“Abomination:” Pittsburgh publisher’s editorial inflames newsroom, readers

Newspapers aren’t democracies, much as we might like them to be, nor do their pages reflect the views of everyone they employ.

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week, one man’s decision to publish a poorly reasoned, ill-timed and offensive-to-many editorial on race on Martin Luther King Jr. Day has sparked an uproar inside and outside the paper and within the family that owns it. Newsroom employees, city grandees and politicians have publicly assailed the editorial as an “abomination,” “humiliation” and “whitewashing.”

An outcry in the newsroom is a reminder that the ultimate power of publishers is they get to decide what’s printed — whether you agree or not.

The saga began Jan. 11 when the Post-Gazette, the city’s only remaining daily print newspaper and one of the more influential news outlets in Pennsylvania, published an AP story about President Trump’s reported remarks that day questioning why we should take more immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa.

At 9:53 that night, someone operating the Post-Gazette’s Twitter account informed the paper’s followers — in what many journalists read as a cry for help:

The vulgarity was removed from the lead of the print edition, but appeared in the jump inside the paper, and was left intact in the lead in the online edition.

Meanwhile, John R. Block, who holds the dual titles of publisher and editor-in-chief, directed The (Toledo) Blade, the Ohio paper that’s also owned by Block Communications Inc., the family company chaired by his brother, Allan Block, to draft an editorial about the controversy over the vulgar comments. The piece ran last Saturday in the Blade, and John Block instructed the Post-Gazette’s editorial page editor to reprint it at the first available date, which happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The piece, titled “Reason as Racism,” justified Trump’s vulgar comments and argued, “Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism. ... 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.”

“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,” the editorial asserted. It cast doubt on Trump’s use of vulgarity, adding, “but if he did, so what?”

It concluded, “We need to confine the word ‘racist’ to people like Bull Connor and Dylann Roof,” referring to the infamous 1960s Alabama commissioner who used attack dogs and fire hoses against civil rights protesters, including children, and a white supremacist who massacred nine black churchgoers in 2015.

While it’s not uncommon for the Post-Gazette and Blade to run each other’s editorials, this was an uncommon editorial. And though it ran under the byline “The Editorial Board/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,” it did not reflect the views of the editorial board in Pittsburgh — nor had anyone there endorsed its content — other than the publisher. (The Post-Gazette editorial board has an informal “conscience clause” that exempts members from writing editorials on positions they oppose).

“It doesn’t matter whether I agree with it or not, because the head of the editorial board [Block] wanted it that way,” editorial page editor John Allison said in an interview. “When the head of the editorial board says we’re going to publish this, I have to do it.”

The backlash was swift. The large majority of letters to the editor received were critical, though a few were supportive and some mixed. Tony Norman, a black columnist at the paper and former member of the editorial board, wrote a column that read as a rebuttal, though he didn’t mention the editorial directly. He assailed “today’s racists” as “legalistic hairsplitters who insist that just because they’re not collecting Nazi memorabilia or hanging out at Klan jamborees burning crosses and s’mores, they somehow don’t fit the classic definition of racist.”

Shame

In an online protest under an image of a white wall emblazoned with the word “SHAME,” two leading philanthropies — Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation — decried the editorial as “a sorry pastiche of whitewashing drivel,” “an embarrassment to Pittsburgh,” and “cover for racist rhetoric.” The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation condemned it, and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor said she no longer wants the paper’s endorsement.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union that represents the 150 newsroom employees, wrote a letter to the editor saying it never weighs in on editorials, but called the piece “a blight on the 231 years of service the Post-Gazette has provided to its readers.” Dozens of former Post-Gazette employees — including the mayor’s spokesman and a Pulitzer winner — wrote a separate letter to the editor. Block refused to publish either one.

Many employees feel upset, humiliated and betrayed; at least two have gone on byline strikes in protest. Managers have sought to listen sympathetically and move forward. The tension is worsened by frustration over stalled union contract negotiations.

Sixteen family members and shareholders of Block Communications Inc. also weighed in with a sharply worded protest letter that the paper published Jan. 18. The editorial, Block’s relatives wrote, was an attempt “to justify blatant racism” and contrary to the values of the company’s late patriarch, William Block Sr. “It goes against everything he worked for and valued.”

It is not unusual for family ownership groups to have disagreements about business strategy or, occasionally, editorial decisions. But it is very rare for those conflicts to be aired publicly.

One instance was when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bid in 2007 to take over the Wall Street Journal and parent company Dow Jones. Members of the Bancroft family published letters debating whether the sale to Murdoch would betray family tradition, before a majority agreed to take the offer. A decade later, Murdoch’s influence is undeniable. While there’s meant to be a firewall at newspapers between opinion pages and news coverage, news reporters at the Wall Street Journal have complained over the last year of pressure from management to cast a more positive tone on Trump news coverage.

