The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board managed to offend just about everyone — including its own reporters and editors — after releasing a scalding hot take defending President Donald Trump’s immigration stance and his controversial comments about “shithole” countries.
The editorial board, in this case, consists of a separate group of employees from the rest of the Post-Gazette newsroom, with Publisher John Robinson Block (who was once caught hanging out with Trump on his private plane) having the final say over what gets published. The editorial also ran in the Toledo Blade, owned by Allan Block, John Robinson’s brother and president of the board of directors of Blade Communications, which owns both the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade.
They attempted to argue that the immigration debate had shifted from protecting Dreamers under DACA to whether Trump referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as “shitholes” was racist.
“It is not racist to say that this country cannot take only the worst people from the worst places and that we want some of the best people from the best places, many of which are inhabited by people of color. That’s not racism, it is reason,” the editorial argues.
The editorial very quickly transcended Pittsburgh and was received by many media types with raised eyebrows.
— VSB (@VerySmartBros) January 16, 2018
— Emily Ramshaw (@eramshaw) January 16, 2018
— El Flaco (@bomani_jones) January 15, 2018
“Calling someone racist is the new McCarthyism.” Y’all have lost your goddamn minds. https://t.co/tX45JWuvRP
— Ira Madison III (@ira) January 15, 2018
— The Root (@TheRoot) January 16, 2018
In addition to individuals expressing their distaste, The Heinz Endowment, a major local organization, released a statement from Endowment President Grant Oliphant condemning the editorial.
.@PittsburghPG has done our #community and the cause of #justice a grave disservice with its lead editorial, “Reason as Racism,” published of all days on Martin Luther King Day. The following is a public response co-signed by .@PittsburghFdn & .@HeinzEndow https://t.co/urNoO7sT5F pic.twitter.com/xBJCx0G3te
— The Heinz Endowments (@HeinzEndow) January 16, 2018
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto notably retweeted Oliphant’s “public response,” meaning that the most ostensibly powerful person in Pittsburgh officially stood against the city’s most prominent news source.
Aryanna Berringer, a Democratic candidate running for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, announced she would not seek the Post-Gazette’s endorsement because of the editorial.
The blowback was so strong that 28 former Post-Gazette employees wrote a letter to the editor (that the Post-Gazette has yet to publish) denouncing the piece’s handling of racism, including the fact it was published on Martin Luther King Day.
Proud to be among the ex- PG staffers to sign this letter. Will the PG print it? I guess we'll see.
Pittsburgh foundations, journalists call out Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for racist editorial https://t.co/FATyvghveX
— kim lyons (@SocialKimLy) January 16, 2018
The Post-Gazette editorial on racism was dead wrong. So is canceling your subscription because of that editorial. Don’t punish hard-working journalists for the foolishness of one family. Blame the real culprits: the Block brothers.
— Dennis Roddy (@dennis_roddy) January 16, 2018
“This is not the Post-Gazette we knew,” they lamented.
Confusion and Anger
Some locals weren’t particularly happy with the piece’s messages either.
“This piece is trying to confine racism to big acts, but these big acts stem from everyday racism — the crude names and the small acts,” Jessica Nath, a Duquesne University graduate who grew up right outside Pittsburgh, told MediaFile. “It’s necessary to call Donald Trump out on his racism because he’s using his position to normalize openly racist beliefs.”
Rachel Widany, who also grew up just out Downtown Pittsburgh, took issue not only with Trump’s language but also the piece’s contention that the term “racist” should be reserved for the likes of Dylann Roof and Bull Connor.
“Language that slowly chips away the humanity of others may be less overt than burning crosses or racial slurs, but it is no less insidious,” she told MediaFile. “Language matters because nuance matters, and it is not ridiculous to expect that the president of the United States speak more respectfully than your average person in a bar, as this author implies.”
Yelizaveta Kotova, a University of Pittsburgh law student working in Pitt’s Immigration Law Clinic, took umbrage with two sentences from the editorial: “Yes, we should take in unskilled refugees. We also want more Indian Ph.D.s and engineers.”
“The fact they used the term refugees is what makes this so extremely problematic,” she told MediaFile. “They’re no longer talking about immigrants; they’re talking about refugees. They’ve now delved into international law and our obligations to it, not just immigration law.”
She also disagreed with another assertion the editorial made.
“And when these authors say it’s ‘cowardly’ to call the president ‘an agent of the Russians, a nutcase or a racist,’ it isn’t cowardly,” she said. “It’s our right as citizens to question the highest elected office of our country.”
