ROB ROGERS has been a Pittsburgh editorial cartoonist for 34 years — for the past quarter-century at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. And during that long run, he says, he’s had only two to three cartoons a year, on average, killed by his editors.
Since March of this year, though, he says he’s had nine cartoon ideas killed and 10 finished cartoons spiked — six of those between May 25 and June 4, when, he says, not a single one of his cartoons was deemed worthy of publishing in the Post-Gazette.
“The Post-Gazette finally published one of my cartoons [this week] for the first time since May 24,” Rogers tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “Due to the fact that things were still unresolved with management, I decided to take personal days for the rest of this week.”
So just what is going on? Why are so many of Rogers’s cartoons suddenly being spiked?
“I can only speculate,” the left-leaning cartoonist says. “While most of the killed cartoons or ideas were [directly] critical of President Trump, there were also some dealing with the NFL kneeling policy, issues of racism and the FBI.” More broadly, most of the spiked cartoons satirized issues on which Trump has taken a stance or that reflect the larger partisan divide in the Trump era.
Meanwhile, John Robinson Block, the Post-Gazette’s publisher and editor in chief, tells The Washington Post in a statement: “This 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.”
Rogers notes that since 1993, spanning his four supervising editors at the Post-Gazette, “I have always had good relationships with my editors and found ways to work with them.”
“Often, if we can’t see eye to eye on a certain cartoon,” he added, “I will switch topics and revisit it again later, all the while maintaining my integrity and my voice.”
Rogers says that Keith Burris became his supervising editor this year. Burris, the vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers, announced in March that the editorial boards of the Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade would be merged.
“Our search is a search for insight,” Burris wrote in the announcement, “which means that one has to be willing to risk giving offense.”
Burris has not responded to a Post request for comment about Rogers’s work.
Rogers says that the Post-Gazette’s editorial page has recently become more conservative: “You would just need to read some of the editorials and statements by those in charge to see the change.”
In noting the recent frequency with which the Post-Gazette has spiked Rogers’s cartoons, the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists said this week in a statement: “It doesn’t take much to connect the dots between the absence of Rob’s left-leaning cartoons and the recent arrival of a Trump-supporting editorial page editor [Burris].”
“We would take this opportunity to remind all editorial page editors that their responsibility is to the readers . . . and to the open and ongoing search for truth in contending opinions,” the AAEC continued. “The editorial pages are a public forum, not a members-only private resort in Florida.”
One Post-Gazette editorial this year, which some readers said represented a pivot in the paper’s politics, was published for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and headlined, “Reason as racism: An immigration debate gets derailed.”
“The editorial states that those who call Trump ‘racist’ are not furthering the immigration debate, and should reserve the word for people like” white-supremacist and convicted Charleston, S.C., church shooter Dylann Roof, Pittsburgh NPR station WESA observed in January while reporting that some members of the Post-Gazette staff and major Pittsburgh foundations had condemned the editorial and perceived it as a defense of President Trump.
One reader who wrote in to the paper called the editorial “truly troubling” over its take on invoking the word “racist,” after Trump used a profane term to describe some nations.
The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in January that Block, as publisher and editor in chief of the Post-Gazette and the Blade and as a “strong Trump supporter, had asked a willing editorial writer in Toledo to pen the [MLK Day] piece. And he demanded it run in both newspapers.”
And three days after the editorial ran, the Block family — relatives of the publisher — wrote to disavow the editorial.
“Since 1927, our family has been involved with the Post-Gazette, shaped primarily by the nearly six decades of William Block Sr.’s socially conscious leadership,” the response said. “The editorial ‘Reason as Racism,’ published on Martin Luther King Day, printed without the Post-Gazette editorial board’s consensus, and attempting to justify blatant racism, is a violation of that legacy.”
Meanwhile, Rogers says that he believes Post-Gazette readers helped bring about his return to the printed editorial page this week. “Readers started to notice the absence and became vocal on social media,” he says. “By the end of last week, the pressure was building.”
Rogers also notes that while his work was not published, the Post-Gazette published the work of Kirk Walters, the staff political cartoonist as its sister paper in Toledo, as well as several cartoons provided by syndicates.
Rogers was encouraged by the reader reaction, even as he continued to post his cartoons on his social-media accounts, and his cartoons continued to be distributed by Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel Syndication.
“The groundswell of support has been amazing,” he says. “So many readers have been writing, posting, contacting me about this and showing their full-throated support for me and my work. It’s been overwhelming — in a good way.”
This stretch of spiked cartoons has also made Rogers appreciate anew his history at the Post-Gazette. During his career in Pittsburgh — which includes being a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1999 — the ranks of full-time staff political cartoonists in American newsrooms have dwindled from the hundreds to the dozens.
“As I look back on my career, I am more awed by the kind of cartoons my newspaper allowed me to draw than the ones they rejected,” he says. “For decades, the Post-Gazette had the courage to print edgy, controversial cartoons that pushed the boundaries and really made readers think. They defended the work and stood behind me. I will always be grateful and humbled by that.”
And now, Rogers says: “I wake up every morning excited to fight the good fight, to afflict the comfortable, to speak truth to power, and, yes, to make people laugh.
“I love my job. I just want to do my job.”