From Pink Slip to Pulitzer: Mark Fiore
If all had gone according to plan, Mark Fiore would still be a staff cartoonist at the San Jose Mercury News, in the “brass ring” job he thought would be the pinnacle of his career.
Instead the political cartoonist was fired, resumed freelance work, discovered animation and won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.
“It allowed me to do something weirder and different in animation that would have been harder to do in the old model,” said Fiore, of breaking free from his staff job with the paper.
Lesson learned: “You have to be nimble and see independence as an opportunity.”
That was the message Fiore delivered to an audience of more than 120 students, faculty and alumni at a recent Georgetown University-sponsored lecture titled “Political Satire: Serious Implications for Today’s Politics.”
Fiore himself was reminded of that message again more recently when he got the “soft boot” from another employer, this time NPR.
“I was fired by NPR before it was cool,” said Fiore in his opening remarks to the crowd, referring to the recent uproar over NPR’s firing of commentator Juan Williams for making anti-Muslim remarks while appearing with Bill O’Reilly on FOX News.
It was the same O’Reilly who laid the path to Fiore’s firing when the conservative host ran Fiore’s “How to Speak Tea Bag” cartoon satirizing Tea Party activists on his show. The cartoon had sat dormant on the NPR website for two months until O’Reilly focused his glare.
What followed was an online Tea Party revolution that flooded the station with angry phone calls, emails and death threats and prompted NPR to drop Fiore until a “conservative counterpart” could be found to balance Fiore’s admitted often left-of-center leanings.
Fiore reported his work is still off the site as that “balance” has yet to be found.
A buzz circled the crowded lecture room when NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who herself also called for a balance to Fiore’s work, stepped to the microphone.
Fiore, after a good chuckle at the sight of Shepard in attendance, responded that he looks for satire, not ideology, in his work and that both Democrats and Republicans provide “ample material.”
But it is, Fiore noted, just the type of fervor and characters in a movement such as the Tea Party that makes online animation such a powerful medium.
“Cartoonists can’t ask for more with the passion, the symbols, the metaphors,” Fiore said of the Tea Party. “And with animation you can tap into different parts of people’s brains, build characters and tell a story.”
And that willingness to poke, prod and tap is what pushed Fiore into animated cartoons.
The year was 2001 and Fiore had just been fired from his staff cartoonist position with the Mercury News.
"I was told to go easier on George W. Bush, so of course I went harder on Bush," he said. "And then went back to freelance."
Fiore also went back to the animation he first began tinkering with during the dot-com boom of the late ‘90s, and saw in it an opportunity to reach a bigger audience in a more profound way.
He dove head first into the new field, tackling first the obstacle of selling his work to traditional, print newspaper editors.
“I was surprised by how actually easy it was because editors were amazed by just the blink of a character’s eye,” remembered Fiore. “Now I’m up against Jon Stewart, YouTube, Hulu and whatever platform is ahead.”
He soon developed a loyal following through his work featured on SFGate.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as NPR, Mother Jones and Slate.
That following soon grew to include the Pulitzer Prize jury which, in April, awarded Fiore the Pulitzer Prize Winner for Editorial Cartooning,
He became the first animated, first self-syndicated and first online-only cartoonist ever to win the award.
“I’m mostly glad that it gives credibility to, not just me, but the whole online community,” said Fiore. “And I’m hopeful it brings people into this weird thing I’ve stumbled into.”
And Fiore left the crowd with the same advice that led him, stumbling, into this “weird thing,” the unexpected “brass ring” of his career.
“If you love it, keep doing it,” he said. “Keep cranking it out and it will get better, easier and more fun.”