The Other Shoe: Part I

Posted by on August 9th, 2010 at 3:06 PM

Back in early July on the day I left on vacation, I noticed that three strips that usually gag every day had just started telling a story. One of them was Shermans Lagoon in which Jim Toomey’s finny cast took off for the Gulf of Mexico on a mission to save the sea dwellers affected by the BP oil spill.

Toomey has done this sort of thing before—insinuated into the strip messages intended to raise awareness of ocean conservation and marine life protection. And he’s been twice honored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for his efforts.

Here are a couple strips from the sequence. (If the image is too small to read—which, for most of us, it is—the recommended procedure is to click on the image and it enlarges. For some inexplicable and presumably temporary reason, when you do that here, you and the picture are merely transported to another plane, where the picture resides more-or-less alone; but it you click on it again, there, it’ll get much larger—large enough, usually, to read. Try it: you’ll like it.)

Raising awareness is about all Sherman and his cohorts can do. No one else can do much more.

Other strips jumped in, too. Patrick McDonnell lets his ol’ Crabby the crab comment on BP’s folly. For once, Crabby has something authentic and real to crab about.

And Stephan Pastis permits Pig to have a word or two, too.

Editorial cartoonists, more accustomed to delving into current events, had a field day during the months of the “oil crisis.” Here are a couple examples, culled from many hundreds.

John Cole’s “News Item” offers a visual metaphor that is sardonically telling, a perfect picture of the perfectly oblivious criminal in this instance—that is, thee and me, kimo sabe. John Darkow’s comment is much less metaphorical but no less sarcastic. I include it here as much for the pleasure Darkow’s lively drawing style affords as for the message itself (which is no slouch of a message). The irate pelican is a comedic joy.

The Gulf of Mexico, it turns out, has not be completely destroyed by BP oil. Now that the leaky well has been, more-or-less, plugged, the voices of soberer experts on the matter have at last surfaced. For well over three months, the so-called “news” media have assaulted us—daily on network news programs—with the most dire interpretations of the environmental impact of the oil spill. And while there has undoubtedly been great damage done, it is not, apparently, quite as devastating or as permanent as we’ve been led to believe.

“The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” said a geochemist quoted in Time (August 9). Others concurred. “Louisiana State University coastal scientist Eugene Turner, a perennial critic of the oil industry, believes the spill will destroy fewer marshes than the airboats deployed to clean it up will.

Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former LSU professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice-president, compares the additional impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to ‘a sunburn on a cancer patient.’

Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, another former LSU prof, who’s working for a spill-response contractor, says, ‘There’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster.’”

Yes, we’ve seen lots of dead birds, but of the nearly 3,000 collected so far, fewer than half of them are visibly oiled; the infamous Exxon Valdez spill may have killed as many as 435,000.

Other recent cases of oil spills have not all be disasters, reported The Week magazine (July 23). The Exxon Valdez dumped an estimated 11 million gallons of heavy crude into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. In 1979, when a rig over the Ixtoc 1 well in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche exploded and sank, 140 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf over the next 10 months.

But when Saddam Hussein’s troops retreating from Kuwait sabotaged oil wells, tankers and storage facilities in 1991, 460 million gallons spilled into the Persian Gulf. By comparison, the BP spill is estimated at 260 million gallons by early August, still less that the Kuwaiti dump. And yet, all is not lost.

At the sites of both Ixtoc 1 and the Persian Gulf, fish and wildlife populations returned to pre-spill levels within a couple of years after declining as much as 80 percent. “You look around and it’s like the spill never happened,” said marine biologist Wes Tunnell.

The environment is amazingly resilient. Prince William Sound has recovered far less probably because it’s cold up there, and environments generally adjust slower in colder areas.

But my point remains: in pursuit of a sensational story, the news media are willing to ignore facts that are likely to diminish the sensation. As Michael Grunwald put it in Time: “Anti-oil politicians, anti-Obama politicians and underfunded green groups all have incentives to accentuate the negative. So do the media because disasters are good for business: those oil-soaked pelicans you saw on tv (and on the cover of Time) were a lot more compelling than the healthy ones I saw on a protective boom in Bay Jimmy.”

Sensational stories increase viewership/readership; increased viewership/readership improves circulation and advertising revenue. So sensational stories trump journalism every time.

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One Response to “The Other Shoe: Part I”

  1. […] talking about the characters of Sherman’s Lagoon raising awareness about the BP oil spill in this piece for The Comics Journal examining the ways various newspaper comics and cartoons have confronted the […]