Pittsburgh Post-Gazette finally addressed its controversy, but the explanation doesn’t make it go away

Your Thursday Poynter Report

June 11, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is finally out with a response over a controversy that has been hounding the paper for days.

P-G executive editor Keith Burris wrote a lengthy story for the paper’s website Wednesday that defended a decision to pull one of its journalists off a protest story because of a tweet joking about the mess left behind after an old Kenny Chesney concert.

It’s just the latest chapter in one of the most bizarre media stories of the past few weeks.

Burris started his explainer by writing that readers had been “subjected to a great deal of disinformation about the Post-Gazette.” That’s partly Burris’ fault. Since the story broke last week, he had not responded to requests for comments from many media outlets, including Poynter, which merely tried to get to the bottom of what was happening. Had he responded, perhaps the so-called “misinformation” he referred to would not have festered.

Not that his explanation Wednesday made it any clearer.

Burris called the claims that a reporter was pulled off coverage because she was Black an “outrageous lie. A defamation, in fact.” He said he assumed the lie was “so outrageous that it didn’t need refutation.”

Burris said the reporter, Alexis Johnson, was not assigned one story because of the tweet in question. Burris repeatedly said that Johnson being Black had nothing to do with the decision. But much of the paper’s criticism — at least the way I saw it — was because Johnson’s tweet hardly seemed to suggest she was incapable of doing her job objectively. The paper took what seemed like a humorous and innocent tweet and made it worse.

“When other journalists repeated the tweet, hence also opining, they also were disqualified from reporting on the protests — almost all of them (over 80) were white,” Burris wrote.

He also wrote, “And we will not apologize for upholding professional standards in journalism or attempting to eliminate bias. Why is this important? Because fairness, removal of bias, removal of even the hint of conflict of interest is our gold standard — all we really have as journalists.”

Burris went on to praise Johnson, saying the paper stands with her and values her and her colleagues. However, he circled back to talk about the principles of journalism, saying, “If we abandon those values, we are lost. If we are driven by the half-truths and mobs of social media, we are no longer journalists. Two things are the bedrock of journalism — truth and fairness.”

The problem with that is Burris is suggesting that Johnson and others were incapable of meeting those journalistic bedrocks over what seemed to be a harmless tweet. And that seems unfair and baseless.

Burris went on to defend the paper’s ownership — which has been involved in several controversies over the past couple of years, including running an editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day questioning racism, firing a popular editorial cartoonist who was often critical of President Donald Trump, and the publisher going on what P-G witnesses said was a drunken and scary tirade in the newsroom one night.

Post-Gazette reporter Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, tweeted the union is still looking for the P-G to apologize to Johnson and another journalist taken off protest coverage as well as the rest of the staff and readers, put the reporters back on protest coverage, stop retaliation and stamp out racism in the newsroom

Add this latest controversy to the P-G’s recent dubious history.

‘We stand by our poll’

President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Just when you think things can’t get any more strange when it comes to the White House and presidential polling, this happens. The Trump campaign demanded that CNN retract and apologize for a presidential poll that showed Trump trailing Joe Biden by 14 points (55% to 41%). The campaign even sent a cease and desist letter.

CNN’s response: “We stand by our poll.” Actually, it was much harsher than that.

After the poll came out, Trump tweeted, “I have retained highly respected pollster, McLaughlin & Associates, to analyze today’s CNN Poll (and others), which I felt were FAKE based on the incredible enthusiasm we are receiving. Read analysis for yourself. This is the same thing they and others did when we defeated…”

In a strong rebuke, CNN’s general counsel told the Trump campaign that “this is the first time in its 40 year history that CNN had been threatened with legal action because an American politician or campaign did not like CNN’s polling results.”

The general counsel went on to say that when they’ve received threats “from political leaders in the past, they have typically come from countries like Venezuela or other regimes where there is little or no respect for a free and independent media.”

CNN called the cease and desist letter “factually and legally baseless” and  “another bad faith attempt by the campaign to threaten litigation to muzzle speech it does not want voters to read or hear. Your allegations and demands are rejected in their entirety.”

Sorry about dad

A small-town newspaper in Missouri ran an apology for an absolutely awful editorial cartoon that ran in Wednesday’s edition. Then things got really interesting when the owners resigned in protest, followed by the resignation of the editor, in a day filled with family drama.

