June 15, 2018

John Robinson Block embarrassed his newspaper-owning family and enraged Pittsburgh once this year, when he ordered up an editorial questioning racism — and published it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Block set off another firestorm on Thursday with the firing of nationally recognized and longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers while Rogers was at the top of his game.

Block’s side sought to portray it as just a personality clash. It is widely seen in the newsroom, the city and in press groups that Block, a Trump supporter, didn’t appreciate editorial cartoons about the historically unpopular president, particularly as he was trying to turn the paper’s editorial page to the right.

“It's as simple as this: Rogers was fired for refusing to do cartoons extolling Trump. Let that sink in,” the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists said in a statement Friday.

Block, who rode on Trump’s campaign plane and had been photographed with him in 2016, had been brushed back when he asked the independent Post-Gazette newsroom in January to remove the phrase “shithole countries” from an AP story on Trump’s disdainful comments about Haiti and Third World nations.

But the editorial board of the Post-Gazette, unlike the newsroom, is the province of the publisher. Block first brought in a manager who had muzzled Rogers, rejecting six cartoons in a row at one point, such as this one:

A cartoon by Rob Rogers/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Used with permission.
Rob Rogers. Used with permission.

The cartoonist’s frequent targets, from the left and the right, blasted the publisher for the firing. “This is precisely the time when the constitutionally-protected free press — including critics like Rob Rogers — should be celebrated and supported," said Mayor Bill Peduto, "and not fired for doing their jobs."

A former GOP gubernatorial aide and longtime journalist, Dennis Roddy, agreed: "God knows I've wanted to choke Rob on more than one occasion. He's opinionated, unrestrained, and a wisenheimer of the top chop. In short, he's doing his job. He is the indispensable irritant that keeps us scratching and thinking."

The firing prompted longtime readers to say they were canceling the newspaper. It also drew the wrath of editorial cartoonist colleagues and the cartoon site The Nib, which didn’t mince words:

In a phone interview Thursday, Rogers said he knows it’s a privately owned newspaper, his position was not union protected and the owner can do what he wishes. Nonetheless, “I gave 25 years of hard work here, and in the process of doing this, I was disrespected, pushed out the door.” (Read the full interview here).

Rogers actually has been cartooning at Pittsburgh papers since 1984, when he started at the now-departed Pittsburgh Press. He has won the Thomas Nast Award from the Overseas Press Club, the National Headliner Award and has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The publisher’s disastrous editorial on racism in January, run over the objections of the editorial board, prompted lambasting by community leaders. Sixteen members of Block’s family reacted publicly with shame and anger. They wrote that the current publisher is breaking with six decades of socially conscious ownership by the family.

“We cannot remain silent,” they wrote in January, “and by implication approve of the use of the Post-Gazette to provide cover for racism.”

But then again, they couldn’t be fired.

Quick hits

WHO’S MORE TRUSTED?: A Reuters Institute report says newspapers and broadcasters are more trusted than digital-first outlets.

DON’T BE THAT OUTLET: Do not spread untrue things from Trump without context in headlines just because he tweeted it, Philip Bump writes.

THAT’S ALDEN: Hedge-fund owner of Boston Herald cuts 10-15 more from tabloid’s slim staff, moving ad and design work from Boston to Colorado, the Boston Business Journal reports.

MOVES: The Atlantic has hired Houston Chronicle managing editor Vernon Loeb as editor of its expanding politics desk. Loeb has previously worked at The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

AN ATTEMPT TO SILENCE: The facts are not in dispute. But a Colombian attorney has been suing Daniel Coronell, Univision's president of news, claiming "defamation by implication." The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has sought to dismiss the suit — and get the plaintiff to pay Coronell's legal fees.

WHEN A DEBUNKER GOES ROGUE: Thousands of stories have been deleted by one of the world’s most prolific fact-checkers after evidence of widespread plagiarism, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman reports.

GOOOOOOOOL: How readers helped The Washington Post develop its World Cup newsletter, via Joseph Lichterman’s excellent Solution Set.

RELATED: She’s an Iranian journalist, now living in America. What will it be like being able to watch her first Iran World Cup match in a bar, in normal dress, with men? “I will celebrate even if Iran loses,” writes Yeganeh Rezaian. (Iran vs. Morocco begins at 11 a.m. ET, or 8 a.m. if you are, like your morning columnist, currently in L.A.’s Westwood neighborhood, a.k.a. Tehrangeles.)

What we’re reading

AXIS OF ONE: It’s just Iran left in the old “Axis of Evil” — and Iranians wonder why. Isn’t North Korea more brutal? Is Trump nice to North Korea because it has nuclear weapons?

GARY COHN: Trump trade war could wipe out any gains from the GOP tax cuts, says former Trump adviser.

WHAT THE U.S. DOES TO CHILDREN: Worker who just quit private 'prison-like' camp in Arizona for migrant children as young as 4 describes suicide attempts by distraught kids and instructions to siblings "not to hug." By the LAT’s Molly Hennessy-Fiske.

NO ANSWER: President’s press secretary struggles to explain why it’s all right to separate mothers from their children and “keep them in cages.” By Erik Wemple. The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics called the Trump order "nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse."

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