Milt Priggee is an editorial cartoonist based in the state of Washington. His work has been published in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and CNN's Headline News. From 1987 to 2000, he worked as the staff cartoonist for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane. After that job ended, he moved to Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island in Northwest Washington. Priggee has syndicated his art around the nation, and has freelanced with the Kitsap Sun, the Skagit Valley Herald, the Puget Sound Business Journal, and the family of small Eastern Washington weekly newspapers operated by the Cheney Free Press. Priggee also travels the state and speaks on the history of cartooning.
Born in Alaska on July 6, 1953, Milton Priggee grew up in Elmhurst, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He began drawing as a child at the feet of his father, who was an art director for an advertising agency. The first editorial cartoon the son came to understand was an illustration in 1963 of Abraham Lincoln weeping after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "There were no words," he said of the comic, "but I immediately got why this was and why we weren't going to school that day" (Boxleitner). Soon afterward, in junior high school, he began to pen original cartoons.
Priggee attended DuPage Community College, finishing in 1973, then transferred on a wrestling scholarship to Adams State College in Colorado, publishing cartoons in the school newspaper and earning a fine-arts degree in 1976. Moving back to Chicago following college, he developed his craft under his mentor John Fischetti (1916-1980), who had won the Editorial Cartooning Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Priggee's career began when he sold freelance cartoons to several major Chicago papers. By 1978, he had become the regular cartoonist for Crain's Chicago Business.
Priggee married Janet Vaccaro, becoming the stepfather of Jason and Jennifer, father of Sarah and Eric, and eventually grandfather of Tanner and Lily.
In 1984, Priggee was working as a staffer at the now-defunct Journal-Herald in Dayton, Ohio, when Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze and the state bar association were feuding. Priggee drew a satirical cartoon that sparked controversy and a lawsuit. Harking back to stereotypes of Italian crime families in 1930s Cleveland, he depicted Celebrezze as a murderous thug. The cartoon featured a car with the judge's name on the plate. Gunmen in the car are firing a pistol and a Thompson submachine gun as they barrel past the office of the Ohio Bar Association. On the sidewalk, two men are dying from bullet wounds and a skunk is holding its stomach.
The next year, Priggee and the Journal-Herald were jointly sued for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The claimant was James Celebrezze, brother of Frank, who was also a member of the Ohio Supreme Court. James had lost his race to retain his seat on that court. One element of a cause of action for libel is that a defamatory publication must make a claim of fact. The Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's dismissal of James Celebrezze's claim and found that no reasonable person could conclude from viewing Priggee's cartoon that he was accusing either Celebrezze brother of the criminal act of murder or attempted murder.
Priggee's subsequent cartoons upset other audiences and earned a share of hostile responses. His employers and publishers became subject to hostility along with him. Eventually, after being let go by his last full-time employer, the Spokesman-Review, in 2000, he would turn to freelancing. As a freelance editorial cartoonist or graphic commentator since that time, he had ties to no single newspaper. Instead, he both freelanced and distributed his work through syndication services. Such arrangements largely absolved his publishers of legal reprisals. Three times Priggee has been sued for libel, but he has prevailed legally, calling upon First Amendment guarantees and upon the protections that shield journalists who communicate opinions in their jobs. Priggee is outspoken in person just as he is in his graphic media. "I draw cartoons that piss people off," he told an audience at the Windsor Square Retirement Community in Marysville, Snohomish County, in 2016 (Boxleitner).
Priggee defined his craft as "a visually based exaggeration of the facts" (Delzer), in other words, satire. Editorial cartooning, which generally combines opinion with exaggeration, can make extra demands on readers. Some studies show that news satire might in fact require a higher level of critical thinking from readers and viewers, presenting both problems and opportunities for news outlets. The controversy and confusion that results can be both an advantage and a problem for publications.
