Pittsburgh Editor Defends Sidelining Black Reporter, Citing Journalism Ethics

Jun 10, 2020
Originally published on June 11, 2020 3:43 pm

The executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette defended his paper in a fiery front-page essay Wednesday morning against charges that it had discriminated against a black reporter when it barred her from covering protests over racial justice.

"No fair person could make the case that our actions were race-based," executive editor Keith Burris wrote. "We will not apologize for upholding professional standards in journalism or attempting to eliminate bias."

Burris did not address an incident that occurred at the same time involving a white reporter who was allowed to file stories on the protests despite his own tweet disparaging a man accused of looting. He was allowed to file under the disparity was pointed out by the union, as NPR first reported on Monday. The newspaper's reporters have protested online en masse, and the union has filed a grievance saying the black reporter was disciplined without just cause.

The reporter, Alexis Johnson, posted her response early Wednesday afternoon. She rejected Burris' argument and called for his departure.

"The open letter was dismissive, insensitive, and worst of all, dehumanizing," she wrote in a statement she posted on Twitter. "Any leader who looks to gaslight its personnel when confronted with challenges to managerial decisions is not fit to remain in a position of power."

Johnson previously told NPR she believes managers' decisions were influenced by race.

Newsrooms nationwide are now grappling with questions of racial equity. Top editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times were forced out after publishing provocative writing that provoked angry responses from their own journalists. At the Los Angeles Times, editor Norman Pearlstine has promised to hire more black and Latino journalists and to review the paper's coverage of the movement against police brutality spurred by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The Wall Street Journal this week reassigned the column of its former top editor from the news pages to the opinion pages after a formal complaint from Journal staffers over his column on violence toward black Americans.

The episode in Pittsburgh began in late May, when Johnson, a 27-year-old reporter who is black and a Pittsburgh native, tweeted a satiric comparison of damage caused by looters to the stadium lots trashed by fans of country singer Kenny Chesney. The next day, reporting for work, Johnson pitched numerous angles to cover protests and vandalism in the city. Instead, senior editors, led by managing editor Karen Kane, told her that she had shown editorial bias and would not be covering the protests at all.

Burris and Kane have not responded to NPR's detailed requests for comment. But in his essay, Burris wrote, "What our editors did do was remind colleagues of a longstanding canon of journalism ethics: When you announce an opinion about a person or story you are reporting on you compromise your reporting. And your editor may take you off the story."

He continued: "You can disagree with that ethic, or dismiss it as pass[é]. But you cannot, fairly, call it racism."

Burris has dismissed concerns about racism in the past as well. In an editorial for the paper in January 2018 about criticism of President Trump, Burris wrote that accusing someone of racism is tantamount to "the new McCarthyism."

In Wednesday's essay, Burris confirmed that the newspaper had similarly sidelined Michael Santiago, a black photographer who had retweeted Johnson's offending tweet in support of her. And the executive editor acknowledged that 80 other journalists, mostly white, had also been forbidden to cover the protests in Pittsburgh when they retweeted her line in solidarity. Journalists at the Post-Gazette say the paper additionally removed links to their recent stories involving issues of racial injustice and unrest.

Burris called the objections by his own staffers "propaganda" adding, "It was called racism as a tactic in a labor dispute, and that is repugnant." The newsroom, which is represented by the NewsGuild-CWA, has worked without a union contract since spring 2017.

On the same day that Johnson was told she could not cover the protests, editors rebuked a 28-year-old white reporter, Joshua Axelrod, for one of his tweets. He had used a vulgarity to characterize a man suspected by police of looting. He told NPR that he had asked whether that tweet, which he deleted, would affect his assignments. He was told that it would not. He wrote about an issue involving the protests the next day.

The union noted the disparity in discussions with editors about Johnson last week. Shortly after, they informed Axelrod he would be dropped from related coverage as well. In an interview, Axelrod said he believes he made a journalistic mistake but that Johnson and Santiago did not.

Late Monday, midlevel editors asked Johnson to fly to Houston to cover George Floyd's memorial. Early Tuesday, she was asked to cover it virtually. Johnson declined both, according to the union, saying the managing editor, Karen Kane, had not told her that the prohibition on her involvement in coverage of the protests sparked by Floyd's death had been lifted.

Burris has championed notions of civility in the newsroom, both in his current role and earlier, when he was the newspaper's editorial page editor. Several journalists at the paper told NPR they felt that was intended to stifle debate. He has disavowed such an effect.

Back in 2018, in an unsigned editorial, Burris wrote that Trump's critics could not accuse him of racism, even when he called African nations "s***hole countries."

"It has become not a descriptive term for a person who believes in the superiority of one race over another, but a term of malice and libel," Burris wrote.

Clarification: 6/11/20

An earlier version of this article identified Michael Santiago as African American. He has said he is Afro-Latino and identifies as black.

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