Until he was fired last Thursday—because he insisted on doing his job, which included lampooning the president of the United States—Rob Rogers was the celebrated editorial cartoonist of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“They clearly had a plan to either break me or get rid of me,” Rogers told The Daily Beast about the abrupt end of his 25-year career, at age 59, as the house caricaturist for western Pennsylvania’s dominant media outlet—equal parts satire and indignation, punctuated by a bare-knuckled visual punch.
Rogers’s bosses had killed 19 of his cartoons in recent weeks and all but banned his work from the newspaper. A typical Rogers cartoon depicts a morbidly obese Trump, his too-long tie dragging on the ground, as he brandishes a key and bends over a terrified caged immigrant child. “This is tragic!” Trump exclaims. “It should be Hillary in there!”
A second cartoon—like the others, it’s available to Rogers’ 400-odd client-papers through the Andrews McMeel Syndicate—shows Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong Un.
“You’re so talented!” the president gushes to the North Korean dictator. “And your people love you… Look how they’re smiling!”
Kim is standing atop a pile of grinning skulls.
“I never expected that I’d be more famous for getting fired than for what I was doing for my job,” Rogers said with a chuckle.
Rogers’ dismissal by Post-Gazette Editor in Chief and Publisher John Robinson Block is merely the latest manifestation of the toxic divide between Donald Trump and his supporters, on one side, and “the enemy of the people” (that is, the journalism biz) on the other.
Block is the scion of a century-old media dynasty founded by a Lithuanian-Jewish rag picker’s son who landed at Ellis Island and eventually did business, and shared a mistress, with William Randolph Hearst (the silent-film star Marion Davies).
In an interview over the weekend with Politico conducted as Block attended a class reunion of his posh prep school, Hotchkiss, in Lakeville, Connecticut, he claimed Rogers was relieved of his five-cartoon-a-week duties out of concern for his well-being.
“He’s just become too angry for his health or for his own good,” Block said. “He’s obsessed with Trump,” he went on, arguing that it’s a newspaper cartoonist’s obligation to hew to the editorial positions of his publisher—at best, an eccentric take on the job—and adding: “I wanted clever and funny instead of angry and mean.”
During an hour-long phone interview, Rogers was, by turns, clever and funny, much like his award-winning cartoons, and never mean. He insisted he isn’t angry, and frequently burst into laughter at the Kafkaesque absurdity of his situation.
“That’s ridiculous,” Rogers said about Block’s anger diagnosis. “I’m not an angry person. Doing hard-hitting cartoons are part of my job.”
In recent days, Rogers said he has been overwhelmed by offers of freelance work and expressions of support from not only fellow cartoonists and readers—who are canceling their subscriptions in protest—but even from Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, who decried the firing as “disappointing” and sending “the wrong message about press freedoms in a time when they are under siege.”
Meanwhile, Rogers said the editorial chief of his syndicate service has instructed the accounting department to pay him—“for the foreseeable future”—100 percent of the royalties instead of the usual 50/50 split.
By most accounts, the 63-year-old Block—whose family-owned company, Block Communications Inc., also includes the Toledo Blade, a string of small television stations and cable and broadband service providers—has abandoned his progressive-to-moderate politics in recent years, perhaps influenced by his conservative twin brother, Allan, who runs Block Communications’ non-newspaper divisions. (John Block didn’t respond to questions relayed through his assistant.)
After the former reality-television star announced for president in June 2015, “John Robinson Block became interested in Trump,” recalled Rogers, a Philadelphia native who grew up in Oklahoma, attended Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and began publishing cartoons in the student newspaper, The Daily O’Collegian, before getting his fine-arts degree at Carnegie Mellon University and landing his first cartooning job at the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press.
“I’ve always had a cordial relationship with John Block—usually I’d just see him at the company Christmas party,” said Rogers, who was hired by the Post-Gazette in 1993 as the second-string cartoonist and stayed on when his senior colleague was laid off a dozen years ago as the newspaper industry grappled with financial difficulties. “A few years ago, he started to show signs of shifting in his politics, and when Trump came in, he really shifted.”
