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Cartoonists offer a voice — unless squelched

The firing of longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers last week offers a glimpse into just how polarized our public discourse has become.

It also affords an opportunity to discuss the role cartoons play on our opinion pages and those of most newspapers — but no longer, regrettably, at the Post-Dispatch.

Rogers, whose cartoons are among those to which the Mail Tribune subscribes, was the staff cartoonist for the Pittsburgh paper for 25 years.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Rogers wrote that the paper was considered liberal, but long had prided itself on providing a forum for divergent views. He said it began drifting to the right in 2010, when it endorsed the Republican candidate for governor, and in 2015, the publisher indicated the paper might endorse Donald Trump for president. The editorial page editor at the time decided to take a buyout and leave.

This year, the Post-Gazette published an editorial defending Trump’s remarks about “s---hole countries,” which was denounced as racist.

The reason for Rogers’ dismissal is a matter of some dispute. His boss, the new editorial page editor, said Rogers no longer was willing to collaborate on what he drew. Rogers said he always had a few cartoons a year rejected, which he took as part of the job. But in a three-month period, 19 cartoons or proposals were spiked. One of those rejected cartoons appears on this page.

The Post-Gazette’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Block, told Politico that Rogers “hasn’t been funny in a long time,” and has become “obsessed with Trump.”

In his op-ed, Rogers wrote, “I should’ve seen it coming. When I had lunch with my new boss a few months ago, he informed me that the paper’s publisher believed that the editorial cartoonist was akin to an editorial writer, and that his views should reflect the philosophy of the newspaper.”

That’s not how it works. As Rogers explained, “I was trained in a tradition in which editorial cartoonists are the live wires of a publication — as one former colleague put it, the ‘constant irritant.’ Our job is to provoke readers in a way words alone can’t. Cartoonists are not illustrators for a publisher’s politics.”

The Mail Tribune does not employ its own cartoonist — very few papers still do, and papers the size of this one usually didn’t even in the industry’s glory days. We subscribe to several cartoonists through the syndicates that distribute their work. Some are liberal, some are conservative. Many focus on Trump because he is the president, just as many focused on President Obama when he was in the White House, and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him.

We publish only one cartoon most days, two on Sundays and a gallery of four on Saturday’s opinion page. I try to select ones that offer a point of view on what’s in the news at the time. Whether the cartoons agree with our editorial stance on anything is beside the point. They run with the letters to the editor, which is a hint that they reflect just one more opinion, and we try to offer a wide range of those.

Amid harsh criticism from the Pittsburgh community over Rogers’ dismissal, the news staff of the paper took out an ad emphasizing the separation between the editorial pages and the news pages, which they said “honor centuries of the best traditions of journalism, which have always held that the news pages and the opinion pages stand apart.”

The same is true at the Mail Tribune, despite the claims of some in our community that our news coverage has “an agenda.” The only agenda our news staff has is to provide fair, impartial reporting, free from the interference or influence of advertisers or anyone else.

The publisher of the Post-Gazette has the right to decide what kind of cartoons he prints, but it’s unfortunate that he chose to make the range of views on his paper’s opinion pages narrower.

Fortunately, Rob Rogers plans to continue drawing, and his work still will appear from time to time in the Mail Tribune.

Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at gnelson@rosebudmedia.com.

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