By Neil Cosgrove
A year ago Post-Gazette publisher John Robinson Block and his henchman, editorial page editor Keith Burris, fired political cartoonist Rob Rogers, who had spent 34 years (25 with the Post-Gazette) building a loyal Pittsburgh and then national following of readers.
This month Rogers’ version of his final days at Pittsburgh’s last remaining daily newspaper— Enemy of the People: A Cartoonist’s Journey (IDW Publishing)—becomes widely available. The book only exists because the cartoonist refused the severance package Burris and Block offered him on June 14, 2018—six months’ pay in exchange for a non-disparagement agreement and ownership of every cartoon he ever drew for the P-G, including those management refused to publish.
Wisely, Rogers rejected the paper’s offer, realizing he could further his own cause and that of political cartooning in general by disparaging the P-G’s management and getting all the cartoons relevant to his saga in print—including the string of cartoons and ideas Burris killed in the three months from when he became editorial director to the day of Rogers’ dismissal.
The trouble didn’t begin with Burris, Rogers relates, but with publisher Block’s sudden infatuation with candidate Donald Trump in late 2015. Several commentaries from former colleagues and fellow cartoonists appear in the book, but one of the most informative comes from Tom Waseleski, who served on the P-G’s editorial board from 1990 to 2016.
“In January 2016, when the publisher demanded that I, as editorial page editor, begin to shift the Post-Gazette editorial board and its opinions toward the positions of candidate Trump, I refused,” writes Waseleski. He and the deputy editorial page editor both left the paper two months later.
Following those departures, the paper’s editorial pages did make a sharp rightward turn, leaving the left-leaning Rogers in an uncomfortable but not yet untenable position. Newspapers’ editorial pages generally strive to reflect a multitude of political positions. Along with refuting management’s claim that they sought to “work with” a recalcitrant Rogers, the cartoonist wants to use his book to argue for the value of diverse opinions and deliberate provocation, calling for back-up from former colleague Dennis Roddy, a Republican who once worked for Pennsylvania’s ex-Governor Tom Corbett.
“Newspapers are more than private property,” Roddy testifies. “They are … civic trusts protected by the Constitution and, as such, part of a social contract. Their obligation is not only to be independent voices, but to elevate the culture by enabling and nurturing independence of thought.”
Unfortunately, as Trump’s presidency entered its second year, it became increasingly clear that the publisher could no longer tolerate Rogers’ “independence of thought” or the irritating ways in which the cartoonist applied his considerable talent. Burris was brought in from Block Communications’ other daily, The Toledo Blade. Burris told Rogers his cartoons were “not funny or insightful but simply angry and mean.”
Another mission of Rogers’ book, consequently, is to provide a sampling of previous cartoons satirizing five earlier presidents, including one memorable example of Bill Clinton delivering the State of the Union address literally “butt-naked.” Another depicts a retiring Pope Benedict as a cranky old guy ordering progressive Catholics to stay off of his lawn. (PreBurris editors wouldn’t publish that cartoon.) But perhaps the most powerful case made by Rogers’ book is that his departure has left Post-Gazette readers severely malnourished, political-cartoonwise. His successor, Steve Kelly, is a truly “pale” substitute for his savory predecessor. While Rogers’ cartoons fill the frame with bright colors, Kelly’s feature plenty of white space and look like they took many turns in the rinse cycle. Rogers’ lines curve and sweep; Kelly’s are vertical, with sometimes stick-like figures.
Rogers uses space to illustrate how his caricature of Trump evolved, while Kelly’s depictions of supposedly well-known figures can be unrecognizable. In one cartoon Kelly has a bystander telling another through a dialogue balloon that it’s David Letterman he’s satirizing; actually it’s the cartoon’s reader who needs help identifying his subject.
And then there’s the level of wit each cartoonist displays. Rogers’ jokes are commonly based on some specific, recorded occurrence, with an occasional secondary joke squeezed into a corner of the frame. Kelly relies heavily on straw-man suppositions, in which the satire is more about what someone on the right imagines his object of ridicule would do or say than on anything that actually occurred.
Block and Burris have succeeded, through Rogers’ firing, in making the Post-Gazette’s editorial pages much friendlier towards President Trump. During two weeks in early June, when Trump paid a state visit to Britain, threatened to place tariffs on Mexican imports, and said that once again he would gladly accept valuable dirt about political opponents from another country, Kelly featured him in two cartoons. One praised Trump, despite the protests of a distraught housewife, for using the “tariff” wrench to stop a flooding southern border. Another contrasts his hand-over-the-heart attention to the flag with Bernie Sanders taking a knee while holding a banner reading “Socialism.”
Meanwhile, Rogers continues to create cartoons, which can be found at GoComics and on the cartoonist’s own website, Facebook page, and Twitter account. Seeking those cartoons out is a form of support, as is the purchase of this entertaining book.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board