Even Cartoonists Serve

Rob Rogers was brilliant at his job. But what was his job?

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 was a new one to me.

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.

Rogers had been the editorial cartoonist at the The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1993. Back then, it was a liberal newspaper. Over time, it became less so, until it endorsed a Republican in 2011. Rogers just kept doing his job, and doing it well, provided “well” means that the stinging political satire was acceptable to the people signing his paycheck. It wasn’t.

From Rogers’ perspective, he was a lone wolf, satirizing what he believed to deserve to be satirized. His publisher disagreed.

Things really changed for me in March, when management decided that my cartoons about the president were “too angry” and said I was “obsessed with Trump.” This about a president who has declared the free press one of the greatest threats to our country.

Many people are “obsessed with Trump” these days, and not without reason. But Rogers’ work was increasingly growing unacceptable to his employer.

Since March, the Post-Gazette had axed 19 of his cartoon drafts and proposals without explanation, Rogers said. Over the course of a typical year, he noted, only a couple of his submissions would be rejected.

There is no First Amendment issue raised, not even if you’re female. The cartoons may have been very political, and certainly political speech is worthy of protection, but this was a private employer deciding that it no longer needed the services of a political cartoonist who failed to reflect the paper’s political views.

One of the great benefits of owning the soapbox is that you get to decide who can stand atop it and shout. One of the great detriments of taking a paycheck is you are constrained to do the job your employer asks of you. You don’t get to define your job, even if you truly believe you have the better definition.

Newspapers typically have an editorial position. There may be room in the neighborhood for divergent views, but that too is up to the soapbox owner. If you, dear reader, find the newspaper’s editorial position too horrifying to suffer, then you are absolutely entitled not to read it. What you are not entitled to do is demand they give your conflicting views space. Or continue to hand you a paycheck for work they decide is unacceptable, even if your political cartoons are quite brilliant.

Cartoons can be every bit as much an editorial as the written word. Indeed, they can be more so, and more stinging, when well done. Was Rogers’ work immune from the publisher’s editorial stance? Was he the lone wolf he viewed himself to be, or was he an employee of a newspaper which had its own political views and to which his cartoons should conform? At least if he wished to continue to use the publisher’s soapbox and cash the publisher’s paycheck?

The question isn’t who is right or wrong about Trump, or whether the Post-Gazette ought to have greater tolerance for divergent views about Trump. The reason that isn’t a question is that neither you nor I am the publisher of the Post-Gazette, and we get no vote. It’s not our soapbox and we don’t sign the paycheck.

Rob Rogers will likely get snatched up by another newspaper that better appreciates the incisive cartoons he creates, and hopefully they will see the light of day. But not at the Post-Gazette because it’s not Rogers’ choice when the fit is wrong to tell his employer to fit him rather than the other way around.

Rogers wasn’t erased. He was fired for not serving his employer’s needs, no matter what he thought of those needs. That’s how employment works. And hopefully Rogers will be back in a flash on a soapbox that appreciates his cartoons. That’s also how employment works.

9 thoughts on “Even Cartoonists Serve

  1. Joe

    I’m just happy the PG continues to send reporters to the jail and courthouse. I never really understood why the PG had a full time cartoonist, anyway.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m a big fan of good political cartoons. Not so much of bad ones, though, which tend to pander rather than evoke thought.

      1. Fubar

        Introducing Dwane Powell, nationally-syndicated editorial cartoonist for The Raleigh News & Observer, at his 2013 induction into the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame, publisher Tom Smith noted that he was “like a Lab puppy, let loose in a fresh meadow, uncertain of what spots to mark first.”

        He plays damned good guitar too.

  2. B. McLeod

    Can they do it? Sure. Left wing pubs have been doing it for years, and now it is gaining traction on the right. It simply means the further polarization of “journalism,” such that the staff of organizations at both poles will all be in lock step with their organization’s ideology.

    Readers (which, as to the Post-Gazette, I must admit I am not) do get a vote, and can exercise it according to whether they are or are not interested in following a publication that conforms all its content to an ideological party line.

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