If this was the extent of the havoc wreaked by the editorial, the Post-Gazette could resume its normal routine relatively easily. But it appears that some in the newsroom felt the need to distance themselves from their employer.
As a Pittsburgh PG reporter, I'd like to make it very clear that this editorial represents the shameful state of our nation's race relations and in no way do I support or endorse this rhetoric.https://t.co/79SFapL7Rn
— Courtney Linder (@LinderPG) January 17, 2018
Withholding your byline is not exactly a profile in courage: Our guild contract specifically permits us to do so. But while editorials are published in the Post-Gazette's name, I can at least ensure they are not published in mine.
— Chris Potter (@CPotterPgh) January 16, 2018
I need to share that the opinions and editorials posted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette DO NOT represent the staff as a whole. The editorial "Reason as Racism" posted in Monday's paper is not a view I share with the editorial board nor any of my close co-workers.
— Alyssa Brown (@lyssa_marie_b) January 16, 2018
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh — which represents the newspaper’s 150 editorial employees — wrote a letter denouncing the Blocks’ editorial. According to a Guild tweet, John Robinson Block has refused to publish that letter on the Post-Gazette’s website or in print.
John Robinson Block, the @PittsburghPG publisher who was behind the reprehensible editorial “Reason for Racism,” will not allow this letter to the editor to appear in the newspaper. We offer it here. pic.twitter.com/dTHbcAorTn
— Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh 🗞 (@PGNewsGuild) January 17, 2018
As Politico Magazine Editor-In-Chief Blake Hounshell put it:
Wow, the editorial staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is in full revolt against its owner. https://t.co/bvUv3YuiBN
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) January 18, 2018
The situation is reminiscent of the rift between the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board and some of its writers, who jumped ship over, according to the Guardian, “pressure from management to normalize Trump.”
One Post-Gazette employee spoke to MediaFile about his thoughts on the editorial.
“Editorials are only useful when they compile and analyze larger issues surrounding a particular question,” said Post-Gazette Web Designer Matt Moret. “There was no larger consideration here. The sole focus was whether ‘shithole’ countries actually exist, rather than being about why those particular countries were labeled as ‘shitholes.’”
I alluded to it yesterday, but this Post-Gazette editorial has been hanging over my head since I first saw it in our CMS Sunday night. A group of three people shouldn't be able to irreparably harm the perception of an organization and those who work there. https://t.co/s0DMVBFhoz
— Matt Moret (@mttmoret) January 16, 2018
He felt that the article lacked context, focusing on the vulgarity of Trump’s speech over the racist undertones, which Moret thought was especially tone-deaf after a year in which the president had difficulty denouncing the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va.
“It just totally misconstrued the real argument Trump critics have been making in service of a ‘you’re all too sensitive’ defense,” he said.
On a Personal Note
At this point, I should mention that I have deep ties to the Post-Gazette. I owe that newspaper my life, literally, because it’s where my parents met. My mother still works there as the online features editor. I interned for the Post-Gazette last summer, and I still occasionally write long-form essays for its weekly Next Page column.
This editorial hurt me on a visceral level. It signaled to me that the owners of an organization I hold near and dear to my heart have zero regard for the city’s rich diversity and, arguably worse, excuse the inherent racism in Trump preferring Norwegian immigrants to those from “shithole” countries seemingly because the term “racist” offends them.
I feel bad for what this episode might do the Post-Gazette’s image and bottom line. It is a fantastic local paper, and I hope this incident does not do any permanent damage to its otherwise sterling reputation.
The worst part is that articles like this justify the preconceived notions that a large portion of the country has of the Rust Belt, assuming we’re all a bunch of immigrant-hating, racist yinzers.
No one will remember last summer when Peduto fought against Trump’s “Pittsburgh, not Paris” comments after the president pulled out of the Paris climate accord. The media is already notoriously bad at accurately portraying Middle America, and this will only solidify their coastal biases.
As I hope this piece illustrated, that editorial does not speak for me, the Post-Gazette or the city of Pittsburgh.
As Kotova put it: “[The authors don’t] understand the crux of their own argument, they don’t understand the law and they don’t understand the Constitution.”
Correction: A previous version of this piece claimed that the Post-Gazette’s editorial board consisted of both John Robinson Block and Allan Block. That has been amended to reflect who the editorial board truly represents.