The Voices Behind the Clash at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Alexis Johnson, an African-American journalist based in Pittsburgh, was barred from reporting on the Black Lives Matter protests in her hometown by her employer, it created a whole new uprising. She was told by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that a tweet she sent comparing damages from protests to damages from a Kenny Chesney concert evinced bias that would compromise her reporting. More than 100 of her Post-Gazette co-workers disagreed and tweeted #IStandWithAlexis, including Michael Santiago, a Dominican photojournalist with the paper who usually covers protests. For that, he and the other reporters who pledged support for Johnson were also forbidden from covering anything protest-related.

Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, says her tweet was “benign” and “innocuous” and has rallied the Guild to Johnson’s defense. This week, the Guild called on advertisers to “exert pressure” on the Post-Gazette to show their disapproval. And so far, it seems to be working:

  • The Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which sets the economic agenda for the greater Pittsburgh region, released a statement saying the Post-Gazette demonstrates “not only a failure in journalistic leadership, but also a deep insensitivity to the historical moment we are experiencing.”
  • The Pittsburgh Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the region, announced it was “pulling advertising commitments and upcoming promotional relationships” with the Post-Gazette.
  • Giant Eagle, the largest grocery store chain in Western Pennsylvania, announced yesterday that they would stop selling the newspaper in its stores.

Here’s some of what Johnson had to say about the incident in a June 8 press conference:

None of you should be here today. We should all be covering one of the biggest moments of our generation. Instead, we’re here talking about another issue of racism, diversity and discrimination on another level. I was just very upset and frustrated when I was told that I was taken off of coverage of the protests because of a tweet, that I thought was funny, that I thought was clever, that I thought was food for thought. I was told that I violated our social media policy, which in fact doesn’t exist. They’re just a set of guidelines that the Guild never agreed to.

Yesterday, Post-Gazette executive editor Keith C. Burris penned an editorial arguing that Johnson’s protest coverage ban had nothing to do with her race, and doubling down on the idea that her tweet exhibited bias — but without explaining what the bias was toward or against.

“[N]o fair person could make the case that our actions were race-based. And we will not apologize for upholding professional standards in journalism or attempting to eliminate bias,” Burris wrote in defense of the newspaper. He did not respond to a CityLab request for an interview.

CityLab did speak with Johnson, Santiago, and Newspaper Guild President Fuoco about not just the controversy, but also the pressure of multiple racial shocks to their physical and mental well-being. We also spoke with Tereneh Idia, an award-winning black journalist for the Pittsburgh City Paper who regularly writes about how racism manifests not only in the media landscape, but throughout the city at large.

Idia’s voice was also lost for a moment when the City Paper had to suspend her column because they couldn’t pay her — the coronavirus pandemic crippled the alt-weekly’s finances such that they had to pause assigning work to contributing writers and freelancers. City Paper has since obtained a media grant, which would allow Idia to write again. But for the past few weeks, Pittsburgh was short yet another black voice during one of the most critical times in the city’s history.

Alexis Johnson, Post-Gazette reporter

Alexis Johnson (Shantale Davis)

Given all that’s going on — George Floyd, the protests, the pandemic, your collision with the Post-Gazette — how are you doing mentally and emotionally?

I’m overwhelmed. It’s not something I feel like experiencing. I’d rather be out there doing my job. But I’m super happy people are supporting me and validating my feelings when I felt I was being treated unfairly. It’s helping me feel seen and heard. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for all the support, but also frustrated that this is happening, that I became the story.

What were your expectations for your role at the Post-Gazette when you first started there two years ago and what are the expectations for your role now as you understand it?

In October 2018 I came to Pittsburgh to work at the Post-Gazette as its digital news editor. I later moved from the web team to a reporter role [at my own request] to cover viral, trending news — basically to scan social media to see what people are discussing and to report on that. They had me start at 6:30 in the morning to see what people were talking about and then use that to write stories to increase our digital audience. I thought that definitely would’ve been the case for the George Floyd protests.

At your press conference, you sounded like you didn’t know if you wanted to stay in Pittsburgh. Is that what you were trying to convey?

I don’t have plans to leave the Post-Gazette. The issue is this is possibly the largest civil rights movement moment since the 1960s, and I want to be able to report and share these stories on my home turf, in my hometown. That’s why I was excited about switching from the web desk to reporter. I’d be lying if I said it’s not going to be uncomfortable staying here, but the Guild and I have only been wanting to put this to rest.

But looking at the stats from the recent report that came out saying Pittsburgh was the least livable for black women, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make any connection between my company here and the city. This happens not just in newsrooms, but I’m sure in other offices and industries in Pittsburgh as well.

