My friend, Rob Rogers, is not an angry guy. Yet, that's the reason his publisher gives for firing the mellow, even-tempered former editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Publisher and Editor-in Chief John Block says Rogers was "too angry for his health or his own good" and cited his obsession with President Donald Trump as evidence. The cartoonist's firing has caused a furor of concern in the news and on social media about the future of free expression and a free press in the age of Trump.
Granted, Rogers' cartoons were sharp, strongly opinionated, wicked, unfair, piercing, hard-hitting, ridiculing and merciless. In other words, they were doing what an editorial cartoon is supposed to do: strip away hypocrisy, expose falsehood and reduce self-serving pomposity to absurdity in a single image that the average reader will look at for only about eight seconds. Block's problem was not that Rogers was letting anger get in the way of his job. His problem with Rogers was that Rogers was doing his job too well for his publisher's comfort.
John Robinson Block of Block Communications, owner of the Toledo Blade and the Post Gazette, has merged the editorial pages of the two papers, and he has since been nudging the Post Gazette to a more conservative, pro-Trump stance. Its liberal editorial page editor was replaced with a writer who defended Trump's profane description of African countries, and he has gone on to outrage both readers and Post Gazette employees with his editorials. Block defends his editorial page editor by saying, "controversy goes right along with being an independent newspaper," and that "sometimes you have to risk offending people to make people think."
With Rogers' firing, there seems to be some question of how "independent" Block is allowing his pages to be. Commentators are debating whether the move is an attempt to curry favor with the Trump administration or an attempt to appeal to a more conservative readership in a county that voted 56 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But one of Pittsburgh's strong independent voices, a voice that made people think every day, has been muted.
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His wasn't the first, by a long shot. For over the last twenty-some years, the editorial cartoonist profession has been steadily shrinking. There were probably 200 full-time newspaper cartoonists in 1987. Now, by some counts, there are fewer than 50. Many papers claim financial hardships forced the cuts, but I can't help but think that the powers-that-be breathe a sigh of relief when that particular journalism job is eliminated.
I don't believe Rob Rogers is any more obsessed with Trump than any other journalist these days. All good independent cartoonists go after those in charge, speaking truth to power. I've drawn President Clinton as a cockroach and President Obama as a lemon. But if our aim is to expose deceit, hypocrisy, pomposity, bigotry and corruption, the Trump administration seems to have all that in spades.
This doesn't make us angry. Friends and colleagues say to me constantly, boy, you must be enjoying a field day with all the material Trump is handing you. All I can answer is, "Yes, but even cartoonists get sad."