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.