Growing up here, did it feel like a most unlivable city for you?

What’s interesting is growing up here I didn’t really notice the lack of diversity, or it’s so small I didn’t notice how much of a minority I was until I moved out of the city. Philadelphia [where she earned a Masters degree in journalism from Temple University] has a larger black population and is more diverse, but moving back to Pittsburgh as an adult and knowing more things and seeing more things in the world, I did see the things spoken of in the report — things I didn’t notice before because I just thought that’s what things were. I was used to being the only black person in the classroom or in the restaurant, or in the room. In Philadelphia, that was almost never the case.

Michael Santiago, Post-Gazette photojournalist

MIchael Santiago

You were tear-gassed and almost arrested while shooting the protests, before they took you off. Tell us how you felt in those moments.

The thing about that is I wasn’t targeted for following a group of protesters. I was going where the police were telling us to go. They were telling us, “Go here, go this way,” and we went the way they told us to go, but they still tear-gassed us. So I spent maybe five minutes trying to recover from all of that. I couldn’t see. I was choking. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes were burning. I felt like I was going to pass out. Then someone gave me a bottle of water and poured it all over my face. But I was still having difficulty breathing.

That’s when I told the cop that I was media. I’m even flashing my press credentials, but they said, “Well, if you don’t leave from here, you will be arrested.”

I was worried about being put in jail where people are testing positive for Covid. I felt like, I knew people who’ve been tear-gassed and they all recovered after a while, so I figured I’d be fine after a couple of hours. I just didn’t want to get arrested and put in a confined space where a lot of people are positive for Covid.

How did it feel to be threatened even though you showed your right to be there as press?

It’s been frustrating. The good thing is seeing our co-workers at the Post-Gazette have our back. They silenced Alexis first, and I came to bat for her, and then the rest of the newsroom joined in. This was dope. But mentally I’m still dealing with the fact that America’s protesting because of the death of another black man, and I’m a black journalist having to cover this again. Now I’m being barred from covering this, and I feel distressed knowing that I can’t cover one of the biggest stories that’s going on right now. That’s just where my head has been at, just distressed. I’m sick to my stomach. There’s a movement happening and things are changing rapidly everywhere. It’s not just black people. It’s white people, Latino people, everybody is out there protesting. I’m sick that I can’t go out there and contribute to this the way I know how, as an image-maker. That’s depressing.

What I hear you saying is despite your tribulations, you still want to be a journalist and serve the public.

It’s not just about being a photojournalist, it’s about being a black photojournalist. And now that’s even more important because when I take off my press pass and put my cameras down, I’m just another black man that can be treated just like anybody else. But at the same time, it doesn’t matter that I have a camera and a press pass; I had that last week and you see how they still treated me. If I wasn’t working, I would be out there protesting myself. It’s like that viral video of the black National Guardsman who’s standing there while the crowd is chanting, “I’m black and I’m proud,” and he’s saying it with them. Honestly, that’s me when I’m out there photographing. I’m hearing the protests and all the songs that they are singing. I’m whispering them because I’ve been out there so long I’ve memorized the songs.

Having been here two years, do you feel that it is a “most livable city” as some rankings have dubbed it?  

I laughed when that came out, specifically because when it did, I was already deeply embedded in a project on child poverty across Allegheny County, and the majority of the neighborhoods we were working in were primarily black. So I knew right away — most livable for who? Because I’m not seeing that. One of the reasons I never go out [to bars, clubs] is because wherever I go, I don’t see anybody who looks like me. So who are you trying to attract? Because it’s not the people I’m reporting on. They’re not experiencing any of that. Especially not black women, and we saw that with how we’re seeing Alexis treated.

Tereneh Idia, columnist for Pittsburgh City Paper

Tereneh Idia

You just officially started working as a journalist in the city two years ago. What have been your overall observations of how Pittsburgh and its media treats race?

The way that Pittsburgh talks about itself is very much through a white-led media lens. And there’s this really strong energy and narrative that supports “the most livable city” mythology. There’s a lot of black-and-yellow flag waving. I’m often told we have to boost Pittsburgh because we’re on the rise and we need to come together. But again in coming together, it’s through this white umbrella. It’s  not even Pittsburgh, it’s Whitesburgh, and the stories and the framing, the icons, the symbols are all coming from a very white place. To try to attempt to tell stories from a multicultural black or brown framework, you’re dealing with a white gatekeeper at some point.

What has your experience been like navigating your own media tribulations amidst a pandemic and mass protests.

