Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial on racism draws fire from foundations and dozens of former staffers

A Pulitzer Prize winner and Mayor Peduto’s comms chief have signed their name to a letter objecting to the editorial’s “content, tone and timing.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette office on the North Shore.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette office on the North Shore.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Updated at 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 17. 

Two major Pittsburgh foundations and 28 former employees of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette condemned an editorial on racism and President Donald Trump that the newspaper’s owner decided must run in the paper, and which happened to appear on Martin Luther King Day.

The editorial in question, titled “Reason as racism: An immigration debate gets derailed,” argues that accusations of racism — particularly as they relate to President Trump — have become perfunctory and an overused cliche that gets in the way of more productive discourse on subjects like immigration or DACA.

The former PG employees contend the piece minimized President Trump’s remarks about “nations of color” and attempted to set a dangerous standard for what should qualify as racism in modern day America.

A letter to the editor signed by dozens of those former staffers reads: “An editorial saying ‘so what’ to a president referring to African countries as ‘shitholes,’ and suggesting that the definition of racism be confined to the likes of racist mass-murderer Dylann Roof or segregationist sheriff Bull Connor, who set police dogs on civil rights demonstrators, basically surrenders the cause of civil rights.”

(Editor’s Note: William Toland’s phone number has been redacted in the letter embedded above.) 

The letter — signed by former employees and retirees of the Post-Gazette, including spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, Tim McNulty, and Pulitzer Prize winner Martha Rial — was submitted for publication as a letter to the editor on Tuesday. Whether the Post-Gazette will publish the letter remains to be seen.

“I can’t say yet if it it will run, but we have it. That’s really all I can say now,” said John Allison, editor of the Post-Gazette’s editorial page and a member of the paper’s editorial board.

“It’s a delicate situation and I can’t say we’re going to use it.” (Update: At midnight on Wednesday, Jan. 17, the Post-Gazette published on its website a separate letter to the editor objecting to the editorial.) 

Allison went on to say that this particular editorial came from Toledo, where the Post-Gazette’s sister paper, The Toledo Blade, and the pair’s ownership company, Block Communications, Inc., are both based. The sharing of editorial page content between them is a common practice, he said.

In this case, he added, “This one was given to us, and I’m choosing my words carefully here, it was decided…” He paused. “J.R. Block wanted that editorial in both papers, which is his right.”

John R. Block is a member of the family for whom the ownership company, Block Communications, Inc., is named. He is also head of the editorial boards for both papers and has the final say over the content they publish.

Allison added, “[J.R.] has the final say and that’s also common practice at any paper. You have the publisher who is the ultimate decider whether it’s the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. Every editorial page editor knows the publisher has the final word because they’re the owners and they set up the editorial board.”

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with The Poynter Institute, said it’s true that an owner can say “We gotta run this,” but that the practice has lost traction in an age of corporate ownership.

“Some chains, much larger chains like Gannett, think that’s a bad idea and they want the editorial boards or editorial page editors to decide.” The opposite is also happening at TV news organizations like the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal where owners are looking to exert more editorial control over content.

“It’s not terribly unusual for a publisher or owner to be a member of an editorial board,” Edmonds added. “It’s less usual, though, to have out-of-town ownership saying, ‘You have to run this under the byline of the editorial staff,’ which typically is allowed to make its own decisions.”

And while the Post-Gazette editorial board’s byline was carried on the “Reason as racism” piece, there was only one vote that mattered: John R. Block’s.

Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chairperson with the Society for Professional Journalists, said of this dynamic, “In general, editorials are viewed as the voice of the paper, which is usually that of the owner(s). I think the concern would be the byline of the editorial board. If the majority of the people listed on the editorial board disagreed with the decision to run the piece, it’s likely not right for it to carry the byline.”

At the Post-Gazette, Allison declined to discuss any deliberations or objections that may have occurred among the board around the “Reason as racism” piece, explaining, “That’s where I have to pull back and leave a little mystery in the process. I have to pull back on that because we don’t like to talk about our internal discussions. We just let the editorial speak for itself.”

He added, “I know many people disliked this editorial strongly and the functionality is that it came from — it was written in the Toledo Blade and the owner of the paper wanted it in just like that, and all the editorial page editor can do is … there’s nothing else to do, you just say ‘yes.’”  

Attempts to reach Block were immediately unsuccessful.

Carmen Lee, a longtime Post-Gazette reporter and editor who now works at the Heinz Endowments, was one of the 28 people who signed their names to the letter condemning the editorial as of Tuesday afternoon.

