In Pittsburgh, an unprecedented blow to editorial cartoonist

©2018 Rob Rogers. Reprinted with permission.

UPDATE: Rob Rogers, a Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist for more than two decades, says he has been fired from the paper. Rogers’ announcement comes after the Post-Gazette declined to run a number of Rogers’ cartoons, and more than a week after the paper posted a Rogers cartoon on its website. Rogers had mentioned on Twitter that he would take time off from the Post-Gazette “until my employment status at the paper is resolved.”

Rogers provided CJR with this statement:

“I am incredibly proud of the 34 years I have spent drawing editorial cartoons in Pittsburgh — 25 of them at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I felt I was a valued and respected member of a quality newspaper staff. This situation changed dramatically and abruptly in recent months. The Post-Gazette’s leadership has veered away from core journalistic values that embrace diverse opinions and public discourse on important issues. I am especially troubled that management’s decision to fire me discounts the thousands of readers who turn to the Post-Gazette for editorials, columns, and cartoons that, while not always reflecting their own positions, challenge preconceived notions and invite thought, conversation, and keep the civic conversation going. I fear that today’s unjustified firing of a dissenting voice on the editorial pages will only serve to diminish an opinion section that was once one of America’s best. I love what I do and will continue to find ways do it and get it out there. The world needs satire now more than ever.”

CJR has also reached out to the Post-Gazette for comment, and will update should we receive one. Our original story is below.

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THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE has recently been the subject of pointed criticism for racist editorials that appeared on its editorial pages. Now, the newspaper faces public outcry over what’s been missing from those pages: the work of longtime editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers.

Since March, the Post-Gazette has nixed 19 ideas for or drafts of cartoons by Rogers, and has withheld six of his cartoons from publication since Memorial Day. The first of those six, drawn for Memorial Day, depicts President Trump laying a wreath before a burial marker that reads “Truth, Honor, Rule of Law.”  His work is normally published five days a week—Tuesday through Friday and Sunday. The paper published a cartoon by Rogers on June 5 (his first to appear online at the Post-Gazette since May 24), but has not offered a detailed explanation for why other cartoons have not run.

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Rogers, who was out of town at a cartoonists’ convention when two of his cartoons were killed, thought maybe he was having a bad weekend. “Then I got home and did another one,” he tells CJR, “and, sure enough, they killed that too.” One cartoon—in which a character in a white hood is prescribed Ambien, a reference to Roseanne Barr’s defense after tweeting racist comments—was actually on the page before it was killed, says Rogers. That cartoon later appeared in “Cartoons for the Classroom,” a joint project of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and Newspapers in Education.

One of six consecutive cartoons Rogers says were killed by the Post-Gazette. ©2018 Rob Rogers. Reprinted with permission.

“A political cartoonist is meant to be provocative, and is meant to cover people in power and keep those people accountable,” Rogers says. “When I was hired by the Post-Gazette 25 years ago, it was to come up with my own ideas and draw those ideas, not to be an illustrator of someone else’s ideas.”

All editorial cartoonists deal with having their work killed at some point, says Rogers—a previous recipient of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists’ Golden Spike Award for a nixed cartoon. “But they usually only happen a couple of times a year,” he says. “I’ve never heard of anybody having more than two or three. Never in my career have I had two in a row killed, or six in a row.”

Rogers declined to discuss internal conversations with the Post-Gazette concerning the killed cartoons. He works independently of the rest of the members of the editorial page, which he says is fairly typical among editorial cartoonists, and is how he’s done things since the first year of his career. “I’ve never done anything I didn’t believe in, or that I felt diminished my integrity,” says Rogers. “At the same time, I certainly can’t be accused of not trying to work with the editors.”

Rogers’s frustrations are the latest evidence that the Post-Gazette pages, once reliably liberal, continue to shift to the right. “It’s a dramatic shift, and I think people are puzzled by it,” says Rogers, who has been the subject of supportive tweets by a number of Post-Gazette staffers:

The selective elimination of Rogers’ work overlaps with the appointment of Keith Burris to Block Communications vice president, editor, and editorial director. (Block Communications owns the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade.) Burris was identified as the author of a January editorial, “Reason as Racism,” that drew ire from readers and Post-Gazette staffers as well as from members of the family that owns the newspaper. In a blog post titled “The Battle for Pittsburgh,” the AAEC referred to Burris as a “pro-Trump sympathizer” and attributed responsibility for the nixed cartoons to him. (Rogers says the P-G’s rightward shift predates Burris’s arrival, and points to the paper’s 2010 endorsement of then-candidate Tom Corbett, a Republican, for governor.) Burris did not respond to CJR’s requests for comment by press time.

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Rogers posted the killed cartoons on his Facebook page, and readers began demanding answers from the newspaper. On Sunday, a group of Rogers supporters rallied outside the Post-Gazette’s former offices in downtown Pittsburgh. Organizer Lynn Cullen, who hosts a talk show run by the Pittsburgh City Paper, referred to the killed cartoons as “the proverbial canary in the coal mine…a newspaper actually censoring its own political cartoonist whose very job is to provoke and inform.” (Disclosure: The author was a staff reporter at the Post-Gazette from January 2012 to September 2015.)

Longtime Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill attended the rally; though he hadn’t intended to, O’Neill ultimately appealed to the crowd of about 75 people, and urged them not to stop reading the Post-Gazette just because of its editorial pages.

“I told the crowd: Keith Burris has domain over two pages in the newspaper,” he tells CJR. “The rest of the newspaper is ours.” O’Neill heard from readers that the newspaper’s endorsement of conservative Rick Saccone in the March special election for Congress was the last straw. At the rally, however, O’Neill pointed out the role that Post-Gazette played in forcing the special election. (P-G reporter Paula Reed Ward uncovered a story about anti-abortion incumbent Congressman Tim Murphy asking his mistress to have an abortion. Murphy resigned two days after Ward’s story ran.)

“There’s a lot of valuable work being done, still, by the Post-Gazette, and we can disagree with the editorial pages,” he says. “But canceling your subscription is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Rogers is stunned by the support he’s received. Colleagues shared images of Post-Gazette staffers gathered around a television in the newsroom to watch Rogers’ recent CNN appearance:

And Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, frequently on the receiving end of Rogers’ pen, tweeted praise for the cartoonist:

The Post-Gazette’s chief marketing officer, Tracey DeAngelo, recently told CNN’s Jake Tapper in a statement that Rogers’ situation “is an internal personnel matter we are working hard to resolve. It has little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump. It has mostly to do with working together and the editing process.” CJR reached out to DeAngelo for clarification on the “editing process” behind the paper’s decision, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Rogers took some time off from the Post-Gazette, but said he hopes to return to work this week. “I plan to draw the best work I can draw and submit it with the intention of getting it in the paper,” he says.  “I know what I can expect from myself: I will not change my political slant or my opinions or my way of drawing to please somebody else’s viewpoint.” What he can expect from the Post-Gazette remains unclear.

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Kim Lyons is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local and national publications. She was a 2015 Kiplinger Fellow in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University, and is co-host of The Broadcast Podcast, focused on amplifying women's voices.