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[Audio, Slideshow] Pulitzer Prize-Winning Editorial Cartoonist Joel Pett

Ahead of his Sunday lecture at Murray State University, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Joel Pett speaks with Tracy Ross on Sounds Good  about the evolution of his career, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and how editorial cartoonists have been impacted by the Information Age. 

Pett says he fell in love with editorial cartoons in his youth. The cartoon section was the only part of the three newspapers to which his family subscribed that caught his interest.


“The cartoons about Nixon and Watergate were just fantastic and I thought, ‘Wow, that looks great! All you do is sit around and criticize other people. Anybody can do that, right?’,” Pett said.


Pett says there were 200 to 300 cartoonists working at papers across the country when he started in his career. Now, he says there are less than 24 of those positions left. The Information Age, in which content is immediately available by pocket computer, has caused newspapers to downsize. But Pett says cartoons, or what he calls “nugget sized bites of opinion,” are still useful because they are easily shared on social media. He says people like attitude and snark so there will always be an audience for cartoons.


“It’s actually our own newspaper industry people, editors and publishers, and their fear of losing audience share that has led to the demise of the craft, I’m afraid. There will always be an audience for sarcasm and humor and satire. It just takes different forms,” Pett said. “Maybe the one panel cartoon format is just going the way of the buggy whip, but I hope not quite yet.”


Some of Pett’s older cartoons remain relevant today, like those he says he drew in the 1970s addressing gun violence and the environment. He says it’s important to address broader themes, like the refugee crisis or climate change, as well as in-the-moment issues like election year politics.


“In some ways that’s one of the goals. It shows the fruitlessness of the endeavor, I’m afraid…. I like cartoons that have a long shelf life despite the fact that implies there won’t be any progress,” Pett said. “But the temptation is, of course, is always to go for what the pack journalism is doing today.”


Pett won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 but he says he was more surprised the first time he was a finalist than when he actually won the prize. He calls it “a total fluke of luck” when a cartoon about local politics and then-Governor Wallace Wilkinson made him a Pulitzer finalist in 1989.


“The trick in those contests, which, of course, they’re so arbitrary, is not to be better than everybody else, because who’s better than everybody else? There’s no best picture of the year or any of that stuff. The trick is to be different, so you stand out,” Pett said.


Pett says he was glad he did not win in 1989 because he did not feel he had enough experience. He says it was at least 15 years and another finalist-only cartoon before he started thinking he had a shot at winning.


“If nothing else, everybody was getting fired so the numbers were working in my favor,” Pett said.


Pett gives a lecture Sunday, July 17, at Murray State’s Wrather West Kentucky Museum at 3:00 p.m. He says he will tell a lot of jokes, throw out his opinions, do some live drawings, and take questions from the audience. 

Tracy started working for WKMS in 1994 while attending Murray State University. After receiving his Bachelors and Masters degrees from MSU he was hired as Operations/Web/Sports Director in 2000. Tracy hosted All Things Considered from 2004-2012 and has served as host/producer of several music shows including Cafe Jazz, and Jazz Horizons. In 2001, Tracy revived Beyond The Edge, a legacy alternative music program that had been on hiatus for several years. Tracy was named Program Director in 2011 and created the midday music and conversation program Sounds Good in 2012 which he hosts Monday-Thursday. Tracy lives in Murray with his wife, son and daughter.
A proud native of Murray, Kentucky, Allison grew up roaming the forests of western Kentucky and visiting national parks across the country. She graduated in 2014 from Murray State University where she studied Environmental Sustainability, Television Production, and Spanish. She loves meeting new people, questioning everything, and dancing through the sun and the rain. She hopes to make a positive impact in this world several endeavors at a time.
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