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Post-Gazette Cartoon Dispute Draws More Attention To Change In Editorial Leadership

Courtesy of Sylvia Rhor
Cartoonist Rob Rogers is at the heart of the Post-Gazette's latest editorial page controversy

Rob Rogers' cartoons have been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for more than 20 years. And as Pat Bagley can tell you, some friction with editors is part of the job.


"We butt heads with our editors all the time," said Bagley, president of the American Association for Editorial Cartoonists.


But while Bagley himself has been drawing cartoons for nearly 40 years, he said he's never seen a situation quite like the one unfolding in Pittsburgh.


Between May 24 and June 5, the Post-Gazettepublished just one of seven cartoonssubmitted by its editorial cartoonist. Though the drought ended Tuesday, Rogers announced on Twitter Wednesday morning that he would be taking vacation days until the issue was resolved.


"Rarely do my cartoons get killed, but it happens," said Bagley. "This Rogers thing is kind of different because it's kind of a blanket thing."


Rogers spoke with 90.5 WESA Wednesday evening, breaking a public silence he'd maintained for several days. "So many people are angry about it that I thought it was time," he said.


Rogers said he didn't want to disclose private conversations at the paper, but said, "For the most part, I was not given a reason" for why the paper had killed the cartoons. Since March, he said, he'd had 10 completed cartoons killed, and another 9 ideas rejected.

"I just want to keep doing my job," he said. 


March is when Post-Gazette publisher John Block named Keith Burris the director of the Post-Gazette’s editorial page. Burris also presides over the editorial section at the Post-Gazette’s sister paper, The Toledo Blade.


"I've never met Keith, but it appears to me that he's the publisher's fixer. He's the one who is going to engineer whatever changes the publisher has in mind," said Tom Waseleski, who headed the Post-Gazette's editorial page for 12 years.


Earlier this week, Burris told KDKA-TV that the dispute with Rogers was a "personnel matter": The paper sent a statement to CNN, which also interviewed Rogers on Wednesday, saying decisions were not motivated by politics or ideology.


Burris did not respond to multiple requests for comment from 90.5 WESA. In response to the paper's statement, Rogers said, "Look at the cartoons that were killed and make up your own mind."


But Waseleski said he could see changes coming in late 2015. He remembered a meeting in which Block told him that the paper might support Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. Newspaper endorsements and other editorials are typically written by a board made up of Post-Gazette staffers, but the publisher has the final say.


"And I said, 'John, that would be really startling to our readers, because we take positions on a whole slew of national issues that are not on the same page as Trump.' And he said, 'Well, you have to start turning the editorial members and their views on those issues toward the way Trump sees things.'"


Waseleski told the publisher he wouldn’t do that, and said he knew that at that point his career at the paper would end.

"How do you turn on a dime with that?" he asked. "Just because the owner of a newspaper is enamored with a presidential candidate. I mean, it's totally upside down."

Waseleski took a buyout and retired a few weeks later, after 33 years at the Post-Gazette.


One editorial board member, Dan Simpson, left the board just last week. He told 90.5 WESA that the board’s “political environment” was a key reason for his departure. Other than Burris, there are only two editorial board members now, down from five when Waseleski stepped down.


Nolan Rosenkrans, president of the Toledo Newspaper Guild, the union for the Blade, said that in Toledo, Burris reliably carries out Block’s wishes, and that Pittsburgh can expect the same.


"Keith is much more in line, both with John politically, but also in the belief that it's the publisher's paper and he can do what he wants," Rosenkrans said. 

That sometimes causes controversy. In January, Burris wrote an editorial that defended President Trump's use of profane language to describe African nations. That editorial got national attention -- but Block and Burris had little to say publicly.


Rosenkrans said the silence is conspicuous.

"The fact that Keith and John wouldn't publicly comment when there were controversial opinions on their opinion page, I think that's an abdication of responsibility here."


Still, he and Waseleski both noted that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is, after all, John Block’s newspaper.

Rogers said he still hoped to draw cartoons for the paper, adding that the controversy "only made me more resolute ... to do more hard-hitting provocative, funny [cartoons] about people in power."

Chris Potter was previously employed at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.