Two Pittsburgh journalists fired over editorial disagreement

Within a span of three weeks, two Pittsburgh newspapers fired longtime staff members over editorial disagreements. In May 2018, the editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper was fired after ignoring requests to tone down its critical coverage of a local conservative politician. In June 2018, a veteran editorial cartoonist for the more mainstream Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was fired after his work was repeatedly sidelined for months, drawing speculation of censorship over ideological differences.

Key Players

Pittsburgh City Paper is a prominent alternative newsweekly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a circulation of about 70,000. The paper has been characterized as leaning in the liberal direction; the Post-Gazette once called City Paper “among the region’s most unabashedly liberal publications.” In 2016, City Paper was purchased by the Eagle Media Corporation, which also owns the Butler Eagle, a daily newspaper in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.

Charlie Deitch joined the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2005 and worked as its editor from 2014 until he was fired in May 2018.

Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican, has represented Pennsylvania’s 12th district in the state House of Representatives since 1999. His district, which encompasses part of Butler County in western Pennsylvania, includes a number of small towns as well as the more metropolitan Cranberry Township, where nearly half of the district’s residents live. Ninety-six percent of the district’s population is white.

Metcalfe has been criticized in the pages of City Paper for his stance on issues like LGBTQ rights and for his alleged obstructionism.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is the largest daily newspaper in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, with a daily circulation of nearly 175,000.

The Post-Gazette was born out of a twentieth-century merger of two major Pittsburgh newspapers: The Pittsburgh Gazette began publishing in 1786 and, throughout the 19th century, leaned strongly Republican and supported the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Pittsburgh Post began publishing in 1842 and had pro-Democratic leanings, having evolved out of three pro-Democratic weekly papers. In 1927, William Randolph Hearst purchased The Pittsburgh Gazette, by then renamed The Gazette Time, and sold it to Paul Block, who had recently bought out the Pittsburgh Post. Block merged the two newspapers that year.

Though the paper has been historically regarded as liberal, it began to shift to the political right in the spring of 2018.

Rob Rogers worked as the staff cartoonist at the Post-Gazette from 1993 until June 2018, when he was fired. His editorial cartoons have also been featured in The New York TimesThe Washington PostUSA Today, and Newsweek, among other publications. Rogers has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

Keith Burris is vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers, the media company that owns both the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, a daily Ohio paper. In March 2018, the editorial boards — and thus the editorial page operations — of the two papers were merged, and Burris was appointed to lead the combined operation, according to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR).

Further Details

Early in May 2018, under Deitch’s editorial leadership, the City Paper published critical comments about Metcalfe. On May 2, the paper published an editorial by “CP staff” titled “Pennsylvania Rep. Daryl Metcalfe has proven himself unfit for office.” It called his beliefs “racist, xenophobic, close-minded and full of general numb-skullery” and criticized his alleged obstructionist tendencies. Less than a week later, the paper’s political blog ran a story headlined “State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s pro-gun rally attracted support of group with white-supremacist origins.” Deitch also had a story in the works about a bill to expand protections against discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, which discussed Metcalfe’s obstruction of the legislation, according to the Post-Gazette.

On May 8, Raymond Sielski, then the acting general manager of City Paper, sent an email to Deitch discussing the paper’s political coverage.

“Charlie, Can you redirect your anti Metcalf [sic] efforts toward let’s say maybe Pittsburgh politics,” Sielski wrote. “Are we not running any local races that [City Paper] readership might like to hear about relevant to Pittsburgh?”

Later that day, Deitch alleged, Sielski told him his critical coverage of Metcalfe risked poisoning the relationship between the influential local legislator and the Butler Eagle’s parent company, and asked him to retract articles about Metcalfe, according to the CJR. In addition to the publications it owns, the Eagle Media Corporation owns the Harmony Outdoor billboard company and the Butler Color Press, which produces advertising materials, according to the Pennsylvania News Media Association. Deitch said he refused the request to alter his coverage of Metcalfe, citing journalistic ethics.