The late Bill Block, known for his progressive bent, was publisher when I interned at the Post-Gazette, my hometown paper, in the early 1990s. The uncle of the current publisher, the elder Block was famous for deferring to editors. In his 2005 obituary, a former managing editor recalled, “In all the time that I worked for him — and that was a hell of a lot of years — he never approached me ... to say, 'I think we should do this' or 'I think we should do that.'"  

In an era of greater corporate ownership, especially at large chains such as Gannett, it’s rare for owners and publishers to dictate stories or overrule editorial page editors, says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at Poynter. But at family-run papers, leadership is more idiosyncratic.

John R. Block, unlike his uncle, is a hands-on editorial board chairman with strong opinions — often conservative — who doesn’t shy away from using his pulpit of the editorial page. But he rarely weighs in on the content of news pages, and when he does, it’s mostly in a benign way, employees said, like recommending a story on exercises for dogs. Allison said at a time of low newspaper revenue and cuts in newsrooms everywhere, "John has been an advocate for the PG for decades  — in tight budget times, he is a voice in Block Communications Inc. to keep the Post-Gazette strong."

The 2016 campaign brought a wrinkle to the editorial page deliberations. Block visited Trump’s campaign plane and shared a smiling photo on his Facebook page with the caption, “In 39 years of full time journalism I’ve met many interesting people. This one was more than memorable.”

After hinting at a Trump endorsement and meeting strong opposition from his editorial board, Block decided the paper, which has often backed Democrats, would not endorse either candidate, but rather run a pros-and-cons election guide suggesting an imperfect choice. Many employees and readers of the paper were angered by what they felt was a dereliction of duty to take a position in 2016. The lack of an endorsement may not have made much difference; Pittsburgh voted 75 percent for Hillary Clinton and 59 percent supported her in surrounding Allegheny County.

In the fracas over this week’s editorial, Pittsburgh City Paper, an alternative weekly, surfaced a 2013 interview of Block in the Blade in which he said people of color need to pull themselves up “by their bootstraps” like they did in the “old days.” The Latino reporter who had interviewed him was quoted calling him “clueless” about race relations.

Norman, who was the sole black member of the editorial board in recent years, called the editorial “racist and indifferent to the paper's progressive legacy,” but said “it would be wrong to lump Block in with those who are racist to the core of their being.” The publisher endorsed Barack Obama three times — first in the 2008 primary against Hillary Clinton, and twice in the general elections that year and in 2012. The walls of his office were once decorated with photos of himself and his family posing with Obama, and he has an extensive collection of framed, historic African-American newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender.

“He's genuinely interested in black history,” Norman added. “That's why this editorial running on MLK Day in Pittsburgh is so inexplicably bad and morally indefensible. He knows better."

Norman said after the election it was clear Block “was going in a pro-Trump direction, and I couldn’t write editorials that were going to pass the sniff test with him, so it seemed a good time to leave” the board and focus on his opinion column. Norman, like Allison, is pragmatic about an owner’s right to exert his or her views on the editorial page.

“They can impose any opinion they want. We could become a Stalinist paper tomorrow if he wanted it; we could become the Pittsburgh Flat World Gazette … If you want to die on every hill, fighting every battle, it becomes a never-ending series of confrontations,” Norman said, advising editorial page writers anywhere to “pick your battles when you can actually have a chance of winning and influencing and keeping the crazy stuff out if you can.”

The editorial page editor of another family-owned paper, who spoke on condition of not being named because of the sensitivity of the issue, agreed. “I didn’t realize this job was as politically fraught as it is,” the editor said. When there was a disagreement with owners on a matter of principle, the editor recalled, “I have made those decisions — do I have to quit? — but it’s never come to that. I view my job as building buy-in and consensus. Every publisher has sacred cows and strong feelings — that’s why a family owns a paper; it’s a very powerful position.”

Katharine Weymouth was once in that position as publisher of the Washington Post when it was owned by the Graham family (her grandmother, Katharine Graham, and her uncle, Don Graham, preceded her as publishers, before the family sold the paper to the billionaire owner of Amazon, Jeff Bezos). “Yes, it’s the publisher/owner’s prerogative” to decide on the editorial view of the paper, Weymouth said in an interview.

Her uncle hired Fred Hiatt as the Post’s editorial page editor, and Weymouth kept him on. She never felt the need to interfere in the paper’s editorial voice, she said, because “we were aligned. [Hiatt] would have taken our views into consideration and we always discussed endorsements, but the editorial page was free to express their opinions without interference,” she said.

The Post-Gazette’s publisher, who comes to the office daily, has not addressed the staff about the controversy. The rift is not just with the editorial board and newsroom, but also with many readers, family shareholders and city leaders, a majority of whom don’t seem to share Block’s views on Trump. Block will have to decide if he will he continue to overrule the Post-Gazette editorial board on political positions or, in defending Trump’s controversial actions, allow resentment to build, affecting staff morale or contract negotiations.

Reporters and readers don’t get to veto a publisher’s decisions. They can choose to ignore the editorial page — or vote with their feet if their consciences demand it.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at Poynter and a Boston Globe columnist, has covered coups, campaigns and revolutions in 80 countries and the US for the Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS and Politico Magazine.

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