The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will get another bite at the apple in claiming that its decision to remove its former reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter stories is protected by the First Amendment.
“The judge did not laugh the First Amendment argument out of court nor is it correct to say he’s ‘having none of it,’” Post-Gazette representative Mark Fefer told me by email in disputing a post I wrote earlier this week. Fefer is senior communications strategist for the paper’s law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine.
In fact, as I wrote earlier, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan threw out the Post-Gazette’s claim that Johnson’s lawsuit should be dismissed on First Amendment grounds, writing, “While the First Amendment provides a publisher absolute discretion to refrain from publishing content, this discretion does not extend to allow a publisher to make any and all discriminatory personnel decisions.” (I did not write that the judge “laughed the First Amendment argument out of court,” though that was a fair inference given the context.)
But Ranjan also wrote that the factual record at this early stage of the case is too “undeveloped” to reach a final ruling, and that the Post-Gazette should have an opportunity to prove that its First Amendment argument has merit.
“Because discovery is likely to refine both the claims and defenses in this case,” Judge Ranjan concluded, “the Court denies the motion without prejudice to PG Publishing raising its arguments, including its First Amendment argument, on a more factually developed record at summary judgment or trial.”
Johnson, who is Black, was barred from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted a humorous tweet that her editors claimed compromised her ability to be objective. She is now a reporter with Vice News.
Clarification: The Post-Gazette will get another chance to make its First Amendment argument.
The story may be apocryphal, but it’s a good one. Some years ago a few independent weekly newspapers in the Boston area sued a daily paper, charging that the daily — which also owned a small chain of weeklies — was illegally selling ads in its weeklies at a loss in order to drive the independents out of business. The owner of the daily claimed his actions were protected by the First Amendment. As you might imagine, the judge in the case laughed him out of court.
Something similar just happened to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Former reporter Alexis Johnson, who was banned from covering Black Lives Matter protests after her editors claimed that her innocuous Twitter joke about a Kenny Chesney concert compromised her objectivity, sued the paper in June 2020, claiming racial discrimination (Johnson is Black) and illegal retaliation. The Post-Gazette argued that its actions were protected by the First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan is having none of it. According to Ryan Deto of the Pittsburgh City Paper, Ranjan rejected the Post-Gazette’s bid to dismiss the case, ruling, “While the First Amendment provides a publisher absolute discretion to refrain from publishing content, this discretion does not extend to allow a publisher to make any and all discriminatory personnel decisions.” University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson told the City Paper that the ruling could help other journalists of color who are dealing with workplace discrimination:
It means the P-G can’t short-circuit accountability by hiding behind the First Amendment for protection from its discriminatory actions. There are clearly enough facts in dispute that affords the case to move forward. The backdrop to this case was the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd. We don’t want the First Amendment weaponized against racial progress. That’s dangerous.
The Post-Gazette’s actions against Johnson sparked national coverage, leading to outrage in the newsroom and a decision by a supermarket chain to stop carrying the paper. Johnson herself left and is now a high-profile reporter for Vice News.
As I wrote at the time for GBH News, the story also shone a spotlight on the decline of the Post-Gazette under publisher John Block, whose family had owned the paper for many years but who was personally a Trumper who seemed peculiarly ill-suited to the job.
Just as the owner of that Boston-area newspaper learned many years ago, the First Amendment may be a powerful tool for guaranteeing freedom of the press — but it doesn’t magically protect business practices that would be illegal for anyone else.
The meaning of objectivity is at the heart of a lawsuit brought by a Washington Post reporter against the paper, five of its top editors and former executive editor Marty Baron.
Felicia Sonmez argues that she was subjected to unlawful discrimination after she said she had been sexually assaulted by a Los Angeles Times reporter and was then banned from covering stories involving sexual misconduct, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy.
I’m not going to get into whether Sonmez is right or wrong; that will be for the legal process to sort out. But what’s interesting about this is that her claim involves the appearance of objectivity — that is, she could have been accused of not being impartial, whether fairly or not. This is a largely bogus argument, in my view, as it places news organizations in the position of preemptively giving in to bad-faith critics.
What’s odd is that Baron understands the true meaning of objectivity, and pursued it during his years as the top editor at the Post and The Boston Globe. In particular, the Post’s fierce coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent presidency was grounded in exposing the truth, not in “both sides” false equivalencies.
Several months ago Baron spoke to Northeastern journalism students and faculty via Zoom and defined objectivity in terms that would do Walter Lippmann proud. “I don’t think the answer for us is to be partisan,” he said. “I think the answer for us is to be independent.”
