The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s baffling editorial decision

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IN EARLY MARCH, Block Communications—an Ohio-based media company that owns the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettemerged those newspapers’ editorial page operations and appointed Keith Burris to lead them. The two papers would share the same editorial page—“an effort that, to my knowledge, has never before been tried in American journalism,” wrote Burris, who previously edited the Blade’s editorial pages. “For all of us, this is going to be fun.”

Many readers in Pittsburgh disagree. Burris’ appointment comes after an unsigned editorial, published in both papers in January, roiled readers in both cities and drew pointed criticism in Pittsburgh—from current and former Post-Gazette newsroom employees, community foundations, members of the publisher’s family, and other journalists. (Disclosure: The author was a staff reporter at the Post-Gazette from January 2012 to September 2015, and signed a letter from former Post-Gazette employees who objected to the editorial.)

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The unsigned “Reason as Racism” editorial appeared first at the Blade and then ran in the Post-Gazette on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (The papers have previously run each other’s editorials from time to time.) The editorial cautioned that charges of racism are “the new McCarthyism,” and argued for the “need to confine the word ‘racist’ to people like Bull Connor and Dylann Roof.” According to the editorial’s rationale, “racist” cannot function as a useful, evidence-backed descriptor, but only as “a term of malice and libel.”

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh attributed ultimate responsibility for the editorial to publisher John Robinson Block, who previously asked that Post-Gazette staff scrub President Donald Trump’s “shithole countries” comment from an AP story slated for the front page.

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A week later, Burris was identified as the author of the unsigned editorial, which he defended in a subsequent column. “What happens if you ‘think outside the box,’ about matters of identity conviction, elevated to an almost theocratic level?” asked Burris. “You get called out. You get called a racist yourself, and maybe even, for good measure, homophobic or misogynistic.” A week after that, he appeared to call for a return to a more faith-based society in a piece that also blamed “the 1960s and feminism” for what he views as today’s “coarse culture.” (Feminism, wrote Burris, “was a step back toward barbarism, not away from it. It is a ridiculously inconsistent ideology: Let us be feral but victims too.”)

Those readers repelled by Burris’ editorials were likely shocked by a March column in which Burris introduced himself to his Pittsburgh audience and outlined his vision for the merged editorial pages. “Our search is a search for insight, which means that one has to be willing to risk giving offense,” wrote Burris. He also endorsed “a resistance to othodoxies [sic], ideologies, and -isms,” and claimed that “the opinion writer must have roots, but no permanent alliances.”

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How this all will work in practice remains to be seen. Burris and Block did not respond to requests for comment. CJR also reached out to John Allison, who was named Post-Gazette’s editorial page editor in 2016, to inquire about the new arrangement, but Allison declined to comment.

Burris’ appointment, however, seems destined to sustain the outrage of Post-Gazette readers and staffers, many of whom were alarmed and offended by Burris’ January columns. The Post-Gazette’s new editorial page arrangement indicates the paper may not yield to their concerns.

 

I disagree with the ed board on Trump, Saccone, race, and many other things. The ed board doesn’t speak for me.

 

THE “REASON AS RACISM” EDITORIAL is not the first time in recent memory the Post-Gazette’s opinion pages caught blowback from its readership.

In June 2015, the paper published a column by now former associate editor Jennifer Graham about Caitlyn Jenner, which bore the headline “Caitlyn Jenner is Still a Mister.” Graham misgendered Jenner throughout the piece by referring to her with male pronouns, and suggested it was not unreasonable for people to say that Jenner, who had recently come out as transgender, “would have headlined the tragic freak shows in carnivals of old.” Reached by media reporter Jim Romenesko, Graham brushed off the criticism as “all in a day’s work.” Tom Waseleski, then the Post-Gazette’s editorial page editor, defended Graham’s column to Romenesko as “well-written and worth publishing.” Graham left the Post-Gazette in December 2015 for a job with the Deseret News.

The Post-Gazette published several letters critical of Graham’s column. Jay Brown, director of the Human Rights Campaign, called Graham’s column “despicably offensive and inaccurate,” and asked that Graham be “relieved of her role as a columnist.” While some Post-Gazette staff members talked about withholding their bylines from stories in protest, no byline strike occurred at that time.

