On Sunday, Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh member Alexis Johnson posted a benign tweet deemed so controversial and biased by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette management that it barred her the next day from all protest-related coverage. The logic was absurd and specious. The move stifled one of the few black reporters at the paper.
On Wednesday, Guild President Michael A. Fuoco and Unit Chairman Jonathan D. Silver, both longtime PG reporters, met with Managing Editor Karen Kane and two other managers to demand that they reverse course and immediately reinstate Alexis to protest-related coverage. They refused and wouldn’t explain their rationale. We filed a grievance alleging they violated our contract by disciplining Alexis without just cause. That grievance, one of many filed over the past three years, is pending.
On Friday, in a show of solidarity, dozens of Guild members throughout the newsroom tweeted Alexis’ tweet on their own Twitter accounts under the hashtag #IStandWithAlexis. By Friday night, in our view, the company’s retaliation began.
Protest-related stories by two staffers — city hall reporter Ashley Murray and general assignment reporter Lauren Lee — suddenly disappeared without explanation from the PG’s website shortly after they tweeted support for Alexis. Ashley and Lauren were baffled, and queries to management were met with silence. To us, the cause and effect is clear.
The PG simply does not remove stories, ever, for any reason. It is a longstanding policy in journalism and at the PG that you do not remove published material; it is simply unethical to do so. The proper course of action is to correct any factual errors and include an editor’s note in the story explaining the reason for any changes. But in this case, we believe that Ashley’s and Lauren’s stories were purposely removed. In fact, one of our staffers heard Kane on Friday evening order the city editor to kill a story.
Similarly, one of our photographers of color who tweeted support for Alexis has been barred from covering protests. This is after risking his personal safety and being gassed by police in order to bring PG readers news about what was happening in their city.
(June 7, 2020 Addition) The PG has also instructed the entire photography staff to not cover protests happening in the region.
The PG took other troubling steps. As if it wasn’t bad enough to kill stories and restrict journalists who expressed solidarity with a union colleague under siege, management told several Guild members that protests would no longer be covered, period. And protest-related stories scheduled for Saturday were killed without explanation.
By this morning, the paper’s position had changed again. The original two stories that had been killed on the web reappeared — this time in severely shortened versions and without bylines. And a Guild member who had not joined in the Twitter backing of Alexis and was not previously scheduled had been assigned to cover the day’s protest.
A Twitter post this morning indicates that Kane responded to an inquiry from someone by claiming that “nothing has been removed.” The response also praises Alexis for being a “valued part of our great staff.” It’s fair to say Alexis does not feel that way right now.
It is abundantly clear to the Guild that PG managers are trying to gaslight us. We have no doubt that the Blocks and their top lieutenants are doing their best to crush our union, stamp out free thought and punish our members for exercising their federally protected rights.
We’ve encountered this before when publisher John Robinson Block went on an unhinged tirade on a Saturday night in February 2019 in our newsroom, manhandled his daughter and threatened to fire Guild leaders.
In trying to explain away Block’s despicable behavior, witnessed by more than a dozen Guild members, the PG/BCI crafted an explanation for the media that was filled with lie after lie. They have never admitted fault for coming after the union.
We are more than three years into contract negotiations with an intractable company that has hired a union-busting Tennessee law firm to do nothing but stall and wring every last cent from the Blocks, all while our members suffer economically.
No raise for 14 years. Significant pay cuts. Vile attacks on our health care, a situation that now is tied up in federal court. And our Guild brethren at The (Toledo) Blade likewise owned by the Blocks are suffering equally.
The PG’s latest assault on our union is possibly the worst yet because it strikes at the very heart of journalism: truth and transparency. Guild leaders are not entirely sure yet what is happening, but we are dedicated to finding out and correcting it.
What kind of news publication ousts a black reporter from covering the most important race-related story of the current generation for posting a tongue-in-cheek tweet, all without due process or explanation? The PG.
What kind of news publication installs an executive editor who wrote a repugnant, racially insensitive editorial called “Reason as Racism” that attracted universal condemnation, even from members of the very family that owns the paper? The PG.
What kind of news organization bars members of its Pulitzer Prize-winning staff from covering protests because they refused to stay silent when their colleague was muzzled? The PG.
That’s why we find ourselves in proverbial Vietnam today. And as in that war, PG managers wrongly think they need to destroy the village in order to save it. They couldn’t be more wrong.
There’s an easy way out of this quagmire: Top management must apologize to Alexis, remove the ban they placed on her coverage and let talented, dedicated, loyal PG journalists do our life’s work to the benefit of our paper, our readers, our community, our democracy.