Updated at 1:50 p.m.
On Thursday evening, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found itself again embroiled in controversy over its publisher’s views on the President of the United States.
A tweet sent from the paper’s verified Twitter account to its 148,000-some followers shortly before 10 p.m. detailed publisher and editor-in-chief John R. Block’s request to have “vulgar language” removed from the lede — the first paragraph — of an Associated Press story about President Donald Trump asking a group of bipartisan lawmakers, “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? Why do we want all these people from shithole countries?”
The person with the keys to the PG’s Twitter account on Thursday night sent up a red flag over Block’s request.
A follow-up tweet from @PittsburghPG said the publisher wanted the content to focus more on Trump’s rejection of DACA, even though the article itself focused on his use of the word “shithole” in describing Haiti and African countries while questioning why the U.S. would even want or prioritize immigration from those places.
At least one edition of Friday’s print Post-Gazette included an Associated Press article below the fold on A-1 containing the word “shithole” but not in the lede.
Articles on the Post-Gazette’s website, including two positioned high on the homepage as of 10:30 a.m. Friday, did include the word in their ledes. It’s unclear if Block’s request extended to articles on the paper’s website or just to its print edition.
A portion of the front page of the Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is pictured.THE INCLINE/COLIN DEPPEN
Other U.S. outlets, including the Washington Post, chose to use the word in their coverage of the president’s remarks. The Post’s executive editor, Marty Barron, explained, “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy.”
Emails to Block and PG Executive Editor David Shribman were not immediately returned Friday morning. A representative of the newsroom’s union declined comment.
Other media organizations have dealt with similar Trump-era tensions. At the Wall Street Journal, newsroom concerns about editor-in-chief Gerry Baker’s approach to Trump made their way to other outlets, with resulting reports of newsroom agitation and concerns that Baker, and reflexively the paper itself, was being too soft on Trump and too quick to downplay his controversies.
The Post-Gazette’s situation, meanwhile, was unusual in that it happened in real time in a public space — signaling what NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik called “real time transparency and apparent frustration.”
Meanwhile, that public space responded to Thursday’s tweet with no shortage of concern over Block’s request. The paper’s posts drew an immediate and forceful reaction from the Twittersphere, much of which urged the newsroom not to concede.
But the cause of this rift, or at least the underpinnings, extend beyond Thursday’s coverage.
Block has himself been the source of questions about the paper’s approach to Trump, particularly after a primary endorsement was teased and after Block was pictured hanging out on Trump’s private jet.
At the time, Deb Sacco, assistant to the PG’s chairman and publisher, told City Paper in an email, “Over the course of his career, Mr. Block has been photographed with many people.” An attached photo of Block shaking hands with Hillary Clinton followed, although City Paper said it was unclear when that picture was taken. Sacco declined to speak with The Incline this morning.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, some in the PG’s newsroom, concerned about what they believed to be a looming endorsement of Trump, told The Incline’s sister site Billy Penn that some Post-Gazette reporters were “worried about their paper’s credibility should it support the billionaire candidate who’s campaigned on a platform that includes deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants, building a wall between the United States and Mexico and banning Muslims from entering the country.”