The pandemic just adds another layer, the protests add another layer. And for the most part, the media outlets in Pittsburgh are not set up for really supporting black journalists. There is not a framework or a foundation to understand the black experience and to support black journalists.

Were you surprised when you heard about what happened to Alexis Johnson and Michael Santiago?

It’s one of those things where, you know, things happen and it’s so believable, but then it’s so unbelievable at the same time. The thing that’s been the most interesting for me as an observer is just seeing the way that some of the white journalists at the Post-Gazette have had their world shaken. This whole changing the rules and moving the goalposts are all the things that we know happens when you’re black, because we’ve experienced it. Our whole life is something that they’re seeing now. And they’re really, really surprised. Like, they’re really shocked. And that for me is so interesting to watch because it just shows how different our experiences are.

It’s emblematic of exactly what happens when you’re black in Pittsburgh. Any time you try to do anything, the rules change, and instead of doing the right thing, a lot of times they will just double down on being wrong. All the rules are applied differently if you’re black, and the hypocrisy of it is just so evident. But that hypocrisy based on race is so American. It is exactly what America is about.

How are you feeling mentally and emotionally about all that’s happening?

So, even in my design work, I’m really focused on creating community, centering black and brown and indigenous people, using design as a way to free each other and to dismantle systems that are not serving us, that are built on our backs. Because right now we’re serving this really small minority of people. But this morning — I usually take walks or ride my bike — but I was too scared to go out last week. Today was my first day that I took my little walk. I’m very mindful that I’m vocally against the police. I’ve written about it. I’ve said it out loud, tweeted it. So I am fearful. I can’t lie about that.

But I also think about my grandparents who had to protect their family against Pinkerton guards who were trying to intimidate my grandfather, who was a union organizer and a coal miner. So for me, there’s always been the need to protect and the need to be vigilant. It’s just a legacy that we have to live under, and hopefully we can change that so that we really do have freedom.

Michael Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, and Post-Gazette reporter

Michael Fuoco, left, interviewed by local news outlet. (Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh)

Do you agree with Post-Gazette executive editor Keith Burris that Johnson’s tweet exhibited some kind of bias?

You notice in her tweet she doesn’t mention the city of Pittsburgh in it. She doesn’t say anything about white people. I saw it and my reaction was I thought it was really clever, witty, and thought-provoking. I may have even retweeted it. I never thought there was any problem with her doing that. I thought it was a really interesting perspective coming from the black experience. It was not controversial. It was benign, innocuous.

Just so we’re clear, Alexis hadn’t covered any protests yet when they took her off. We had protests the weekend when she wasn’t working. She came in on Monday morning and pitched four or five stories that were protest-related, and that’s when they said don’t do anything until they talk to her. That’s when they told her she couldn’t do anything protest-related. So she hadn’t covered it yet. It was like, going forward you can’t cover anything that’s related to the protests.

When you spoke with Post-Gazette management, how did they articulate their feelings about her tweet?

They said that it showed her bias, and my response was: But are there two sides to racism? She doesn’t in any way demean anybody. I think because it went viral, that’s what got their attention. They told us and told her that it basically disqualified her from any coverage going forward about the killing of George Floyd and systemic racism. And traditionally we have very few black journalists. I think their voices need to be heard. They have the lived experience. We have a 90% white newsroom, which I’m a part of. We should be adding black journalists, not taking them away.

If it had been a white person, you know, we would have objected to the company also, but the fact that it was a black person and they were barring her from covering the biggest civil rights story in a generation in our country, we felt was just ridiculous, unjustified and really hurtful. I can’t understand it and it’s wrong. It’s wrong on a moral level at wrong on a journalistic level, and it’s wrong on a contractual level.  

How do you feel as a white journalist in this moment?

I feel like I’m living in some kind of parallel universe, because this stuff is not supposed to be happening 2020. It shouldn’t be happening at any time, but, you know, it’s just of all times for them to be taking this kind of stance, to silence coverage of black protest, systemic racism, because the newsroom is supporting a black co-worker who unfairly and not justifiably was taken off of any coverage of black issues — it’s just, I just can’t wrap my head around that.

You’ve worked at the Post-Gazette for decades — have you seen anything like this before?

I’ve never seen anything like this. We told them they didn’t have to go down this road. Just let her pitch stories and you can take them or not take them. Don’t put any kind of handcuffs on them. That was a really bad decision they made and they’re now exponentially compounding it. And that’s why you’re seeing the uprising in the newsroom. That’s why you’re seeing the uprising on social media, because you don’t have to be a professional journalist to know that they’re discriminating against a black woman who should be out there covering it. Who better to cover the black experience than somebody who has lived that experience?

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