Controversy as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom confronts its publisher

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newsroom. Photo: Michael Fuoco.

Like a hurricane, it was coming our way and we could neither stop nor escape it. Many of the staff of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette knew The Blade, our sister paper in Toledo, had run a vile editorial several days earlier and it would soon be printed in the Post-Gazette as well. The goal of the piece was to provide cover for and support of Donald Trump’s bemoaning that Haiti and African countries were “shithole” places of origin for many immigrants to America. “Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism,” the editorial opined. “Calling the president a racist helps no one—it is simply another way (the Russia and instability cards having been played unsuccessfully) to attempt to delegitimize a legitimately elected president.” And, it asserted, “There are nations that are hellholes … It is not racist to say that this country cannot take only the worst people from the worst places.” Post-Gazette staffers awaited the inevitable landfall in our newspaper, well aware of the damage that could come to the 231-year-old institution and its journalists.

John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Post-Gazette and The Blade and a strong Trump supporter, had asked a willing editorial writer in Toledo to pen the piece. And he demanded it run in both newspapers. Our dread was well placed: Days after it ran in Toledo, there it was, published as the Post-Gazette’s lead editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of all days. By any objective measure, the editorial was intellectually dishonest and racist, twisting itself in knots in a colossally failed attempt to defend the indefensible. It was headlined “Reason as Racism,” but, in truth, the piece advocated for racism as reason. Leaders of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents about 150 Post-Gazette newsroom employees, knew we had to do something on behalf of our members, our newspaper, our community.  

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In the end, we decided to break precedent set during the 84 years of the Guild’s existence at the Post-Gazette and write a letter to the editor decrying an editorial. In the letter, signed by all 11 members of the local’s Executive Committee, we noted that Guild members were “collectively appalled and crestfallen by the repugnant editorial ‘Reason as Racism’”:

As a matter of course, the Guild does not weigh in on editorial positions, but this piece is so extraordinary in its mindless, sycophantic embrace of racist values and outright bigotry espoused by this country’s president that we would be morally, journalistically, and humanly remiss not to speak out against it.

This editorial is a blight on the 231 years of service the Post-Gazette has provided its readers. Over its long history, it has railed against racism and supported civil rights and justice for all. Given this history, the shameful and unconscionable editorial…is an abomination that cannot go without condemnation from journalists committed to fairness, accuracy and decency… [We] stand together in solidarity against the bigotry, hatred and divisiveness it engenders.

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The Guild letter was an attempt to let the public know that the editorial did not represent the views of our members—or even Post-Gazette managers, for that matter—but represented Block’s racist leanings. This was not an editorial supporting President Trump’s tax bill, for example, about which we might disagree but wouldn’t publicly challenge. This editorial was an outright call for racism.

By any objective measure, the editorial was intellectually dishonest and racist, twisting itself in knots in a colossally failed attempt to defend the indefensible.

We already were embroiled on several fronts with Block and the family-owned Block Communications, Inc., the Toledo-based, diversified media company of which the Post-Gazette and The Blade are a part. Because of that, we were acutely aware of where John Robinson Block and his twin brother, Allan Block, BCI’s chairman and editorial supporter, stood on social and economic justice issues. Our contract expired March 31; for the past 12 years, we’ve had a pay cut of at least 10 percent, and negotiations with BCI’s union-busting law firm, King & Ballow of Nashville, have become increasingly contentious. We recently filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the company for violating federal law by unilaterally changing our health-care benefits in the midst of ongoing, albeit glacial, bargaining. Media stories about the charge appeared the same day as the editorial.

More to the point, the Guild was in the midst of actively defending a member who, in the interest of journalistic ethics and transparency, had four days earlier alerted the public on the Post-Gazette’s Twitter account that “Our publisher is requesting us to remove @realDonaldTrump’s ‘vulgar language’ from the lede in our @AP story about his vulgar language.” The story, which had by that point been on our website for hours, remained unchanged. In the next day’s print edition, however, the AP lede had changed and the vulgarity had been moved to the jump.  

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Even as Guild members huddled in private to discuss possible responses to the editorial, reaction outside the newsroom was understandably swift, strong, and stinging. The Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation, two of the city’s leading philanthropies, issued an online statement calling the editorial “an embarrassment to Pittsburgh” and “cover for racist rhetoric.”  The statement appeared beneath a graphic of large black letters against a white wall that read “SHAME.” Condemnation also came in a press release from the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation; a letter signed by more than two dozen former Post-Gazette staffers (including the mayor’s spokesman and a Pulitzer Prize winner); and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor who said she no longer wants the paper’s endorsement. Additionally, some Post-Gazette beat reporters received criticism for the editorial from those they cover.

Reaction outside the newsroom was understandably swift, strong, and stinging.

On Tuesday, I penned the Guild’s letter, and after a few tweaks by some colleagues, we shared it with the membership. The response was uniformly positive. People wanted to immediately tweet it—as had occurred with the foundations’ statement and the former staffers’ letter—but I felt we should grant the Post-Gazette the courtesy of publishing it first. It seemed fitting and proper that our letter run on the Post-Gazette editorial page that a day earlier had been so besmirched. We submitted it to the Editorial Board that day; on Wednesday, we were told that our letter and the letter from former staffers were slated to run the next day—if Block approved. He didn’t, rejecting both letters. However, the Post-Gazette did publish a letter by 16 family members and shareholders of BCI who strongly criticized the editorial, labeling it an attempt “to justify blatant racism” and an acute, distressing retrenchment from the progressive values of the late, revered Post-Gazette Publisher William Block Sr., Block’s uncle. Conspicuous by their absences were the signatures of Allan Block and William Block Jr., son of the company patriarch. An op-ed piece by the foundations ran as well.

Denied publication in our own newspaper, we provided the letter to traditional media and shared it on Twitter and Facebook. The reaction astounded and buoyed us, commending us for taking a “courageous stand.”  Politico, Newsweek, the Associated Press, the Poynter Institute, journalism professors and individual journalists, among others, weighed in, acknowledging the uniqueness of the entire episode. We were comforted by the overwhelming support, which provided much needed light during dark days at the Post-Gazette. Looking back on a dizzying, tumultuous week, we had no other option but to stand on the right side of history—the history of our nation, our newspaper, our profession. We would do it again in a minute.

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Michael A. Fuoco is an enterprise reporter at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where he has been employed for 34 years. He is president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh/CWA 38061.