonist, especially one of his caliber, Handelsman is free to express his opinions, within reason, on issues ranging New York policies and figures to international headline stories. A slideshow of his work features as many depictions of Governor Eliot Spitzer as the familiar monkey-like outline of President Bush.

    Before Handelsman came to Newsday in 2001, he had worked at other newspapers in New Orleans, Scranton, Penn., and Baltimore. His immediately prior job at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans presented Handelsman with one of his most difficult and exciting tasks as a cartoonist. David Duke, the ex-leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was running for a senate seat in Louisiana, and Handelsman spent a month drawing cartoons defaming Duke for is highly anti-semitic and racist platform. “Those cartoons were very important to me, and very fun to draw,” said Handelsman. The cartoons also got him in trouble with some Duke supporters. “I got a call one night from some drunk college kids,” recalls Handelsman. “They took turns yelling at me through the phone, each one yelled things like ‘effin’ Jew.'” But the incident didn’t waive Handelsman, who remembers laughing through the phone at them. At Newsday, Handelsman has encountered controversy of another kind regarding his cartoons. One that ran during the height of the Iraq War showed headstones in a military graveyard, with the caption reiterating the popular Bush administration adage of “We’re making headway in Iraq.” When that cartoon was displayed to the crowd at Stony Brook, the overwhelming reaction was a wave of sympathetic and understanding sighs. The news industry has been experiencing substantial shifts in the way they do business. Newspapers are on the decline, while the Internet and television are growing in popularity. These changes have affected everyone, including editorial cartoonists like Handelsman, who has been in the business for over 20 years. “In November 2005, two of my good friends lost their jobs, and one was a Pulitzer Prize winner,” said Handelsman. In order to expand his visibility and diversify in the increasingly online world, Handelsman learned the inner workings of flash animation to create online animation versions of his cartoons. “It is extremely difficult and time consuming” to make each animation, Handelsman said, estimating that each animation takes between 50 and 70 hours to complete. In February 2006, Handelsman told his editors he would do one new animation every two weeks, an idea that he later admits being a mistake. “I had no time to do anything,” said Handelsman. “I didn’t see my kids for almost two months.” But his work in animation did pay off. One animation, about the millions of aging baby boomers, went viral and was downloaded over 14 million times following its release. Handelsman also won the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to an animation, and his second overall. He has since lowered his animation commitment to once a month. Handelsman also has noticed the change in speed in which news is delivered. “The news cycle was pretty slow. Not much would change,” he said. Now though, his ideas for a cartoon may change several times in the course of any given day thanks to 24 hour cable news channels and the nearly instantaneous delivery of news through the internet. Following his presentation, Handelsman was asked by an audience member if he though Jon Stewart, the father of comedy news programs, could be considered a type of editorial cartoonist. He and Stewart have both talked emphatically about news that is tailored to their profession. “If Hillary Clinton does win the election, it would be so good for editorial cartooning,” Handelsman said. “And Saddam was perfect until they hung him.” Handelsman also showcased his talents, drawing examples of the presidential candidates on an overhead projector. “Hillary’s got a large nose, pointy eyes and lines from the side of her mouth,” he said, as he showed the audience what he was working on more and more as the election drags on and on. “Obama is tall, lean, he’s got slits for eyes, a wide nice smile, and those big ears.” His personality was not lost on the crowd. Laughter was a common theme throughout the night. Even before his presentation began, he inspired a few chuckles. “I can’t believe I was just compared to an opera diva,” he said as he took the floor.

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