Reporters at the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette said the company racially discriminated against staffers, after management at the paper removed two black journalists from covering issues related to police brutality, and called upon advertisers to pressure the paper on their behalf.
“This is a national embarrassment to a newspaper that in 2019 received the Pulitzer prize,” said Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents 140 journalists at the Post-Gazette. “The Post-Gazette is on the wrong side of history. We’re on the right side of history. We have a responsibility to fight for our members, we need to fight for non-discrimination, equality, and journalistic ethics.”
Alexis Johnson and Michael Santiago were removed from coverage of protests related to the May killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The string of decisions by management began last week when one of Johnson’s tweets went viral, highlighting the wreckage left behind after a Kenny Chesney concert and jokingly compared it to looting that followed protests against police brutality.
Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!
.... oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops. pic.twitter.com/lKRNrBsltU
— Alexis Johnson (@alexisjreports) May 31, 2020
Johnson said she was told the tweet showed bias, but when she asked how it showed bias, she didn’t get a clear answer from management.
“They said it implied bias and that my opinion came through the tweet and the credibility of the newsroom would be called into question,” she said. “I didn’t even show a side. I’m glad that conversation is being had on social media, because that is what our job is, to get people to think critically about different sides of an issue and think critically about other people’s perspectives.”
Johnson said after the first weekend of protests, she came to work with story ideas to expand on the paper’s coverage, but has not been able to do so.
“Those were my friends, that was my community, those were my family members protesting all weekend long, and I had gathered a bunch of stories that I thought needed to be told,” Johnson said. “As a black woman, as a Pittsburgh native, as the daughter of a retired state trooper and a retired probation officer, it’s a shame that I wasn’t able to bring all of those experiences and my background to cover [the protests].”
Michael Santiago, a photojournalist at the paper, was scheduled to cover a protest over the weekend, and was removed from the assignment after he tweeted his support for Johnson. He was reassigned to a story about ice cream parlors and no one was assigned to cover the protests this weekend in his place. He said it’s been hard to sit and watch what’s happening from the sidelines.
“I’m disappointed that I’m not out there covering these protests,” Santiago said. “When I put my cameras down and put my press badges down, I’m a black man in America.”
Santiago still hasn’t been provided with an explanation for why he was removed from protest coverage.
The Guild has asked management to allow Santiago and Johnson to resume their coverage of the historic protests, and that the company apologize to the two reporters as well as the entire staff for the decision.
To pressure the company to remedy the situation, the Guild is asking advertisers to call the company and threaten to pull financial support.
“We call upon our advertisers those who pay the bills, to bring heat to this company...and tell them if they’re not going to rectify this situation, then they don’t have to see their dollars,” said attorney Joe Pass, Sr., who represents union members at the paper. “That’s the only thing I think they’ll ever understand.”
Joe Pass, Jr., who also represents the union, said there will be legal action going forward.
“These young individuals, based on the circumstances they described, in our view, have been discriminated against based on their race,” said Pass, Jr. “We intend to address that if it’s not rectified and maybe if it is, with the [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission].”
Management at the paper also removed two stories about a protest and Pittsburgh City Council discussing police brutality by reporters Lauren Lee and Ashley Murray, who also expressed support for Johnson on social media. After public outcry, those stories were re-added to the website after having been rewritten by management, according to Fuoco. Pass, Jr. said he also plans to pursue legal action on behalf of other union members who have been retaliated against for speaking out in support of Johnson.
For their part, both Johnson and Santiago said the incident has given them pause about management at the paper.
“Of course I want to get back to work, of course I want to pretend none of this ever happened because it shouldn’t have,” Johnson said. “But the reality is that it did, so to say that it wouldn’t make me a little bit uncomfortable to go back and sweep this under the rug would be a lie.”
The Post-Gazette did not respond to a request for comment.