In a separate and unrelated incident just weeks later, Rogers, a long-time cartoonist at the Post-Gazette, saw a number of his cartoons — mostly ones that were critical of President Donald Trump — go unpublished.

Rogers said that over his more than three decades working at the newspaper, he has generally seen only two or three cartoons a year rejected by his editors. In contrast, between March and June 2018, the editors rejected nine of his ideas and killed 10 of his finished cartoons. The matter drew attention when the Post-Gazette declined to publish any of Rogers’ cartoons between May 24 and June 5, a particularly long stretch for the well-known cartoonist not to appear in the newspaper that employs him.

Many of Rogers’ rejected cartoons criticized Trump, while others parodied such controversies as the National Football League’s new rules on players kneeling during the national anthem and actress Roseanne Barr’s recent racist tweetstorm that got her fired from a revived television series. His last cartoon published in the Post-Gazette, which was printed on June 5, mocked recently imposed steel tariffs. Rogers subsequently took the rest of that week off from work as “things were still unresolved with management,” according to The Washington Post.

“Suffice it to say things are unresolved,” Rogers said in a June 9 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I am still employed at this point. I’m waiting each day to hear something.”

The left-leaning nature of Rogers’ work drew speculation that his cartoons were rejected over ideological differences with the paper’s leadership, according to CNN. The uptick in the number of cartoons rejected comes after the merger of the editorial pages of the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade. Rogers noted that, until the last several months, he had worked under John Robinson Block, the publisher of both newspapersfor decades without problems.

In 2016, Block and Burris were reported to have spent time with Trump on his plane following a campaign rally. Block was separately photographed with the president another time that year, according to CNN.

In January 2018, two months before Burris’s appointment to run the combined editorial page operation, an unsigned editorial was published in both the Post-Gazette and the Blade targeting critics who call Trump a racist. “Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism,” read the editorial, which drew sharp criticism from the local community and from staff members. Weeks later, Burris was identified as the author, according to CJR.


Deitch fired from Pittsburgh City Paper

On May 15, Deitch was fired from the City Paper. When he arrived at his office that morning, he said, he was informed by Sielski and Vernon Wise, the president of Eagle Media Corporation, that he “had to go.” Two hours later, a statement attributed to Wise announced that longtime sportswriter Rob Rossi had been hired to replace Deitch as editor of City Paper.

“Today we had to make the very difficult decision to part ways with our editor, Charlie Deitch,” the release read. “Change is always difficult, and this was a difficult day. We are committed to the employees of CP, who work hard every day to put together a publication that we can all be proud of.”

Wise told the Post-Gazette that Deitch’s political coverage of Metcalfe was not a factor in his termination but declined to discuss the matter further.

Rogers fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On June 14, Rogers was fired by the Post-Gazette at an off-site meeting with two human resources representatives, who asked him to turn in his identification badge and any equipment owned by the newspaper. He was reportedly offered the opportunity to work as an independent contractor not on the staff, but he declined, according to the Post-Gazette.

“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,” Rogers wrote in a June 15 op-ed in The New York Times. “After so many years of punch lines and caricatures, skewering mayors and mullahs, the new regime at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decided that The Donald trumped satire when it came to its editorial pages.”

“The editors of the Post-Gazette are keenly aware of Mr. Rogers’ talents, history with this newspaper and standing in this community,” the editorial board of the Post-Gazette wrote on June 15. “There has never been any intention to silence or suppress Mr. Rogers. Nor would we ever ask him to violate the dictates of his conscience. Rather, we have sought to engage in the necessary journalistic practices of editing, gatekeeping and collaboration.”

“Rob’s recent absence from these pages has occurred as we have sought a structure and platform for future collaboration,” the statement continued. “Alas, we have not been able to find that way forward, and we now part ways with Rob in a spirit of gratitude and affection.”