No, the firing of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cartoonist is not a threat to free speech

The press has had a field day pumping the news that a publisher's firing of a political cartoonist in Pittsburgh is a sign of President Trump's war on freedom of the press.

It's nonsense. Whatever President Trump's voiced beefs with the mainstream media, rest assured, he had nothing to do with this. And it actually happens all the time, and on both sides of the political spectrum.

Here's the story, as described by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette itself:

Rob Rogers, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial cartoonist, was fired Thursday. The award-winning cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize finalist whose work was often reprinted in national publications had been with the newspaper since 1993.

In a statement, Stephen Spolar, the Post-Gazette’s chief human resources officer, said: “The Post-Gazette does not provide details about employment matters, but in light of Mr. Rogers’ public comments today, we do want to acknowledge his long service to the newspaper and our community. Any further discussions will be conducted with Mr. Rogers as a private matter.”

In recent weeks, a number of his cartoons, including some on President Donald Trump, were killed by the paper’s editorial director, Keith Burris.

The story made a clear attempt to be fair to both sides.

But the response, from much grander news organs, the ones that claim to be unbiased, yet which in reality are monolithically leftist, was screeching hysteria. The concocted "narrative" was that Trump was a threat to freedom of the press. Here are some headlines:

Cartoonist fired for being critical of Trump: 'They've not silenced me' -ABC News

‘He’s just become too angry’: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette publisher defends firing cartoonist -Politico

An American editorial cartoonist has been fired for skewering Trump. He likely won’t be the last. -Washington Post

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Cartoonist Fired as Paper Shifts Right -New York Times

Silenced? Angry? Shifts right? (horrors!) Free press? Won't be the last????

This is what we mean by fake news.

Actually, the freedom of the press has always been limited to those who own the printing presses, as Victor Hugo once observed with distaste. Everybody wants to be free to put their opinion in, but the reality is, every newspaper has an editorial line, and whatever that line is is what the publisher is willing to promote or defend, whether from lawsuits, or lost or gained sales, as the free market permits. The guy who takes the capital risk is the one who sets the line. This happens at every paper, and having been an editorial writer myself for 12 years at Investor's Business Daily, I know all about it.

So the press howls about this are disingenuous. The press knows this, too, since they work in this industry. What's more, their outrage is hypocritical, infused with leftwing double standards.

Where were they when cartoonist Steve Kelley was fired from the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001 over what was clearly his conservative political orientation? No threat to freedom of the press there, was there? We heard no such talk back then. Where was the doomsday talk about 'won't be the last?'

Rogers himself has written a wishful-thinking piece about what he thinks his role should have been, errantly claiming "a tradition" based on what sounds like water-cooler conversations with some of his work buddies, instead of the actual terms of his employer, arguing:

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.

Well, no, Rob. Unfortunately, and this goes for every paper, the reality is that if your work isn't what the editors want, they get rid of you. You don't get to set the terms of what earns you your paycheck and cubicle space.

Kelley himself has said his politics were the problem with his editors, too, and based on this interview here, it's obvious he recognizes that that is the way things are. We all do. When Investor's Business Daily laid off the truly brilliant Michael Ramirez, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist in 2016 (along with most of the editorial board, including me), nobody howled about freedom of the press based on the publisher's bid to take the paper in a different direction, toning down the editorial output to focus on stocks, which was where they wanted to go, and we understood this. We didn't like it, but we understood, and in the aftermath they treated us well. It's just the way newspapers work.

And this is not to say it sits well with everyone on the readers' end, either. It was such a shame when Kelley was fired, we all adored his work, and it may well be the same case with Rogers in Pittsburgh, whose work, while not my cup of tea, clearly shows genuine talent and appeals to Democrats. But there's a need for objectivity here, given how the free press in the free market operates. The editorial page is for the editorial line. Anything else is for the nominally unedited Internet free-for-all.

It's not terrible for freedom of press, either. In the free market, those who are excellent at what they do get an audience. Ramirez and Rogers and Kelley now syndicate their work (most or all through Creators Syndicate) allowing subscribers who want to buy their work buy it and publish it. That means many more newspapers can buy it, and even more Internet subscribers. The Rogers and Ramirez and Kelley cartoons won't now be confined to just one newspaper, quite a few more people will see it. So nothing in the free press gets halted by this firing unless the Internet itself and all print journalism somehow get shut down.

It means the press hysteria about this is out of line. Let's see one of their papers hire a rightwing political cartoonist -- say, Michael Ramirez -- and deal with whatever it is he would like to draw and say. Free press, right?

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