The Post-Gazette’s racism problem isn’t new. A change in ownership can help solve it | Opinion

June 8, 2020 12:00 pm

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which brands itself right on its front page as “one of America’s great newspapers” is in dire need of an overhaul. Its company culture, if you can call it that, is dictated by a family of millionaires who inherited the paper and have spent the past decade decimating its reputation. 

The results of that culture were on embarrassing display last week, as one of the newspaper’s few Black reporters was abruptly removed from covering demonstrations protesting police violence against Black people. Alexis Johnson tweeted photos of the aftermath of a Kenny Chesney concert, an annual hedonistic ritual on Pittsburgh’s North Shore that draws mostly white partygoers who leave behind a disgusting mess

“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,” Johnson tweeted.

I mean, that’s funny. But PG management didn’t think so, deciding Johnson was biased and reassigning her from covering the protests. The paper also reassigned Pulitzer Prize-winning Black photographer Michael Santiago from covering the protests. And members of the PG Guild, who expressed support on Twitter for their colleagues saw their coverage of protests rewritten and their bylines removed from protest stories posted to the PG website.

This is a critical moment in American civil rights, and for the PG to sideline its journalists of color is unconscionable. 

But it’s not the first time the PG’s editorial voice has shown utter contempt for the Black community. 

In 2015, columnist Jack Kelly wrote an opinion piece titled “Remnants of Slavery” asserting that most Black Americans “are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.” 

In 2018 — on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day no less– the PG published its infamous “Reason as Racism” editorial, which defended President Donald Trump’s use of an expletive to describe developing countries. 

The backlash was swift and strong, with members of publisher John Robinson Block’s own family expressing their distaste. But no action was taken, no one was fired or demoted. In fact, roughly a year later, the PG promoted the author of that editorial, Keith Burris, to executive editor, a role that oversees the entire newsroom. 

So it’s no wonder that the tradition of racism within PG management continues; there is no one to check the publisher’s power, but plenty who enable his racist views. This is the same publisher who went on a rant in the newsroom last February and referred to people working there as “low class.” 

I worked at the PG for three years. It was the honor of my life to be hired by then-executive editor David Shribman, a journalist I greatly admired (and still do). I’ll be the first to admit I was not universally liked while I was there; I was an unapologetically pushy, loudmouthed member of the fledgling web team, at a time when many in the newsroom were fighting the use of social media and still viewed online content as inferior to print. 

I wrote a blog post about how older members of the newsroom were blocking opportunities for their younger counterparts, which went over like a lead balloon. I pushed back on the PG’s appalling track record on sexual harassment and tried to get changes made to its maternity leave policies.

I was mostly unsuccessful in my efforts, and I took a buyout in 2015 as I realized the toxic environment was affecting my health and likely stunting my career. 

 I only mention my experience as evidence that it’s not just a “few bad apples” situation at the PG, it’s a culture that’s rotten to the core, and has driven away many dedicated, hardworking journalists who could not tolerate the lack of accountability — about anything– from management. 

Yet, despite management’s repeated failures and mindless cost-cutting, the PG still has amazing journalists who care about their community. 

The newsroom won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for its empathetic coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shootings, which, as PG ace reporter Andrew Goldstein noted on Twitter, was enhanced by the input of the Jewish journalists in the newsroom, including himself and Shribman. It makes no sense, then, that the PG would not consider the contributions of its Black journalists just as valuable for coverage of the ongoing protests. 

Writing for Columbia Journalism Review last year, assistant professor of communication at Thomas Jefferson University Lettrell Crittenden found that racism is wearing down Pittsburgh’s reporters of color, noting that “Journalists experienced backlash when they voiced concerns about coverage and lack of diversity.”

That’s unacceptable. It’s time for the PG to clean house, and recruit more journalists of color to serve in leadership roles. They should start by replacing Burris and managing editor Karen Kane, who still have provided no explanation for how they have botched their protest coverage.

Over the past 48 hours, we’ve seen a few stunning developments at newspapers called out for their irresponsible, racially-insensitive coverage. The top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned after outcry within and outside the newsroom over a headline about vandalism equated property damage to the loss of Black lives. 

The editor of the New York Times editorial page resigned after publishing an op-ed (which he didn’t even read!) by U.S. Sen Tom Cotton, R-Ark.,  espousing the use of military troops to quell protests (fascism, anyone?). 

I’m hoping against hope that in the current environment, where the press is facing a reckoning for failing its Black journalists and readers, that the Post-Gazette will finally take action against those in management who continuously undermine the newsroom’s mission.

I still want to see the Post-Gazette succeed, not because its owners deserve it, but because the people in the newsroom deserve it, and Pittsburgh deserves it. 

The PG needs to evolve. Now’s the time. 

Correspondent Kim Lyons, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalist, covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications.