After 6 ‘killed’ cartoons, Rob Rogers reappears on the Post-Gazette’s editorial page

“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.”

The opinion page of the Post-Gazette is pictured on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, with a Rob Rogers cartoon featured.

The opinion page of the Post-Gazette is pictured on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, with a Rob Rogers cartoon featured.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE
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Updated 11:18 a.m. Wednesday

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette actually published art on the editorial page today from its longtime cartoonist Rob Rogers.

It’s the first cartoon published after he said six in a row were spiked.

Rogers’ supporters argue that the nixed cartoons, critical of President Donald Trump, went missing as the paper’s publisher and editorial director move the opinion page — and, some argue, the paper as a whole — in a more a conservative direction.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, told The Incline in an email, “Cartoonists are subject to editing and sometimes rejection of their submissions, same as anyone else. This is not, as it is sometimes called, censorship, though it may come close since the disagreement is likely to be over the opinion expressed and edginess rather than craft or documentation. Not sure it is more [than that] (remember Doonesbury?) though it can be a big step down the path to divorce in an instance like this,” he said, adding, “And maybe it goes without saying … the temper of Trumpian times makes clashes over this sort of content all the more likely.”

Edmonds was referring to the left-leaning Doonesbury being spiked by numerous outlets through the years, including by The Washington Post, which finally ran a Watergate-Era Doonesbury strip 41 years after it was withheld from publication over concerns that it might compromise the paper’s journalistic integrity.

According to Philly.com, Rogers’ cartoons for the Post-Gazette were killed by Keith Burris, editor, vice president and editorial director for Block Communications Inc., which owns the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade. Burris’ responsibilities include oversight of both papers’ editorial pages, which recently merged.

On Monday, Burris described the issue to KDKA-TV as a “personnel matter” and indicated a Rogers cartoon on trade would appear in today’s edition of the PG. It did.

But it’s unclear if Rogers’ work will return to the Post-Gazette on a sustained and regular basis. In place of his cartoons, the paper often ran the work of Kirk Walters, the Blade’s editorial cartoonist.

It’s worth noting that Edmonds said an editorial cartoon expresses the viewpoint of the artist, like an editorial column.

“But typically there is some compatibility with the paper’s leanings — liberal, conservative or moderate,” he added. “Also, keep in mind that a little overstatement is OK in the genre — from caricature-style drawing to ridiculing the subject.”

The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists’ board said in a statement Monday:

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. We would take this opportunity to remind all editorial page editors that their responsibility is to the readers (among whom in Pittsburgh, Rogers cartoons are wildly popular) and to the open and ongoing search for truth in contending opinions. The editorial pages are a public forum, not a members-only private resort in Florida.

Rogers declined to comment for this article, but told The Incline that he remains employed by the PG.

Burris, Walters and Post-Gazette and Blade Publisher and Editor-in-Chief John R. Block each did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Six ‘killed’ cartoons

On May 31, Rogers wrote in a public Facebook post on his personal account, “Another killed cartoon. 4th in a row.”

He also jumped into the comment sections on earlier publicFacebook posts, writing in one, “They killed my Memorial Day cartoon with Trump laying the wreath and also the NFL referee one. The ultimate decision is coming from the publisher, John Robinson Block.

In another public post he added, “[…] This president is incredibly dangerous and the press should not give him a pass on any of his behavior. Unfortunately, my publisher is a big Trump fan.”

Lynn Walsh, past president with the Society for Professional Journalists, said reporters concerned about censorship or coverage should call out these issues in their own newsrooms and, if internal channels fail, go public with social media postings or by reaching out to advocacy groups like SPJ.

Asked if SPJ is seeing an increase in outreach around complaints like this, Walsh said, “We are not hearing a lot of that, and I hope we do not start hearing that.”

Similarly, Bernie Lunzer, president of The News Guild-Communication Workers of America labor union, said “It’s rare to have such an overt political bias of the publisher or editor to block a cartoon or story.”

Rogers posted the cartoons unpublished by the Post-Gazette on Facebook and Twitter — six as of Monday. The works include potent criticism of Trump, Trump supporter Roseanne Barr and the NFL’s new anthem policy.

Like the unpublished ones before it, Tuesday’s published cartoon on trade was critical of the president — but this time of his policies and policy actions rather than his starring role in a running culture war.

So that’s that, right? They ran a critical cartoon of Trump by Rogers and normalcy has returned.

Not exactly, because the Post-Gazette has now become the news, and the Rogers flap marks just the latest development in a complicated chapter for “One of America’s Great Newspapers,” though it’s not just the Post-Gazette facing these questions.

