By Tim Hayes

What the hell does my hometown newspaper have against Flag Day?

Every time I pull into my driveway or leave the house, the Stars and Stripes waves and flutters on a tall silver pole right outside our front door. The sight typically stirs pride and reassurance in my mind and heart about what our flag represents – in particular, the treasured notions of free expression and a free press, as safeguarded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Yet this year, just like two years ago, actions taken at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette throw those guarantees into shades of coercion and control.

The Post-Gazette has attracted national attention in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Esquire magazine, CNN, and other major media outlets for a kerfuffle involving a black female reporter. Seems this reporter recently posted a sarcastic meme on Twitter, showing photos of trash-strewn streets. The tweet at first suggests the mess came as the result of looting from the George Floyd demonstrations, then accurately identifies the photos as the aftermath of an annual country western performer at Heinz Field.

Shortly after this person sent the tweet, editors at the Post-Gazette told her that she had demonstrated bias and would not be permitted to provide ongoing coverage of the local protests. The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh came to the reporter’s defense inside the newspaper’s offices, and garnered more than 4,000 online signatures from the public on a petition to management demanding that the decision be retracted. Nothing has changed so far, however.

The logic to justify this decision stretches nearly to the breaking point. Reaction both locally and nationally falls heavily on the side of the reporter in this case. Can a tweet meant to poke fun at assumptions truly merit the sender’s complete removal from the biggest story in a decade? Especially when the Post-Gazette newsroom so seriously lacks diversity (roughly 10% of the reporting staff are people of color), and the perspective from that diversity contributes meaningfully to understanding the larger issues driving the demonstrations?

This episode recalled the day two years ago, again around Flag Day, when the Post-Gazette fired its editorial cartoonist of 25 years, Rob Rogers. Many at the time surmised the firing stemmed from Rogers’ regular criticism of the current administration in Washington.

You might think, well, so what? People get let go every day. True enough. But this person was fired for doing his job. An editorial cartoonist is not an illustrator, merely there to create images to accompany ideas or thoughts generated by other people. An editorial cartoonist’s sole purpose is to shine a critical, creative, occasionally humorous, but always bright light on issues and personalities affecting the public – no matter who is in office.

Had Rogers’ cartoons been withheld from publication in the past? He told CNN yes, that had happened before. Usually two or three submissions a year would be pulled for whatever objection or reason, Rogers said. In 2018, from March through May, though, the newspaper prevented 19 of Rogers’ cartoons from publication. It ran absolutely none in June before showing him the door.

To my mind, such a record so far and so egregiously surpasses any boundaries of taste or discretion, and instead races – careens, smashes, blasts – its way straight into censorship. Post-Gazette leadership said its decision came because of Rogers’ unwillingness to submit to edits reflecting changes in the organization’s editorial perspective.

If that’s the case, then I believe his position is even more justified. His role is to present his political opinion through satire. The editorial board of the newspaper runs two or three written editorials every day to state its opinions. The cartoonist is allotted his space to do the same.

Over a 25-year span, Rogers had taken shots with his pen at Republican and Democratic administrations at the federal, state, and local levels, displaying his unique visual style and insightful wit. No one was immune, which again proves how well he did his job. One of his regular targets, in fact, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, rose to Rogers’ defense once the news of his firing had spread.

“This is precisely the time when the constitutionally protected free press – including critics like Rob Rogers – should be celebrated and supported, and not fired for doing their jobs,” said the mayor. “I’ve known Rob a long time. That has never stopped him from publishing cartoons that are critical of me, of my policy positions, or of my actions (or inactions) in office. He’s even made fun of my weight. But he is one of the best in the world at his time-honored craft, and I know people of all political persuasions stand with me in support of him, even if the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regrettably does not.”

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh issued a statement saying, in part, “It appears Rob’s only transgression was doing his job – providing satirical comment based on his political views of the world…The public should be assured that PG newsroom employees – 150 reporters, photographers, copy editors, artists, and others represented by the Guild – will continue to produce award-winning, unbiased journalism. Democracy depends on it. As we do so, we mourn the fact that the PG editorial pages apparently are no longer the free marketplace of ideas.”

And that is the point. Every day the newspaper dedicates two full pages, with absolutely no advertising, to present what should be an open exchange of viewpoints and opinions. Left wing, right wing, moderate – all should be welcome, all should be heard. Whether you agree with another’s ideas or not, you have the opportunity to learn and discern for yourself.

Why would an editorial cartoonist’s view deserve to be banished from that open exchange? It doesn’t. It shouldn’t. But here in Pittsburgh, it was.

Anybody who knows me knows that I believe with all my heart that the First Amendment deserves to be protected and defended against any individual or organization that wants to weaken or alter its clear and definitive declaration safeguarding freedom of the press.

To our community’s disservice, that weakening keeps happening here. Shame on you, Post-Gazette. Shame on you – a newspaper, of all things! – for turning your back on press freedom.

I look up at the flag flying in front of my home, and I hang onto the hope that we will eventually find our way back from this darkness. Maybe by next Flag Day. Maybe a lot sooner.

I hope the reporter gets put back on the beat covering the current demonstrations very soon. I hope Rob Rogers makes a million dollars someplace else, where his amazing talent gets the respect it has earned. And I hope my hometown newspaper quits kicking the First Amendment in the ass every Flag Day.

Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes