Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Revolts Over Sidelining of 2 Black Colleagues

Tensions between newsroom employees and their bosses are nothing new at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is owned by a family-run company, Block Communications.

This is the newspaper that published an unsigned editorial, on Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 2018, that led with the line “Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism.” Detractors of the editorial included newspaper employees and 16 members of the Block family, who published a letter to the editor noting that it had been “printed without the Post-Gazette editorial board’s consensus” and faulting it for “attempting to justify blatant racism.”

One family member, John R. Block, the news organization’s publisher, did not agree with the criticism. About a year after the editorial appeared, he promoted the man who wrote it, the editorial page editor Keith C. Burris, to the job of top editor.

Now Mr. Burris is locked in a dispute with the Post-Gazette newsroom.

Two prominent black staff members, a reporter and a photojournalist, said newsroom leaders had unfairly kept them from covering the protests against racism and police violence. Mr. Burris, who is white, said in a column published Wednesday that the paper’s managers did no such thing.

The latest round of tensions started with a satirical tweet.

On May 31, Alexis Johnson, a reporter, ridiculed the idea that the protesters in Pittsburgh were destructive looters. “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!” she wrote on Twitter. “…. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate.” The tweet included four photographs showing a parking lot filled with trash after Kenny Chesney concerts in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s first major protest had taken place the day before, and Ms. Johnson said she proposed writing four stories related to the growing movement on June 1.

Later that day, three editors, including Karen Kane, the Post-Gazette managing editor, called her. They told Ms. Johnson, who is black, that her tweet showed that she could not cover the protests fairly and that she would not be assigned to report on them, the reporter said. Ms. Kane declined to comment.

Another Post-Gazette staff member, Michael Santiago, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, said he was taken away from covering protests after he had publicly supported Ms. Johnson. Mr. Santiago, who is black, tweeted in support of his colleague starting on June 3. “I was angry but not surprised,” he said in an interview. “I kind of was expecting it. I had been tweeting support for her.”

In a June 6 tweet, Mr. Santiago criticized the paper for having chosen to “silence” two prominent black journalists “during one of the most important civil rights stories that is happening across our country!”

A representative for Mr. Block did not respond to a request for comment.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union that represents the paper’s staff members, called on readers to send letters demanding that Ms. Johnson and Mr. Santiago be allowed to cover the protests. By Tuesday afternoon, more than 4,400 letters had poured in, according to the guild. Letter writers have included Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, and the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman.

More than 80 Post-Gazette staff members have taken the side of their sidelined colleagues in social media posts, the guild said. Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto, posted a tweet on June 5 praising Ms. Johnson. “She has been fair in questioning all sides,” he wrote. “She has been critical of me & our administration — when it was necessary. Most importantly, she has been professional in journalistic accepted practices & integrity.”

The union also urged advertisers to take action. On Tuesday, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, an economic development group, said it had withdrawn a full-page ad. “The ad was intended to show support for our Black neighbors and share the business community’s commitment to combating racism,” the group said in a statement. “The Post-Gazette was not the right vehicle for this message.”

Mr. Burris fired back at the newsroom, which has roughly 160 staff members, and pleaded his case to readers, in a column posted early Wednesday on the Post-Gazette site.

“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,” he wrote.

“And we certainly did not single out two people and keep them from covering local protests because they were black,” he continued. “That is an outrageous lie — a defamation, in fact.”

After referring to “a propaganda campaign against this newspaper,” Mr. Burris wrote: “What our editors did do was remind colleagues of a longstanding canon of journalism ethics: When you announce an opinion about a person or story you are reporting on you compromise your reporting. And your editor may take you off the story.”

Michael A. Fuoco, a Post-Gazette reporter and the president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said Mr. Burris had the facts wrong. “We dispute virtually everything that he says,” he said.

Speaking of the newspaper’s leaders, Mr. Fuoco added, “They seem to think that racism is only shown by burning crosses. This piece today shows how insidious institutional and systemic racism can be where you think that your actions are normal and just, when they traumatize and marginalize black people.”

Mr. Fuoco said in an earlier interview that, in his view, the newspaper’s treatment of Ms. Johnson and Mr. Santiago reflected a bias at the company’s top level. “You would hope this was an aberration, a mistake,” he said. “We don’t see it as such. We see it as part of their DNA.”

In his column, Mr. Burris referred to Ms. Johnson as a reporter who “covers social media, normally.” She disputed that characterization on Twitter on Wednesday, saying that she was a “general assignment reporter” and linking to articles she had written on other topics; she also said that social media was a large part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In an interview, Ms. Johnson said she thought her background made her the ideal candidate to cover the protests. She grew up in Pittsburgh. Her father is a retired state trooper and her mother is a retired probation officer.

“I just feel like every journalist brings their personal experience, their background,” she said. “That’s the entire point. That’s why we diversify newsrooms.”

Mr. Burris succeeded David M. Shribman as the leader of the Post-Gazette newsroom. In his final year as top editor, Mr. Shribman led The Post-Gazette to a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Labor disputes have underscored tensions at the paper in recent years. In February 2019, the month Mr. Burris became executive editor, Mr. Block, the publisher, visited the newsroom in a rage, threatening employees’ jobs while his daughter stood nearby, asking him to stop.

Mr. Block made the appearance after staff members had put up a poster reading “Shame on the Blocks!” After the incident, the guild asked to have him barred from the newsroom; Mr. Block later expressed “sincere regrets” for his tirade, according to a statement.

The protests prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 in Minneapolis after he was pinned to the ground by a white police officer, have exposed divisions in the Post-Gazette newsroom, just as they have at The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications.

Managers at The Post-Gazette also had a conversation with a staff member, Joshua Axelrod, about his use of social media. On his Twitter account, he had expressed support for Ms. Johnson by posting a “clapping hands” emoji; he said he had also referred to a looter as a “scumbag” in a tweet that he ended up deleting.

“I asked them if I was being punished or not,” Mr. Axelrod said in an interview. “They basically said, ‘No, this is just a teaching moment.’”

The day after the talk, Mr. Axelrod, who is white, wrote a story related to the protests. After the article appeared, the guild pointed out a disparity between how management had treated Mr. Axelrod and Ms. Johnson, Mr. Fuoco said. On June 3, according to Mr. Axelrod, editors told him he would no longer take part in protest coverage. (Mr. Burris, in his only comment for this article, said that newspaper leaders were unaware of the “scumbag” tweet when they spoke to Mr. Axelrod.)

In addition to its demand that the paper apologize to Ms. Johnson and Mr. Santiago and allow them to cover protests, the guild has asked that managers not retaliate against journalists who have supported them publicly.

Over the weekend, Mr. Santiago photographed an ice-cream parlor and a church that were reopening after having been shuttered during the lockdown period brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. He said he had been originally assigned to shoot the protests.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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