In Pittsburgh’s alternative media scene, longtime City Paper editor Charlie Deitch said he was fired last month after refusing to ease up in coverage of controversial Republican Butler County state lawmaker Daryl Metcalfe.

The Butler-based Eagle Media ownership company has not responded to requests for comment from The Incline.

In his “Mediator” column for the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg predicted in February of 2017 that “In Trump Era, Censorship May Start in the Newsroom.”

He hung the prophecy on the case of a PBS station in Texas that pulled a strongly worded rebuke of a lawmaker’s suggestion that voters get their news directly from Trump. The station’s president later acknowledged the decision as a mistake, citing an overabundance of caution, and agreed to run the segment.

At the Post-Gazette, the tension within the newsroom has been backlit by an ongoing tussle between the paper’s ownership company and the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing about 150 PG newsroom employees in Pittsburgh. (Rogers is not one of them, according to Mike Fuoco, a PG enterprise reporter and president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh.)

On Wednesday, Rogers took to Facebook again, this time to thank supporters and to let them know he’d be taking some time off.

“I can’t get into specifics here, but I felt that it was best under the circumstances to take some vacation days until issues with the Post-Gazette are resolved, he wrote.”

A brief history of WTF is happening at the PG

A highly condensed version of this story begins during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, with a photo of John R. Block on the candidate’s private plane making the rounds, along with rumors of a pending PG endorsement.

A spokesperson for Block defended the photo opp at the time by saying Block had been pictured with many politicians during his career, including Democrat Hillary Clinton. The paper ended up publishing what some considered a non-endorsement endorsement.

Certainly since Trump’s election, there have been questions from readers — and even quietly from its own reporters — about the paper’s direction.

There was that tweet by a rogue newsroom employee, in January, announcing 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” 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.

Fuoco said in a Jan. 22 piece for CJR that the Guild actively defended a member who, “in the interest of journalistic ethics and transparency” had sent the tweet from the paper’s account. When reached Tuesday, Fuoco said he could not comment on the outcome because it amounted to a personnel issue.

Then there was the “Reason as racism” editorial published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day defending the president from accusations of racism and saying the term “racist” had itself “become not a descriptive term for a person who believes in the superiority of one race over another, but a term of malice and libel — almost beyond refutation, as the words ‘communist’ or ‘communist sympathizer’ were in the 1950s.”

The column drew condemnation from readers and former and current PG newsroom employees, as did the paper’s decision to not run critical letters to the editor from the latter two groups. (As head of the editorial boards for both the Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade, Block has final say over what does and does not appear in their opinion pages.)

Letters to the editor from readers and a letter from Block’s own family members decrying “Reason as racism” were allowed to appear in the paper. The letter from Block family members called the column an affront to the “socially conscious” legacy of former publisher William Block Sr., uncle to J.R.

The unpublished letters from current and former PG employees made similar points while also arguing that the column defended indefensible comments by the president in a way that minimized the very real and very potent force that is racism in American life. The Post-Gazette, they argued, was now firmly planting itself on the wrong side of history.

A limited byline strike followed, with the Post-Gazette’s former politics reporter Chris Potter withholding his name from work he did for the paper in protest. Potter left the paper in March and now is 90.5 WESA’s government and accountability editor. (There was also a four-day newsroom-wide byline strike attributed to displeasure with management in the midst of protracted contract talks as opposed to outrage over the “Reason as racism” column.)

In an exclusive interview with Yale Daily News at his alma mater, Block defended his decision to run the piece and said, “Controversy goes right along with being an independent newspaper, and being an independent newspaper of course means that people on both sides are surprised at times when you take a position that they don’t think is consistent with other positions you’ve taken … We’ve always taken a strong stance.”

The author of the “Reason as racism” column was not named in print but was soon identified as Burris, confirmed in the Yale Daily News article.

Soon after, Burris was promoted.

On March 2, the Post-Gazette’s ownership company, Block Communications, Inc., announced that the editorial pages of both the PG and the Blade would be merged and that Burris would now have charge of the overall operation.

“Mr. Burris’ title will be editor, vice president and editorial director for Block newspapers,” an announcement in the PG read.

Days after Burris was named to the new position, the Post-Gazette endorsed Republican Rick Saccone in the March 13 special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District — a race ultimately won by Democrat Conor Lamb.

At Saccone’s election night event, Republican Committee of Allegheny County Chairman D. Raja exclaimed, “How about that Post-Gazette endorsement. That’s really a rare thing,” and the crowd cheered.

For conservatives it was a victory, a coup, if you will: a traditionally liberal-leaning newspaper brought to heel by an unapologetic new editorial guard.