Sorting through the racially charged wreckage of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Even as national attention was focused on the latest internal drama at The New York Times, a disturbing, racially charged crackdown was playing out in a newsroom nearly 400 miles to the west. Pay attention, because what’s happening at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette threatens the ability of journalists everywhere to exercise their conscience and cover their communities with integrity and empathy. Consider:

• Alexis Johnson, an African American reporter, was taken off the Black Lives Matter beat as punishment for an innocuous tweet about litter.

• Michael Santiago, a Black photographer who expressed his support for her, quit after he, too, was pulled from covering the protests.

• Stories by other reporters who’d retweeted Johnson in solidarity were removed from the web.

• A supermarket chain announced that it would stop carrying the paper.

• The union that represents some 140 of the Post-Gazette’s employees called on the editor and the managing editor to resign.

The story is still playing out — but it’s only the latest misstep by a paper that has been in turmoil for several years as it has lurched to the political right.

While the chattering classes have obsessed over the departure of New York Times editorial-page editor James Bennet and Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski, both of whom misjudged the rising anger in their newsrooms over issues of race, diversity and privilege, what’s happening in Pittsburgh may prove to be more important. Ultimately, the Post-Gazette is a story about what happens when a newspaper’s ownership becomes so insular and out of touch that its ability to serve the community is called into question.

Some background. On June 4, the alternative Pittsburgh City Paper reported on a memo from the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh that Johnson had been yanked from demonstrations protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Her offense: a tweet in which she humorously — but pointedly — compared the damage caused by looters to the mess left behind by tailgaters at a Kenny Chesney concert:

“Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!! …. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”

 

The situation quickly spun out of control, blossoming into a national story and attracting the attention of The New York Times. Johnson said she was told by the paper’s managing editor, Karen Kane, as well as other editors that she was being taken off the protest beat because she had expressed an opinion in her tweet that showed she couldn’t be fair.

That, in turn, led to accusations that Johnson was being punished for reporting while Black — drawing a blistering response from the paper’s editor, Keith Burris.

“Editors at this newspaper did not single out a black reporter and a black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd,” Burris wrote in a column published by the Post-Gazette. “And we certainly did not single out two people and keep them from covering local protests because they were black. That is an outrageous lie — a defamation, in fact.”

Johnson wasn’t buying Burris’ explanation. In an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter on the “Reliable Sources” podcast, she accused her bosses of being simultaneously clueless and self-serving. “I can only conclude that it was because I was a Black woman and I was speaking on an issue that involves Black Lives Matter,” she said. “I said that to them at that moment, ‘I feel like it’s because it’s a Black issue that you feel like I have this bias.’”

Management’s contention that her Kenny Chesney tweet expressed an opinion about an issue that she was covering seems like a considerable stretch. But even if you grant that it was inappropriate (which I don’t), Johnson had a compelling retort. “Keith Burris is still head of our editorial board. And he’s also our executive editor of the newsroom,” she told Stelter. “So for them to claim that I have a bias is pretty ironic. And not only that, he continues to write columns for us, he continues to give his opinion, and then comes over to the news and tells us what to write and what angles he wants us to have. So it’s just a lot of hypocrisy.”

For the Post-Gazette, it’s been a rapid descent. As recently as 2019 the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its heart-breaking coverage of the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue. But the paper’s respected editor, David Shribman, a former Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe, took early retirement, paving the way for Burris to claim the top newsroom job while keeping his hand in on the opinion side as well.

In late 2019, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan documented a series of bizarre and disturbing incidents, including a newsroom tirade by publisher John Block; the firing of cartoonist Rob Rogers for harshly lampooning President Donald Trump; and an editorial written by Burris that defended Trump against charges of racism following Trump’s outburst over “shithole countries.” The editorial was published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The Post-Gazette has been owned for decades by the Block family, which also owns The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, as well as television stations and cable holdings. Even though there has been no change in ownership, the Post-Gazette was regarded as generally liberal for most of its recent history. Indeed, the late right-wing financier Richard Mellon Scaife, a conspiracy theorist who promoted the false story that Hillary Clinton was involved in the death of Vincent Foster, launched the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review to provide a conservative alternative to the Post-Gazette.

In recent years, though, John Block, known as “J.R.,” has become increasingly enamored of President Trump, turning the Post-Gazette into a right-wing mouthpiece. In a sense, the Pittsburgh newspaper war is now over, and Scaife won. Media ownership is haphazard, and it’s the luck of the draw as to whether a community is served by a civic-minded business leader, a cost-cutting corporate chain or — as appears to be the case in Pittsburgh — a family publisher who puts his personal politics above journalism.

As is the case in many cities, the newspaper economics of Pittsburgh have proved daunting. The Post-Gazette appears in print only three days a week — Thursday, Friday and Sunday — while relying on digital distribution the other four days. The Tribune-Review lives on, sort of, as a digital-only publication called TRIB Live.

At this point, the question for readers of the Post-Gazette is: What’s next? Much of the staff has risen up in revolt over the treatment accorded to Johnson, and management shows no sign of backing down. What happens in the days ahead will tell us a lot about the future of a once-excellent newspaper.

As Johnson put it in her interview with CNN: “The Post-Gazette has chosen to be on the wrong side of history.”

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