Rob Rogers says he was fired for simply doing his job to the best of his ability. It might not have made national news, except for the fact that his job included making fun of the president.
The former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoonist, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was fired from the paper in 2018 after 25 years on the job. His exit was foreshadowed by a showdown with management over his cartoons that, to put it mildly, did not show President Donald Trump in a flattering light.
Speaking at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa on Friday evening, Rogers said his editors at the paper rejected six of his cartoons in one week, two of which did not mention the president, compared to a career average of one or two a year, before he was finally given the boot.
“The interesting thing about being fired for drawing the president is I’ve drawn so many other presidents and never been fired,” he said.
Rogers’ editorial director at the Post-Gazette, Keith Burris, has said Rogers was fired for a refusal to collaborate with Burris. Rogers has countered that the paper’s idea of collaboration was to bring his cartoons into line with the pro-Trump philosophy of the paper’s owners.
Rogers wasn’t kind to the current commander-in-chief — one of the rejected cartoons showed Trump laying a wreath for Memorial Day on a grave reading “Truth, Honor, Rule of Law” — but he didn’t pull punches with previous presidents, either.
“I draw Bubba with his underwear a lot,” Rogers said, showing the audience an unflattering cartoon of Bill Clinton in heart-covered boxer shorts. “At least he’s wearing clothes.”
In an interview after the event, Rogers said the difference in our current moment is that Trump has broken down long-standing norms of civility and respect, with wide-reaching effects at all levels of society.
“When Trump tapped into the nation’s worst fears and anxieties and hatreds, he allowed other people who felt that way to feel safe saying it,” he said. “I think my publisher was one of those that went along for the ride.”
Jeannie Schulz, president of the museum and Charles Schulz’s widow, said satire like Rogers’ is critical for encouraging discussion around issues that may otherwise be taboo. Schulz is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
“This is what we know from ‘Peanuts,’ ” she said. “If you can say it with humor, you can get it over, if you can’t say it seriously.”
Brian Fies, a local cartoonist known for his graphic novel “A Fire Story” about losing his house in the 2017 wildfires that struck Sonoma County, said Rogers is “one of the best editorial cartoonists in the nation,” and his firing points to a kind of cultural decay.
“I just think it’s an interesting and sad and frightening sign of the times,” Fies said. “If a guy like that can’t get and keep a job, it suggests to me there’s something wrong with journalism as it’s practiced these days.”
Despite what he sees as a dangerous precedent set by the Trump administration and his paper’s decision to fire him, Rogers’ message wasn’t all doom and gloom.
He’s still making a living as a cartoonist, syndicated in papers nationwide and contributing to online cartoon publications like The Nib. He just released a new book, “Enemy of the People: A Cartoonist’s Journey.” He said web-based cartooning provides an outlet for satire of all stripes, allowing cartoonists to connect directly with their audience.
“I think it’s a brave new world, and I’m excited about it,” he said. “I still have hope that truth will win out.”
You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @iambeale.