Citing Lippmann’s landmark 1920 book “Liberty and the News,” Baron said that objectivity is about “independence and open-mindedness and fairness,” not giving each side equal weight. After thoroughly reporting a story, he added, “then we tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned.”
What Sonmez is alleging is that the Post fell into some of the worst excesses and caricatures of objectivity, such as the bad old days when LGBTQ people were somehow thought to be disqualified from covering same-sex marriage, or when Black reporters were regarded as suspect if they covered issues involving racial justice. Surely some of that was at work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s prohibiting its then-reporter Alexis Johnson from covering Black Lives Matter protests after she posted an innocuous tweet.
There may have been other factors involved in the Sonmez case. You may recall that she was suspended for tweeting details of Kobe Bryant’s sexual-assault case not long after he died in a helicopter crash. I thought the suspension was unwarranted, as did Post media columnist Erik Wemple. But you could certainly argue that she should have waited a day or two.
In any case, her lawsuit raises some fascinating issues and is well worth paying attention to.
Correction: This post originally misstated the affiliation of the reporter whom Sonmez accused of assaulting her.
If we’re lucky, we’ll never encounter another time as awful as 2020. A raging pandemic, economic collapse, white racism in the face of a long-overdue reckoning with racial justice and an authoritarian-minded president who is still plotting to overturn his decisive defeat have all conspired to make this a year to put behind us.
Then there were the personal tragedies. “I remember that first Thanksgiving, the empty chair,” said President-elect Joe Biden, a man who knows tragedy in his bones and in his soul. The lost job. The lost business. The lost hope.
During the past year, I’ve tried to capture some of that — the lows as well as a few reasons for optimism. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns. They’re in chronological order, starting with the world we lost and ending with a glimpse of better days to come.
• The strangling of local radio,Jan. 21. The New Year had barely begun when we learned that iHeartMedia, a conglomerate that owns some 850 stations, was gutting its properties. Among them: Boston’s venerable WBZ (AM 1030), the city’s last remaining commercial news station, which laid off several longtime journalists. For-profit radio has been sliding downhill since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which effectively removed caps on how many stations a company can own. As with newspapers, a few giant corporations took on massive amounts of debt to build empires, slashing costs so they could pay their creditors. Employees and listeners were the losers.
• The last normal week, March 4. I spent Super Tuesday in Ukiah, California, covering a packed event in a bar (imagine that) hosted by The Mendocino Voice, a small website that was transitioning from for-profit to cooperative ownership. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” publisher Kate Maxwell told those on hand. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.” By the end of the week, I found myself accompanying Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann to Mendocino County’s first news conference about what was then called “the novel coronavirus.” A day later I returned home on a half-empty flight wondering what was coming next.
• A campus empties out, March 17. Northeastern University, where I’m a journalism professor, takes its spring break the first week of March. Despite the increasingly ominous news, we actually resumed classes the following week. All of us, though, had the sense that a shutdown was imminent — and it was, as we all had to scramble quickly to move our classes online. This fall, like most of my colleagues, I taught partly in person, partly online, getting tested twice a week. And I am filled with gratitude every day to be one of the lucky few who is still employed and working in a relatively safe environment.
• Fox News endangers lives, April 22. Rupert Murdoch’s cable news station has become a dangerous behemoth, promulgating all manner of misinformation and disinformation about climate change, Hillary Clinton and the awesome wonderfulness of President Donald Trump. Never, though, was Fox News more of a menace than it was in the spring of 2020, when prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham promoted the toxic idea that COVID-19 (it finally had a name) was a “hoax.” They disdained mask-wearing and cheered on the armed right-wingers who protested the shutdown, falsely claiming that COVID was nothing to worry about. “The question is why are our leaders hurting us on purpose,” Carlson told his viewers. “And the answer is: Because they can.”
• Avoiding a 2016 repeat, May 27. With Biden having vanquished his Democratic primary opponents and building a solid polling lead over Trump, I asked whether the media could avoid the mistakes they made in 2016 — obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s emails and elevating her minor transgressions so that they appeared to be as serious as Trump’s. In fact, the media appeared to have learned some lessons. Sexual assault charges brought against Biden by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, and, later in the year, Rudy Giuliani’s attempts to make some sort of criminal connection between Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine were both quickly dismissed as lacking any evidence. The next question: How will the press cover the Biden presidency?
