The publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette paid a “bizarre” visit to the newsroom at around 10 p.m. Saturday, according to newsroom employees who witnessed the events.
“The whole scene was just appalling,” said night cops reporter Andrew Goldstein, who first heard Block as he was walking back to his desk from the breakroom. “As I got closer, I heard raised voices, yelling, what sounded like banging on the walls, I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening.”
Other newsroom employees said in written statements that John Robinson Block showed up at the office with his young daughter, and walked over to a sign union members pinned to the bulletin board that read “Shame on the Blocks!” amidst ongoing contract negotiations.
“He shouted that he wanted a picture of himself and his daughter taken in front of the Guild sign and demanded it run on the ‘front page of tomorrow’s paper,’” wrote web editor Marianne Mizera.
“He fervently demanded the photos be taken NOW, right away and forcefully grabbed his daughter’s forearm, pulling her into the picture as she tried her best to pull away from him,” Mizera wrote. “She was crying, shaking and pleading with her father that she did NOT want to be in ANY photograph.”
“It was a really desperate kind of scene,” said Goldstein. He recalled Block was acting erratically, pacing back and forth. His hair was disheveled, he was kicking the wall below the bulletin board.
“Mr. Block has had these kind of temper tantrums before, but nothing like this. This was bizarre, erratic behavior that was frightening because we didn’t know what he would do next especially in regard to his daughter, and that was the scariest thing about it.”
Goldstein said the publisher kept making the same points. He shouted about how much money he’s lost on the paper, and talked about firing employees, including union leadership, and how he was “going to burn the place down.” Block also brought up David Shribman, who served as the Post-Gazette’s top editor for 16 years until he retired unexpectedly in December.
“He talked about – almost bragging – how he fired David Shribman and how he wanted to get every trace of David Shribman out of there,” Goldstein said.
Shribman did not respond to requests for comment.
Block also told his daughter, sometimes getting in her face, that she’s “not one of them” referring to newsroom employees.
The paper’s managing editor, the head of HR, and union leadership were called in that night. Management was eventually able to calm Block down. About an hour and a half after arriving, Block and his daughter left.
“I know there are people wondering why the police weren’t called, and I get that,” Goldstein said. “I kind of regret that now that I think about it, not doing more. It was just so shocking. We were paralyzed in shock, I think we all were.”
In the days afterward, union leadership asked the company to deactivate Block’s employee badge or that he consent to a search for weapons. Neither seemed to have occurred, and Block returned to the office on Wednesday.
Block and the company did not respond to WESA’s requests for comment, but Allan Block, J.R.’s brother, released a statement to the online publication Next Pittsburgh.
“Block Communications regrets if anyone present may have misconstrued what occurred as anything other than an indication of strong concern and support for the legacy and future of the Post-Gazette.”
“We can’t accept them saying that nothing happened,” said Mike Fuoco, reporter and president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. “Something very serious happened and they need to deal with the consequences of that."
But in a new statement on Thursday evening, the company refuted the union's claims.
Well, BCI is putting out the trash again today. Here is the latest nonsense from a company that has no regard for its employees and continues to forget that it can’t pull the wool over the eyes of people dedicated to the truth.
— Jonathan Silver (@jsilverinpgh) February 15, 2019
"We disagree with the characterization of Saturday evening's events as expressed by the newspaper guild," the company wrote. The statement went on to say that "the Publisher expresses his sincere regrets over his conduct that evening and did not intend his actions to upset anyone."
The Guild responded, saying "nothing could be further from the truth ... despite saying it conducted a "review," that certainly DID NOT include any interviews with the more than a dozen Guild witnesses to Block's out-of-control behavior," the statement continued. "Moreover, the photographs and videotapes that both BCI and the Guild possess corroborate witness reports and are most disturbing. They show Block terrorizing his daughter and his unhinged tirade. How this indisputable evidence is being ignored by BCI is beyond comprehension."
The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday. The complaint said that Block violated federal labor law by threatening employees with job loss or shop closure for union activities.
This isn’t the first time a newspaper owner has fought with a union or tried to advance his own political beliefs.
“We’re living in a very difficult time for newspapers, and I think that’s the context [for Block’s behavior]” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. “But it’s very unusual for an owner to kind of flip out in a public way.”
Edmonds says there are benefits of family owned newspapers. Good owners are sensitive to the needs of their community. But it’s a double-edged sword.
“The owner is the owner, and you can’t really pick a good one if you’re the city or the staff,” he noted.
Last year, the editorial page shifted notably to the right, and faced accusations of racism. Political cartoonist Rob Rogers was fired after a string of his illustrations were critical of President Trump. The paper cut back on print circulation, and a contract fight with the union continues.
“It’s hard to ignore something like this,” said reporter Andrew Goldstein. “Reporters and journalists never want to be part of the story. Unfortunately, at the Post-Gazette we have now, several times. But … we’re just going to keep going as long as the doors are open, and that’s all we really can do.”