Pittsburgh Post-Gazette publisher refuses to print in-house criticism of ‘Reason as racism’ editorial

The list of critics grows: Newsroom employees, former journalists, two foundations — and the publisher’s own family and friends.

Lexi Belculfine / The Incline

Earlier this week, two letters to the editor were sent to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Both included forceful and intimate condemnations of an editorial that ran in the paper Monday.

Neither will appear in the more than 100,000 copies of the paper sold throughout the city today or any day, for that matter.

That’s because Publisher and Editor-in-Chief John R. Block won’t allow it.

“It’s simply that the editor-in-chief (Block) declined to publish them. He didn’t provide an explanation. He just said ‘no.’ I’m not privy to the decision-making process on that,” John Allison, editor of the Post-Gazette’s editorial page and a member of its editorial board, told The Incline on Wednesday.

Block’s decision not to run the letters to the editor, one submitted by the union representing more than 150 of the paper’s current newsroom employees and one submitted by more than two dozen former Post-Gazette employees, marked the latest chapter in an ongoing and increasingly public rift between the paper’s ownership and the paper’s staff.

Both letters to the editor were highly critical of Block’s decision to run an editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. Day titled “Reason as racism…” The editorial compared racism to McCarthyism and included the line, “We need to confine the word ‘racist’ to people like Bull Connor and Dylann Roof.”

Allison told The Incline on Tuesday that the timing was not deliberate.

As for how the piece ended up in print, Allison echoed the same logic in Block’s decision not to run the letters, saying, “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 [John R. Block] 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.’”

Block is head of the editorial boards at both papers and the final authority on what content is published under their bylines.

Both letters to the editor decried the column as dangerous, unfit for print and an affront to former and current employees alike, as well as to the Post-Gazette’s many readers.

Block’s refusal to run the letters was confirmed Wednesday evening, prompting the following tweet from the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh’s public account (created this month), a tweet that Mayor Bill Peduto himself shared.

Even Block’s family and friends issued a letter to the editor that was highly critical of the piece and which described it as an offense to the “socially conscious” legacy of longtime publisher William Block Sr.

The letter from Block’s family appeared in the paper today. Letters to the editor from readers, both critical and supportive of the “Reason as racism” piece, have also run this week.

John R. Block has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The Incline.

But his approach to President Donald Trump has raised eyebrows both inside and outside of the Post-Gazette before.

Those concerns were piqued during the 2016 presidential election, with a possible Post-Gazette endorsement of Trump teased and photos emerging of Block and then-candidate Trump on the latter’s private jet.

Then, earlier this month, Block’s insistence that the word “shithole” be scrubbed from the first line of a story about the president’s use of the word in reference to countries in Africa and to Haiti prompted a tweet from the paper’s official account raising the red flag.

Meanwhile, the fallout from this week’s publication of the “Reason as racism” column continues.

The Post-Gazette itself reported on Wednesday that Democratic Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor hopeful Aryanna Berringer would not be seeking the paper’s endorsement in response to the piece.

Other political candidates have indicated they would be following suit.

And the paper’s handling — or rather Block’s handling — of this fallout has also engendered criticism from other members of the Fourth Estate.

The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation on Wednesday called the editorial “ill-formed, unintelligent and lacking in racial sensitivity.”

“While it’s unusual for journalists to respond to an editorial in their own paper, it’s also unusual for news organizations to print editorials like the one that appeared in the Post-Gazette,” said Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chairperson with the Society of Professional Journalists.

“I think what we’re seeing is the journalists of the paper saying these views don’t represent their community and don’t represent what they believe is the truth.”

Seaman said this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“…press in the United States has a long history of furthering the cause of civil rights — as explained in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Race Beat. Additionally, I think it’s smart for the journalists to speak through their union since it provides some job protection. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says journalists should speak up when they see questionable behavior — including within their own newsroom. That can be a difficult principle to live up to in an age when many companies might be inclined to fire or layoff ‘troublesome’ employees. A union letter reduces that risk.”

The union representing Post-Gazette newsroom employees, The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh – CWA Local 38061, acknowledged their public condemnation of the “Reason as racism” piece as an unusual move.

“As a matter of course, the Guild does not weigh in on editorial positions, but this piece is so extraordinary in its mindless, sycophantic embrace of racist values and outright bigotry espoused by this country’s President that we would be morally, journalistically, and humanly remiss not to speak out against it,” the union’s letter to the editor reads.

“This editorial is a blight on the 231 years of service the Post-Gazette has provided its readers. Over its long life, it has railed against racism and supported civil rights and justice for all. Given this history, the shameful and unconscionable editorial that ran on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of all days, is an abomination that cannot go without condemnation from journalists committed to fairness, accuracy and decency.”

Block’s decision not to run the Guild’s letter was the subject of vociferous criticism on Wednesday as well.

Seaman said that while it’s the paper’s right not to print a letter to the editor, he questions “the point of an editorial section if there is no community engagement.”

“I think the editorial and opinion pages should be a place for the paper and community to have an honest and civil discussion,” Seaman added. “Sometimes that means community members will disagree with each other and the paper’s editorials. If someone is not comfortable with that fact, the news business is probably not a great fit for that person.”

As stated above, the paper has run letters from readers responding to “Reason as racism,” but Block’s refusal to allow in-house critiques to also appear in print raises questions, questions that have yet to be answered.

Unrelated, but worth noting, there is currently a case pending before the National Labor Relations Board involving an unfair labor complaint filed by the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh against the Post-Gazette’s owners at the Toledo, Ohio-based Block Communications, Inc. The complaint involves the union’s objection to changes in health care coverage for Post-Gazette newsroom employees. It’s the first unfair labor complaint filed against the paper by the Guild in three decades or longer, a union spokesperson has said.

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

Updated 11:42 a.m. to include Pittsburgh Black Media Federation’s comment.

Updated 12:27 p.m. to reference additional letters from readers.