Update: 5:24 p.m.
Rob Rogers said he felt editorial management was trying to turn him into a cartoonist he doesn’t want to be before he was fired today after 25 years with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I felt this coming from the day [Editorial Director] Keith Burris arrived. I felt a showdown coming of some sort because I could feel the pushback was very great, and I wasn’t sure whether they would back off or fire me, but I knew it would have to be one or the other,” Rogers said.
The award-winning editorial cartoonist took to social media earlier this month and claimed that leaders of the paper’s editorial page, namely Publisher John R. Block and Editorial Director Keith Burris, had spiked six completed cartoons in a row. Burris was named editorial director of the newly merged editorial pages at the Post-Gazette and its sister paper the Toledo Blade in March.
“I was an at-will employee. They did have every right to fire me, but they didn’t really have the right to try to make me draw things I didn’t want to draw, and that’s what I felt they were doing,” Rogers told The Incline in a phone interview today.
Burris said in a Post-Gazette news article that he did not “suppress” cartoons but found Rogers unwilling to “collaborate.”
“We never said he should do no more Trump cartoons or do pro-Trump cartoons,” Mr. Burris told the Post-Gazette. “For an in-house staff cartoonist, editing is part of it. Rob’s view was, ‘Take it or leave it.’ ”
Rogers said after six of his cartoons were “killed” in a row, he approached his publisher and offered to be moved to the op-ed page, so his liberal-leaning cartoons wouldn’t interfere with the aesthetic or tone of the paper’s increasingly conservative editorial page.
“After they killed those six cartoons in a row I wrote to my publisher and said, ‘What’s up?’ I said, ‘I know you have this new editorial director, and you want to take the page in a different direction, but that’s not where I’m going to go. So how about putting me on the op-ed page or something like that?’”
Instead, Rogers said he was presented with a proposal containing new guidelines for him to work under.
“All I can say is they were unacceptable to me.”
Rogers said he disagreed with the terms both ethically and workload-wise, although he declined to elaborate.
“I’ve been feeling like they want me to be a different cartoonist than I am, and those guidelines confirmed that,” Rogers said.
The Post-Gazette reported that Burris said Rogers was offered “a deal in which he would be an independent contractor and produce two cartoons per week for the paper’s op-ed page along with his weekly strip, ‘Brewed on Grant.’ ”
Representatives from the Post-Gazette did not respond to immediate requests for comment from The Incline. The company’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Stephen Spolar, said in a statement released in a Post-Gazette news article, “The Post-Gazette does not provide details about employment matters, but in light of Mr. Rogers’ public comments today, we do want to acknowledge his long service to the newspaper and our community. Any further discussions will be conducted with Mr. Rogers as a private matter.”
On Sunday, a rally in support of Rogers was held outside the old Post-Gazette building Downtown. Rogers was not in attendance himself and said last week that he was taking vacation until the issue was resolved and a decision made by his higher-ups.
Rogers told The Incline today that he had been stressing the importance of varied voices to his bosses privately and then decided to go public with his concerns only after being presented with the new guidelines he refused to accept.
“I started doing media [interviews], and I think that was something they didn’t appreciate,” Rogers said. “It blew up on Facebook first, and then the media started coming to me, and Jake Tapper asked me to come on a week ago Monday and I said ‘no.’ Then I got the original proposal from them on Monday afternoon. That changed everything in terms of me talking to the media. I said if this is their response to me being upset with them killing six cartoons …”
Rogers told the Washington Post that 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.”
Rogers said the Post-Gazette asked on Tuesday to meet with him today at its attorney’s office.
“I thought I’d be getting another proposal, but it was a separation agreement, and today I was let go. HR representatives for the Post-Gazette and [ownership company] Block Communications Inc. were in the room. J.R. Block and Keith Burris were not.”
In fact, Rogers said he never heard from Block or Burris or management directly during the controversy. Even with today’s firing, he said that continues to be the case.
Rogers said on Twitter he’d been fired.
An email sent to a representative for publisher J.R. Block was not immediately answered. A Post-Gazette story published today covering the firing pointed to leadership’s previous statement on Rogers’ situation.
“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 released a statement to the PG:
“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.”
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said rejections of political cartoons happen, but he acknowledged the number claimed by Rogers — 19 ideas or cartoons stalled in a matter of months — as “exceptionally high.”
Edmonds said the particulars and dynamics of this case — a new editorial director, longtime cartoonist and whole series of cartoons withheld — also matter.
Asked if he thought Rogers’ firing a result of disagreements over his work or the result of Rogers making his grievances public in a very high-profile way, Edmonds said, without having firsthand knowledge of the deliberations, “my guess is it’s a bit of both.”
And in an era where more newspapers are cutting editorial staffs and cartoonists and focusing precious resources elsewhere, Edmonds said it remains to be seen if the Post-Gazette will replace Rogers.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University and a former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review employee, said today, “I’m definitely surprised that someone like Rob who is so well known — not just in Pittsburgh but outside of Pittsburgh — that his notoriety didn’t insulate him.”