• A newspaper laid low by racism, June 17. Alexis Johnson, a young Black reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had been covering the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Then she tweeted out a humorous but pointed observation comparing the damage caused by looters to the mess left behind by tailgaters at a Kenny Chesney concert. She was taken off the protest beat for supposedly failing to maintain her objectivity — a ludicrous overreaction met with protests by her fellow journalists and the community. Before long, Johnson had left for Vice News and the Post-Gazette had a new executive editor: Stan Wischnowski, who’d just left as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer after he approved an insensitive “Buildings Matter, Too” headline. Wischnowski was actually an upgrade over his predecessor, Keith Burris, who continues to run the editorial pages. But he was hardly the sort of change that was called for under the circumstances.
• In the dark on Beacon Hill, July 16. Massachusetts is just one of four states whose legislatures are exempt from public-records laws. Cities, towns, counties and state executive agencies must turn over payroll records, contracts, internal communications and other documents when asked to do so by journalists or ordinary citizens. But not the Legislature. “The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” said Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. And so it remains. In the fall, Northeastern journalism students asked every legislative candidate whether they favored ending the exemption. Most of those who answered said they did — but only 71 of the 257 candidates bothered to respond despite repeated email and phone requests.
• Local news, saner views, Nov. 11. With the election over and the Trump era drawing to an end, I explored the idea of whether a renewed focus on community life could help overcome the hyperpolarization that has ripped the culture apart at the national level. Before that can happen, though, we need to find ways to revive local journalism. One modest solution would be to create a special state commission to study the problem in Massachusetts and make some recommendations. As 2020 draws to a close, the legislation that would create that commission remains in limbo.
• Linda Henry takes charge, Nov. 18. Some five months after Vinay Mehra exited as president of Boston Globe Media Partners, managing director Linda Pizzuti Henry got a title enhancement: she was named chief executive of the company, which comprises The Boston Globe, Stat News and Boston.com. Although the COVID-related advertising meltdown hurt the Globe as it did every other media company, 2020 turned out to be a good year for owners John and Linda Henry. The Globe’s paid digital circulation passed the long-sought 200,000 mark, and Stat News emerged as a national leader on COVID coverage. Moreover, the company employs about 300 full-time journalists across its three platforms — a far higher number than would be expected under chain ownership. That said, the company continues its unseemly battle against its union employees, a situation that should have been resolved long ago.
• Back to a better future, Dec. 2. Are there reasons to be optimistic? We all hope so. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will restore civility to the White House. A COVID vaccine has brought the end of the pandemic within sight. But what about beyond that? In a new book, “The Upswing,” Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett argue that the selfishness that led to the original Gilded Age eventually gave way to the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement — and that it can happen again.
We are entering what is likely to be a devastating winter — what Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, predicted could be “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation.” We need to take care of each other and get beyond the sickness and fear that have come to dominate our lives. And we have to tell ourselves that things will get better — and work to make it come true. What alternative do we have?
Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2021.
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.”
Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!
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.”
At least at the moment, I have little to add to the story of James Bennet’s departure as editorial-page editor of The New York Times beyond what Ben Smith of the Times, Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute and Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review have written, and what I wrote last week.
As Smith, Jones and Allsop point out, Bennet’s misguided decision to run Sen. Tom Cotton’s ugly commentary advocating violence against protesters should be seen as part of a larger story that encompasses Wesley Lowery’s unfortunate experience at The Washington Post, the resignation of Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski over his paper’s horrendous “Buildings Matter, Too” headline, and the right-wing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s meltdown over Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter whom they claimed couldn’t be trusted to cover Black Lives Matter protests because of an innocuous tweet she had posted.
Because of the Times’ central place in our media culture, Bennet’s departure is the big story. As the coverage makes clear, Bennet lurched from one misstep to another during his time as editorial-page editor, so it would be a mistake to attribute his departure solely to the Cotton op-ed. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from his mishandling of a Bret Stephens column in which Stephens came very close to endorsing a genetic basis for intelligence.
Bennet will be replaced through the election on an interim basis by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, who won a Pulitzer when she was at The Boston Globe. Kingsbury is terrific, and I hope she’s given a chance to earn the job.
Finally, a semi-related incident involving the Globe. You may have seen this on the front of Sunday’s print edition:
There’s no question that the cover, which you can see here, would have been considered entirely inoffensive before a police officer killed George Floyd. Even now I’m not sure how many readers would have been outraged. Still, I think the Globe made the right call. An abundance of caution and sensitivity is what’s needed at the moment.