In Pittsburgh, a Newspaper at War With Its Readers

June 17, 2020

 

Post-Gazette’s clumsy decision to pull black reporter from protest coverage angers staffers, subscribers.

 

I always try to follow this advice: It hurts you to ignore constructive criticism just like it hurts you to absorb unconstructive criticism. The most important thing you can do is distinguish the two.

 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette faces an existential crisis because it is unable to hear constructive criticism. The 230-year-old paper of record bungled its response to the rising movement for racial justice and doubled down at every turn. Now it is besieged on all fronts—by national media, social media, elected officials, professional athletes, the business community, major foundations, protesters on the street, and its own reporters.

 

All of it traces back to one tweet.

 

Alexis Johnson is respected PG reporter and Pittsburgh native. As thousands of Pittsburghers demonstrated against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the conversation here, as elsewhere, wrestled with the few participants who turned destructive. On May 31, Johnson added a little perspective.

 

She tweeted four images of arena parking lot strewn with trash, beer bottles and a sleeping drunk, along with the words:

 

“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.”

 

Her tweet was a hit in town. Kenny Chesney concerts have been a Pittsburgh punchline for years, thanks to the utter mess left behind by participants and tailgaters – many of whom travel from neighboring Ohio and West Virginia. It’s so common and benign that I made a lame joke about it myself on May 14.

 

Then her tweet went viral, and the shoe dropped. The Pittsburgh City Paper reported on June 4 that Johnson’s editors saw the tweet and said it showed bias. They told Johnson, one of the paper’s few Black reporters, that she was barred from covering the new civil rights movement.

 

Every detail about Johnson’s situation is damning to the PG. The paper has no social media policy for reporters, so she couldn’t have violated it. A white colleague tweeted something worse about protests, and was allowed to continue to cover them after a mild verbal reprimand.

 

Johnson shared her story with many journalism colleagues, including the City Paper, Esquire, CNN and many more. The hashtag #IStandWithAlexis trended in Pittsburgh. 

Management somehow seemed surprised that they fell backwards into a national news story. It was less surprising to Pittsburgh media watchers. PG’s management has long had two big blind spots: Race issues, and the Newspaper Guild, which represents its reporters.

 

The race blind spot is infamous. In an editorial published on MLK Day in 2018, later confirmed to be authored by Keith Burris, the paper defended President Trump’s racist remarks about “shithole countries.” The real threat, the piece argued, was the use of the word “racist.”  Other examples have been made public in recent weeks.

 

The Guild blind spot is infamous, too. Reporters haven’t had a raise in 14 years, and their union contract expired in 2017. Despite a NRLB ruling in reporters’ favor, the paper still won’t deal. In 2019, Publisher JR Block exploded in the newsroom, causing a major scene that created yet more tension. The fact that the Guild complaint was the basis of the initial City Paper article likely is what prevents management from discerning the constructive criticism in the situation. 

 

When dozens of Johnson’s colleagues tweeted the exact same thing in a show of solidarity, the paper responded by taking all of them off the protest beat, too. They sidelined Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Michael Santiago, who later said the situation led him to leave the paper. In a flagrant violation of journalist norms, the paper retroactively removed some online articles written by participating reporters, then re-posted altered versions without bylines.

 

Reporters argued – accurately – that Johnson’s perspective as a Black woman enriched her coverage. Andrew Goldstein noted that he and then-Editor David Shribman were Jewish residents of Squirrel Hill when they covered the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue. He credits the paper’s Pulitzer to that kind of personal experience. 

 

As national scrutiny rose – in the Washington Post, New York Times, NPR, Columbia Journalism Review, CNN, and many more – the paper doubled down.

 

Executive Editor Keith Burris wrote an open letter, saying the staffing decisions were basic journalistic ethics. “A journalist can be a commentator or a chronicler. He or she cannot be both at the same time,” he wrote.

 

It didn’t help. Critics noted that Burris currently serves simultaneously as the paper’s editorial director (opinion) and executive editor (news), a questionable arrangement that has reportedly impacted news coverage. Besides, Johnson’s tweet was well within the journalistic norm for incisive commentary. The day Burris’ letter published, Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh’s home town grocery chain, announced it would boycott sales of the paper.

 

Critics aren’t backing down. Johnson is now suing the PG in federal court. The international NewsGuild is calling on Burris and Managing Editor Karen Kane to resign. Subscribers are canceling, and journalists report that some people are refusing interviews in protest. 

 

Management shows no signs of backing down, either. After his letter failed to end the criticism, Burris found a new venue for his message about separating news from opinion: Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News.

 

Keegan Gibson Keegan Gibson is Special Projects Manager in Ceisler Media's Pittsburgh office.

 

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