“It shows that the newspaper belongs to the publisher, and the people who work there serve at the pleasure of the publisher, Conte said, adding that, as consumers, we like to think we have some stake in the publication or that advertisers have sway, but it all comes down to the publisher.”
Conte said Rogers was well-known as a harsh critic of the Trump administration, but also politicians in general, including former Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Mayor Bill Peduto, both Democrats.
Peduto weighed in this afternoon with a statement, saying, “This is precisely the time when the constitutionally-protected free press – including critics like Rob Rogers – should be celebrated and supported, and not fired for doing their jobs. This decision, just one day after the President of the United States said the news media is ‘Our Country’s biggest enemy,’ sets a low standard in the 232-year history of the newspaper.”
Peduto’s statement continued, “I’ve known Rob a long time. That has never stopped him from publishing cartoons that are critical of me, of my policy positions, or of my actions (or inactions) in office. He’s even made fun of my weight. But he is one of the best in the world at his time-honored craft, and I know people of all political persuasions stand with me in support of him, even if the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regrettably does not.”
The mayor changed his Twitter avatar to an image of him drawn by Rogers.
In the past, if a publisher took a hard stance, something wasn’t published, Conte said. But Rogers got his cartoons out there through social media.
“I’ll be surprised if Rob is not hired by the end of the day,” Conte said.
Rogers’ case emerged as a favored cause for free press advocates in recent weeks and his claims about stifling of his work gained national attention.
His firing also caps a tumultuous few months at the Post-Gazette in which criticism of its editorial direction has come from both inside and outside the paper.
In January, a rogue employee used the paper’s official Twitter account to raise alarm bells about Block’s directive that a profane expression used by the president in reference to countries like Haiti and those in Africa be removed from the lede of an Associated Press article. “Shithole” ultimately appeared in versions of the article on the PG’s website but not in the lede of the AP article that appeared on the front page of the print edition.
Days later, a column by Burris that defended Trump against accusations of racism was published by the paper at Block’s behest. The piece ran on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and argued, among other points, that the word “racist” should be confined to the likes of Dylann Roof and Bull Connor.
It prompted angry responses from current employees of the Post-Gazette and readers, some of which Block allowed to be published and others he did not.
Then, in March, Burris was named the editorial director, and that same month the PG endorsed the Trump-backed conservative in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District and, according to Rogers, began to keep his work from being published.
Rogers told The Incline today that he plans to continue drawing.
“I have a couple of projects in the back of my mind that I always wanted to work on,” Rogers said. “A book idea maybe. But I’ll definitely continue to do cartoons. This is such a rich time with Trump in the White House. I will definitely continue drawing.”
In the Post-Gazette newsroom
Mike Fuoco, a Post-Gazette enterprise reporter told The Incline today that Rogers’ firing was not good for newsroom morale. Fuoco, who is president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said he was speaking as a 34-year employee of the paper and not in an official capacity.
“This all is so new and so deflating,” he said. “Yes, there is a wall between the newsroom and editorial department as there should be, but as I said in the tweet, Rob’s only transgression is he was doing his job and apparently wasn’t doing it to the political liking of the publisher and editorial [director]. We are supposed to facilitate the distribution of all forms of political thought, and it’s a sad day for the Post-Gazette today because that’s apparently no longer the case.”
Fuoco said while this will not have a chilling effect on reporters, it does affect the mood in an already tense newsroom.
“We keep making national news for all the wrong reasons. We are proud to serve the Pittsburgh community and Pittsburgh region as journalists, and we’re saddened today that what we feel is our mission has been undermined by the firing of a talented colleague,” Fuoco said.
Fuoco urged readers not to cancel subscriptions and to continue supporting quality journalism. Speaking at Sunday’s rally, PG columnist Brian O’Neill said Rogers also didn’t want readers to cancel subscriptions.
Post-Gazette Columnist Tony Norman told The Incline today upon news of Rogers’ termination: “I’m just disgusted. You can quote me on that. Our general policy is not to comment on issues like this and that the principal does the commenting. Rob will have plenty to say.”
While Rogers was not a guild member, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents the newsroom, said today in a statement:
“There never was a problem before but with the new order of the Post-Gazette editorial pages, it seems that those who do not follow the pro-Trump, pro-conservative orthodoxy of the publisher and editorial director are of no use.”
“The public should be assured that PG newsroom employees–150 reporters, photographers, copy editors, artists and others represented by the Guild–will continue to produce award-winning, unbiased journalism. Democracy depends upon it. As we do so, we mourn the fact that the PG editorial pages apparently are no longer the free marketplace of ideas.”
Other current Post-Gazette employees
Former Post-Gazette employees
Other Rogers supporters
Incline reporters MJ Slaby and Rossilynne Culgan contributed to this story.