The Washington, Missouri-based Missourian newspaper ran a cartoon that had what appeared to be a Black man grabbing the purse of a white woman, who yells, “Help! Somebody call 911!” The man responds, “Good luck with that lady. We defunded the police.”

The co-owners of the Missourian — Susan Miller Warden and Jeanne Miller Wood — wrote an apology that said they were “disgusted” by the cartoon and that it did not represent the paper’s staff. They added that the cartoon was “selected by the Editor/Publisher, Bill Miller Sr.”

Bill Miller Sr. just happens to be the father of the co-owners who published the apology. Later, the daughters wrote, “Even more painful for us is the fact that this hits close to home because this is our father. Many families have been having these painful discussions in the privacy of their homes. We unfortunately have to have this debate in a more public way.”

Then, stunningly, the daughters resigned in protest.

“We cannot continue to work for an editor who fails to see the pain this causes and we believe this issue is too important to not take a stand.”

Then dad posted an apology on the outlet’s website, writing, “I ran a nationally syndicated editorial cartoon in the June 10 edition of The Missourian that was racially insensitive. It was poor judgement on my part and for that I sincerely apologize.”

Miller Sr. explained the intention of running the cartoon was that “defunding police departments in the aftermath of George Floyd’s senseless killing is not the answer to resolving the racial inequities and injustices that have occurred in policing in this country.” He added the paper will no longer run cartoons by the artist.

Then, before the night was over, Miller Sr. resigned. As of Wednesday night, there was no word publicly if the daughters would then return.

Meantime, St. Louis TV station KSDK reached out to the artist of the cartoon, Tom Stiglich, who passed along the following statement:

“Thanks for writing and for giving me the opportunity to respond. First and foremost, may George Floyd rest in peace. He did not deserve to die like that. I do not condone racism or police brutality of any kind. It’s such a hostile environment we’re living in right now, one that needs more law and order, not less. The rioting and looting was extremely disheartening. That cartoon was based solely on violent crime numbers here in the US. To ignore that would be doing a disservice to the reader.”

Stiglich did not address exactly what made the cartoon problematic, which was a Black man being portrayed as the criminal.

Media tidbits

  • Samira Nasr has been named editor of the U.S. edition of Harper’s Bazaar. She becomes the first woman of color to hold that position in the magazine’s 153-year history. Nasr is the former fashion director at Vanity Fair. Nasr replaces Glenda Bailey, who stepped down in February after leading Harper’s Bazaar for 19 years.
  • Gannett has closed The Edinburg Review and Valley Town Crier in Texas. The papers were on the very southern tip of Texas, not far from the border with Mexico. The Rio Grande Guardian’s Dayna Reyes has the details.
  • President Trump is expected to be interviewed today in Dallas by Fox News’ Harris Faulkner. The interview will be taped at 5 p.m. and air sometime after that.
  • Emmanuel Acho, the former NFL player and University of Texas star who made a name for himself in broadcasting at ESPN, has been hired for a big job at Fox Sports 1. Acho will join the debate show “Speak for Yourself” alongside co-host Marcellus Wiley. The new show will debut June 22. Acho’s “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” — which dealt with issues of race — recently went viral on YouTube and led to Acho appearing on such shows as “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Good Morning, America.”
  • Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit who resigned from the board and requested his seat go to a Black candidate, is scheduled to be interviewed by Gayle King on today’s “CBS This Morning.” He is expected to tell King about how his young daughter played a role in his decision.
  • Just a thought: heartening to see the major news networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — dedicate time to live coverage of the George Floyd memorials in Minneapolis and Houston. All three sent their evening news anchors to those cities, and all three networks have held primetime specials about Floyd’s death and race in America. We will look back at this moment in time months and years from now and, based on what we’ve seen so far, realize the networks did their jobs responsibly.

Hot type

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool, File)

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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  • It’s remarkable that the Poynter account of the PPG reporter’s tweet omits all mention of the roughly 70 businesses that were damaged or looted in Pittsburgh before the tweet was shared.

    All 70 business owners could legitimately claim offense at the idea that having their property damaged and/or stolen compares to concert fans leaving trash behind in a parking lot. The tweet could pass as the reporter excusing the property damage and compromising the appearance of neutrality newspapers have favored during the fading objective news paradigm era.

    Of course, this has all occurred as the mainstream media reassess their commitment to objective-paradigm journalism. Journalism elites like Jay Rosen call for activism instead of balance and objectivity. And the movement’s apparently gaining momentum.