By September 2016, Block was seemingly all-in for the Republican nominee, hanging out with the candidate on Trump Force One after a campaign rally in Toledo, and posting a photo of the two of them on his Facebook page with the caption: “In 39 years of full-time journalism, I’ve met many interesting people. This one was more than memorable.”
According to Tom Waseleski, the Post-Gazette’s former longtime editorial-page editor, Block participated in editorial board meetings that became increasingly testy in late 2015 and early 2016 as the publisher defended Trump against the criticisms of his employees.
“John was trying to position us for a possible Trump endorsement before Pennsylvania’s Republican Primary,” Waseleski recalled. “By the fall of 2015, he was showing a lot of fascination with the candidacy of Donald Trump, and the meetings of the editorial board became very fractious. We did a lot of arguing and there were a lot of disagreements.”
Waseleski recalled being summoned to a nighttime January 2016 meeting in the publisher’s office.
“He said, ‘I want you to begin turning the views of our editorial-board members and our editorial positions more toward the direction of Donald Trump,’” Waseleski recounted. “And I said, ‘John, that’s totally backward, because we espouse the positions that we have had over the years, and those positions should direct us toward the candidate we eventually endorse in a presidential race.’ And he said, ‘You need to think about doing that because we may be making an endorsement of Trump in the Republican primary.’ And I just flat-out said, ‘John, I can’t do that for you.’”
In the end, Trump won the April 26, 2016 primary in a landslide, even though the Post-Gazette—in a departure from tradition—didn’t ultimately make an endorsement. By that time, Waseleski—finding his position at the Post-Gazette increasingly untenable—had already taken a buyout and left the paper for which he’d been toiling since 1983.
“Rob is not consumed by anger,” Waseleski said about the cartoonist. “He is very funny and very topical. I always joked with him that I was the adult in the room and he’s sort of like the prankster teenager, and we appreciated that relationship. Every once in a while I would throw a caution flag if he went overboard a little bit. But his firing is a great loss to the Post-Gazette and to opinion journalism. Even if the publisher had strong disagreements with him about Trump, he should have kept him on. The publisher certainly had other ways to push his views in the paper.”
Rogers said that John Allison, Waseleski’s successor, occasionally communicated the publisher’s distress with the sharp pin-pricking of the president in his cartoons, but did little to rein him in during the first year of the Trump administration.
But finally, a few months ago, John Block recruited Keith Burris, the editorial director of The Blade, to oversee the Post-Gazette’s editorials as well, and Burris made it clear to Rogers that things would have to change.
During a getting-to-know-you lunch in mid-March, Rogers recalled, Burris advised him to decrease the frequency of his Trump japes, and told him that John Block wished him to draw cartoons that scrupulously reflected the editorial positions of the publisher.
“I said, ‘That’s news to me, and I do not believe that,’” Rogers recalled. “I have always drawn my cartoons without any concern about my political viewpoints, and while I have certainly been edited, I’ve never been told ‘you’re too liberal.’ If something was killed, it was usually because of taste, or it wasn’t quite accurate or ‘you’re going too far.’ It was never because ‘your politics are different from ours.’”
Burris, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, had already penned a widely condemned editorial, titled “Reason as Racism,” that ran in both The Blade and the Post-Gazette on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It defended Trump’s use of the term “shithole countries” as perfectly appropriate and accused the president’s critics of a “new McCarthyism.”
A week later, Burris doubled down and complained in a column: “What happens if you ‘think outside the box,’ about matters of identity conviction, elevated to an almost theocratic level. You get called out. You get called a racist yourself, and maybe even, for good measure, homophobic or misogynistic.”
After Rogers was fired, Burris claimed in a Post-Gazette story that he never suppressed his work, that the paper attempted to keep him on, but the cartoonist was intransigent and unwilling to listen to anyone else’s ideas.