A few months later, former PG columnist Jack Kelly wrote a column titled “Remnants of Slavery,” in which he posited that black Americans descended from slaves were “better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa.” Damon Young, the Pittsburgh-based editor of Very Smart Brothas, blasted the column as “shockingly offensive and unapologetically racist” (along with “factually inaccurate and structurally inept”). Waseleski again defended the PG’s writer, saying in a statement that columnists “speak for themselves and their own views—not for the Post-Gazette.” Kelly and Waseleski both retired in 2016.

Longtime Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman was a member of the Post-Gazette’s editorial board from 1999 to 2016. He wrote a column for the January 16 edition of the Post-Gazette titled “MLK’s Message Today: Resistance with Loving Kindness.” While the column did not specifically call out “Reason as Racism,” it refuted many of the editorial’s central arguments. “Unlike the racists of the past who luxuriated in the ugliness of their belief system,” wrote Norman, “today’s racists desperately want to come across as reasonable and fair-minded in their intolerance.”

Norman declined to comment about the current board’s decision-making process, or about Burris, whom Norman says he does not know. In an email, Norman cited the firewall between the editorial board and internal critics such as himself.

“As far as my perspective as a columnist is concerned, I can say what should be obvious: I’m not changing my liberal ways to fits with the publisher’s ethos,” Norman wrote. “I disagree with the ed board on Trump, [GOP Congressional candidate Rick] Saccone, race, and many other things. The ed board doesn’t speak for me.”

 

I think it is disappointing in a community newspaper that there wouldn’t be some deeper introspection and reckoning, for what that response means for its community mission.

 

FOR WHOM DOES THE POST-GAZETTE editorial board speak? The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents the rank-and-file members of the Post-Gazette newsroom, does not usually take official positions on Post-Gazette editorials, but its executive committee broke with tradition to condemn the editorial, in a response the paper declined to print. (Guild President Michael Fuoco declined to comment about Burris’ hiring.) Members of the Block family signed a letter that argued the editorial went against the values of the late Bill Block, and voiced gratitude that the former publisher “never had to read it.” Damon Young, the Very Smart Brothas editor who decried the 2015 “Remnants of Slavery” column, called out “Reason as Racism” as “the worst editorial you’ll read in a major newspaper this year.”

Community members spoke out as well. Grant Oliphant, president of the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, co-wrote a widely shared letter with Pittsburgh Foundation president Maxwell King denouncing the “Racism” editorial.

“I think it is disappointing in a community newspaper that there wouldn’t be some deeper introspection and reckoning, for what that response means for its community mission,” says Oliphant, who in an interview with CJR stressed his support for the First Amendment and his respect for the Post-Gazette news staff. “There are people in our community of all ilks who feel vulnerable and scared and under attack and demeaned and degraded by the rhetoric coming out of Washington, and I think there was a sense of betrayal that our newspaper wouldn’t stand up for them.”

Bill Moushey, a journalism professor at Point Park University who worked as a Post-Gazette investigative reporter from 1985 to 2009, says he doesn’t understand the rationale for putting Burris at the helm of the Post-Gazette editorial page. “The entire community has joined against [the “Reason as Racism” editorial],” he tells CJR. “The unions, the foundations, everybody.”

Block and Burris spoke with the Yale Daily News, in what appear to be their only interviews regarding the “Reason as Racism” backlash. (Block is a Yale alumnus.) In his comments, Block did not seem troubled by the criticism of the editorial, or concerns about the editorial page’s political leaning.

“A newspaper’s job is to comment on the issues of the moment, and that’s what we do,” Block told the Daily News. “Controversy goes right along with being an independent newspaper, and being an independent newspaper of course means that people on both sides are surprised at times when you take a position that they don’t think is consistent with other positions you’ve taken.” Burris told the paper he had discussed contemporary usage of the word “racist,” and added, “Sometimes you have to risk offending people to make people think.”

For now, it seems the outcry in Pittsburgh and beyond are not enough to make its editorial board think twice. “A newspaper is supposed to be the voice of a community,” says Moushey, the former Post-Gazette investigative reporter. “Not thumb their noses at us.”

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Kim Lyons is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other local and national publications. She was a 2015 Kiplinger Fellow in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University, and is co-host of The Broadcast Podcast, focused on amplifying women's voices.