Making a Home in Washington
Before the Celebrezze lawsuit exhausted its appeals in Ohio, Priggee left the state for Spokane. The Spokesman-Review hired him as its staff cartoonist. He was meant "to stir the debate" and focus again on local issues ("Northwest Profiles"). For 13 years, he stirred the debates well enough that the newspaper distributed companion bumper stickers, one with a heart and the other with a slash across his name so that readers could praise him or damn him, according to their viewpoint.
During his tenure at the Spokesman-Review, he found plenty of topics of political controversy. The Aryan Nations in nearby Northern Idaho was making national news with its racist agenda. The saga of Randy Weaver (b. 1948) at Ruby Ridge preoccupied the region and concluded years later with a cash payout by the federal government to Weaver, whose wife had been killed by federal agents. The "wise-use" movement rose to prominence, pushing an agenda intending to neutralize what it perceived as run-amok environmentalism and federal overreach on public lands.
By the time he was let go in August 2000, Priggee had become the last staff cartoonist that a newspaper in Eastern Washington would employ (as of 2017). He submitted to a sort of exit interview with a reporter for The Local Planet, a now-defunct alternative weekly. Gregory Delzer asked some probing questions meant to unearth the controversies that led Priggee to uproot his family, sell his real estate, and move from the community he had come to appreciate and call home. In the interview, titled "Priggee Goes Electric," the cartoonist put a good face on his compulsory move into full-time freelance work. For the next year, he said, he would take advantage of a Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan to retool himself in the emerging electronic media. There he would focus on electronic media with an emphasis on animation.
At first Priggee spoke diplomatically about why he had been laid off. The paper wanted to "downsize," make a "budget-cutting move" (Delzer). The Spokesman-Review, owned by the Cowles family, is one of the rare newspapers still family-owned and, Priggee said, "The freedom of the press belongs to those who own one" (Delzer). In the course of his 13 years at the paper, Priggee had some 100 cartoons killed, compared to almost 3,000 that were printed. He rejected the label of controversial cartoonist and denied that he draws controversial cartoons, saying instead, "I have drawn one-sided cartoons on controversial issues" (Delzer). The terms of his severance included a no-compete clause in the region. Concluding the interview, Priggee opened up: "I guess all good things come to an end but mediocrity needs to go on and on and on" (Delzer).
After his fellowship in Michigan, Priggee moved to Whidbey Island and commenced his career as a freelancer and speaker.
On the Environment
The Pacific Northwest has long been a locus of battles over environmental issues. Dams and salmon, logging and owls, ranchers and wolves, coal power and wind turbines -- such conflicts produce ready-made material for writers and cartoonists alike. A Priggee cartoon from 2014 about the removal of dams from the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula furnishes an example of his visual rhetoric.
Priggee's Oak Harbor home is not that far by car and ferry from the teardown sites where the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams used to stand. Those dams on the Elwha River blocked fish runs for nearly a century until the money could be appropriated to tear them down and let the river run free again. Priggee's cartoon personifies the Elwha River as a curvy, gleeful female breaking the chains that attached each of her wrists to the restraining dams. Priggee has her proclaiming, "Free at last! Free at last! " -- thereby appropriating the language of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968). Priggee elevates nature's rights here to a level that approximates human rights.
Those echoes of King's "I Have a Dream" speech might offend some champions of civil rights. By echoing that speech, Priggee affirms the ecological ideals of river restoration that activist environmentalists advocate. Inverting environmental history, the personified river thanks the federal government for her liberty. That same government paid for the teardown, raised the money to recompense the owners of the private dam, and built a hatchery and a water treatment plant to serve the downstream city of Port Angeles.
Professional sports and state politics represented other frequent topics of Priggee's work. As a businessman and freelancer, Priggee no longer made disclaimers for the political slant of his work. He characterized his cartoons as "iconoclastic with a left lean" (Astor) and boasted that his website (www.miltpriggee.com) got 400,000 hits per month. An advocate of free speech, he insisted that "Political cartooning is the ignition key to democracy" (Wilson). Characterizing his work with a different figure of speech, he argued that those who run the region and the nation injure themselves and require him "to march down the hill, after the battle, and shoot the wounded" (Boxleitner).