“I was definitely very disappointed when I read it,” Lee said of the piece. “It doesn’t reflect the paper I knew when I was working there for 20 years.”

For further comment, Lee referenced a joint statement filed by her current employer and the Pittsburgh Foundation, another influential city-based philanthropy, saying it, “very eloquently captured how I feel.”

That statement reads, in part: “The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has done our community and the cause of justice a grave disservice with its lead editorial, ‘Reason as Racism,’ published of all days on Martin Luther King Day, when we as a nation commemorate the ongoing fight to end racism in our country.”

The Post-Gazette editorial, which first ran on the website of The Toledo Blade on Friday, argues against concluding that Trump’s a racist — or an example of prejudice in power — in explaining or attempting to explain his presidential deeds and policy positions.

“If the president is wrong on immigration — on merit, on finding a balance between skilled and unskilled immigrants, on chain migration, on the lottery — let his opponents defeat him on these points, and not by calling him a racist,” the editorial reads. “If he is to be removed from office, let the voters do it based on his total performance — temperament as well as accomplishment — in 2020. Simply calling him an agent of the Russians, a nutcase or a racist is a cowardly way to fight.”

It continues, “We need to confine the word ‘racist’ to people like Bull Connor and Dylann Roof. For if every person who speaks inelegantly, or from a position of privilege, or ignorance, or expresses an idea we dislike, or happens to be a white male, is a racist, the term is devoid of meaning.”

Dennis Roddy, a former Post-Gazette staff writer, said the following in response:

“Saying racism should be restricted to Dylann Roof or Bull Connor changes the definition of racism in a way that makes progress impossible. Seriously, do they think today’s racism is dominated by people with automatic weapons and police dogs? No, it’s people in suits in comfortable suburbs or boardrooms who exclude. The racism that we have to fight these days is to some extent subtle, and to take the discussion off the table in that way is simply disastrous.”

The letter signed by Roddy and 27 others concludes by saying, “It [the editorial] is suggesting that ‘racist’ is an invalid term unless someone has met a standard so narrow that it excuses a discrimination that is little more than apartheid without the violence. Notably, racism is also saying these things in print, in a major newspaper, on Martin Luther King Day.”

In a rare move, The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh – CWA Local 38061, which represents 150 current Post-Gazette newsroom employees, has also submitted a letter to the editor decrying the “Reason as racism” column.

“Forever and a day we have not weighed in on editorials or op-ed pieces,” said Michael A. Fuoco, president of the union. “We feel that we respect the marketplace of ideas and how that functions. However, when bigotry and racism invade that marketplace, we have no option but to fight against it. It’s extraordinary that we find ourselves in a position of condemning an editorial in the newspaper that we work for and which we love and for which we have been proud to serve for 231 years. […] But the editorial is an abomination. We cannot stress enough how disappointed and humiliated we are that it ever saw print.”

Asked how many of the Guild’s members reached out following publication of the “Reason as racism” piece, Fuoco quipped, “I cannot count that high.”

The Guild says it’s still waiting to see if its letter to the editor will be published.

Trump has been a divisive figure not just nationally, but also within the Post-Gazette itself.

Just last week, an editorial dispute between the Post-Gazette’s newsroom and its publisher went public when a tweet from the paper’s official account raised a red flag over Block’s request that the word “shithole” be removed from the lead sentence of an article about the president’s use of the word. Trump reportedly uttered the word in describing Haiti and African countries he sees as undesirable sources of immigration. His comment was made during a closed-door meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office.

The president has since denied he used the word, while some of the Republican lawmakers present say he may have used another form of the word or none at all.

Trump also defended himself in speaking with reporters, insisting, “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

Meanwhile, other U.S. newspapers, including most notably the Wall Street Journal, have been the scenes of similar disputes involving the tone of presidential coverage in the Era of Trump.

At the Post-Gazette, newsroom concerns about the paper’s approach to Trump were piqued after a primary endorsement was teased and after Block was pictured hanging out on Trump’s private jet. A spokesperson for Block defended the photo opp, saying Block has been photographed “with many people” over the course of his career.

In the end, the Post-Gazette endorsed neither 2016 presidential candidate, instead comparing both in a way that some readers found to be hesitant and inconclusive or a “pseudo Trump endorsement.”

The Post-Gazette is the only remaining daily newspaper in circulation in Pittsburgh, with an average weekday print circulation of 104,274. It is one of the largest newspapers in the state.