“We tried hard to find a middle way, an accommodation to keep him at the paper,” Burris insisted. “We never said he should do no more Trump cartoons or do pro-Trump cartoons. For an in-house staff cartoonist, editing is part of it. Rob’s view was, ‘Take it or leave it.’”
Rogers’ version of events is severely at odds with Burris’.
According to him, he regularly emailed his cartoon ideas to Burris, and was open to his input, but frequently received zero response, leaving him to forge ahead—in his second-floor home studio in Pittsburgh’s hipster Lawrenceville neighborhood—without guidance. Often, Burris—or Block—would kill his cartoons at the last minute.
On the rare occasions when Burris did respond, Rogers said, he tried to be accommodating—in one case removing an image of Trump, and replacing it with a GOP elephant, in a cartoon about Democratic House candidate Conor Lamb’s victory over a Trump supporter.
But in another case, he said, Block himself ordered that Rogers’ cartoon addressing Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets (a white-sheeted Klansman in a doctor’s examining room and asking, “Could it be the Ambien?”) be replaced by Toledo Blade cartoonist Kirk Walters’s less witty take (Roseanne at a ballpark butchering the national anthem before a kneeling Uncle Sam: “Oh saaay can you heeear my vile ugly rants”).
“Even if Kirk Walters’ cartoon was better,” Rogers said, making it obvious he doesn’t think so, “you should stick with the cartoonist you’re paying to do the job.”
Regarding Barr’s firing by ABC, Rogers said: “I guess we have something in common now.”
Things got worse after that. Between May 25 and June 3, Rogers was essentially disappeared from the paper as Burris killed one cartoon after another—several of them depicting Trump. One showed a balloon-faced president sitting at his desk in the Oval Office with a butcher’s shop ticket dispenser on a wall just outside. “Take a pardon,” said the sign above it.
“I think by that time they realized what a PR nightmare this was turning into,” Rogers said, noting that readers were increasingly upset about his absence.
After the embarrassing hiatus, the Post-Gazette published one final Rob Rogers cartoon dated June 5; it showed a construction worker waving an American flag—and shouting “Take that, Canada, Mexico, and Europe!”—while impaled by a steel beam labeled “TRADE WAR.”
The same day, Rogers was summoned to the paper’s HR office and handed a document, apparently concocted by Block and Burris. It suggested that he could stay at the paper, Rogers recalled, if he let his two bosses closely collaborate on his cartoons, essentially allowing them to dictate the content.
“That was a non-starter,” said Rogers, who added that he responded with a respectful explanation of why the arrangement would not work.
He didn’t hear back, he said, until he was summoned to the offices of Cowden Associates, the paper’s outside personnel consultants, and told he was terminated. He said he was handed a severance agreement to sign which required him—in return for six months’ pay—to agree to a draconian nondisparagement clause that essentially muzzled him, and to transfer the ownership rights to the paper for all of his Post-Gazette cartoons over the past quarter-century.
To add insult to injury, Rogers said, the severance agreement offered a freelance deal in which he would be required to come into the office and draw cartoons—after close consultation with his bosses—and receive $100 for each, with the paper, of course, retaining ownership rights.
“It was draconian set of guidelines that would made my life more miserable, even more so than it had been under the new editor [Burris],” Rogers said.
Now, Rogers said, he is exploring offers of paid work, and will likely be able to benefit from the family health-insurance plan of his life partner, University of Pittsburgh art gallery director Sylvia Rohr. And, as long as the Post-Gazette doesn’t file an objection to his unemployment insurance, he said he has no plans to sue the paper or its executives.
Whatever happens, Rogers will continue cartooning.
“The goal is figure out what it is that sort of hits you in the stomach,” he explained. “I don’t want to use the word ‘angry’ because somebody might accuse me of being too angry. It’s something that gets your goat, that makes you say to yourself, ‘This is unacceptable, this is unjust, and I need to draw something about this.' In the Trump era, it is often Trump.”