Rob Rogers is the editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His cartoons are highly respected in the editorial cartoon field. The caricaturist and political commentator Steven Brodner calls his work the “Venus fly trap because his toons are immediately entertaining and then, on further inspection, reveal insight and power.” For the last twenty-five years his publisher John R. Block, a conservative from a likewise conservative publishing family, which owns the Toledo Blade, has had a respectful hands-off approach to Rogers’ work. Since Donald Trump was elected that all has changed. Block has become hands-on and hired a new editorial page director, Keith Burris, whose achievements include support of Trump’s “shithole” defamation of Haiti. Burris now oversees Rogers. The outcome is predictable. Freedom of speech is established for cartoonists and columnists as a given. The absolute worse thing now would be silence surrounding the silencing of Rogers, so I’ve asked him whether these clouds are becoming even more ominous and what we can do about them. Incidentally, all the cartoons here were killed.
Editorial cartoonists are often caught between a rock and a hard place. They are independent yet dependent on the tolerance of the publishers they work for. What has been your relationship over the years?
This is what makes this change so painful. I have been one of the lucky ones. In my 34 years as a professional cartoonist (9 with the Pittsburgh Press and 25 with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) I have always worked with editors who have been like-minded and who have given me the freedom to produce my best work. They wanted my opinions. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some give-and-take. There was. And there were killed cartoons. Every cartoonist deals with that. But there were only two or three cartoons killed a year and they were usually because of a disagreement over taste or how far to push the line. Often they were cartoons about sensitive subjects that could create a backlash from readers. Even in those instances, I could talk to my editor or publisher and fight to keep something in if I really believed in it. Sometimes they would change their mind. My name was on the work and I felt that they respected that fact and tried to work with me.
In my career I have drawn hundreds of controversial cartoons that were cleared by the editor and approved by the publisher even though they knew the cartoon would get lots of angry calls and letters. They always stood behind the cartoon. They always defended me. They understood that it is part of the editorial cartoonist’s job to be provocative. I was lucky. That’s what makes this new editorial direction so hard to comprehend.
I understand that a newspaper is a private company and the publisher has every right to choose what goes in and what doesn’t. They own the candy store. They can decide what kind of candy to stock. If customers get angry because the store isn’t carrying Junior Mints, those same customers can choose not to come back. That is how it works. If the candy store owner is smart, they will offer a variety of popular items, not just the stuff that satisfies their own sweet tooth.
I have had the same publisher for 25 years. My politics have not changed. His have. Why? I can’t answer for my publisher. All I know is that in recent years there has been more pushback on my cartoons. Then, in March, a new editorial director was hired. That is when things really changed for me. Since that time I have had 19 cartoons or cartoon ideas killed. The most recent 6 killed cartoons were all in a row. I have tried to work with the new editor in the same way I have worked with editors in the past. It feels like they are pushing me to be a different cartoonist than I have been for the last 25 years. I made it clear that I would not do that. I can’t talk about negotiations but suffice it to say it hasn’t gone well. As of this writing I am still employed and using my personal vacation days waiting for this to be resolved.
Block seems to have been tolerant of your work, if not supportive . . .
Absolutely. He has always been very supportive. He went out of his way to match offers from other papers in 1994 and 2004 just to keep me in Pittsburgh. I never really thought of him as a conservative. He seemed more of a moderate to me. He began to show signs that he was drifting more to the right when the paper endorsed republican Tom Corbett for governor in 2011. Everyone was puzzled by that. Then, when Trump came along he went hard. That is why this hurts more than if some new publisher had come in and made sweeping changes. He was there from the start.
What do you think the future of editorial integrity is from this day forward?
Hard to say. Traditional media, which used to be the place people would turn to for integrity, is seen as being more partisan than ever and less trusted by the public. One could argue there is still plenty of room for editorial freedom and integrity on the web, but there is also a lot of conspiracy and lies. It is too easy to find a niche and disappear in it, protected from other thoughts or ideas.
In Germany during the Third Reich the majority of papers were bought or controlled by the state. Lies out of the propaganda ministry press office were sent out as routine cheat sheets to all editors. This seems to be true with Sinclair Broadcasting, do you see it as the fate of all media?
While I believe the Third Reich should be a cautionary tale and there are shocking similarities to the way our current president lies, attacks the free press, abuses his executive power, etc., we need to be careful in how we talk about it. Many people have described what is happening to me as censorship. The government did not throw me in jail for drawing cartoons about the president, I’m just angering my publisher. There is a big difference. That doesn’t make it right and the readers of the PG have a right to be upset about the changes.
Have you been handcuffed by specific guidelines?
They would say no. I would say yes. I can’t talk about the specifics of my talks with management except to say that I feel that what they are looking for is an illustrator to illustrate their new political slant. I am not an illustrator. My personal opinions are crucial to what I do. I can’t suddenly stop working that way and turn off my outrage. I am not that person.>
What do you think you’re future will be?
Hard to say. I would hope that all of the outcry from readers would help them realize that having more than one opinion on an opinion page is better for the readers. Especially when most of our readers disagree with the direction they are taking the page.
What can we do?
This is much bigger than me or my job. This is about the soul of my newspaper and the soul of the city it serves. This is about the dark direction this country is going and the role a free press plays in that future. I would encourage people to send letters and emails to my publisher, your publisher, everyone’s publisher. Share the story on social media and beyond. Make it clear that the people want newspapers that continue the tradition of afflicting the comfortable with hard-hitting editorial cartoons.
[Below are the recent six in a row that were killed. Keep in mind, this does not include the ones killed while they were still sketches or ideas.]