PBMF panel discusses freedom of the press and racism in the newsroom

Reporter Alexis Johnson takes part in a panel sponsored by the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation

By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

After a week where The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made national headlines and earned considerable backlash for sidelining two black reporters Alexis Johnson and Michael Santiago, On June 11, the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation hosted a panel of freedom of the press, representation in media, racism in the newsroom and what it means for journalists of color to tell their communities stories. 

The entire situation started with a tweet, a frustration many Pittsburghers share about the damage and diserary that follows Kenny Chesney concerts every year. 

“Being a Pittsburgh native, it’s almost a running joke about what Kenny Chesney fans do,” Johnson explained over Zoom. “Tens of thousands of country music fans come down, most of which don’t have tickets to the concert and they completely leave behind a big mess.”

When she saw the criticism protesters were getting Johnson went to the internet, found pictures of the concert related damages, and sent the now-famous tweet. Johnson recalled not being worried until when her editor told her to hold off on protest-related pitches. more so when an email reminding the office of social media guidelines was sent out. She was shocked when she was taken off of coverage completely. 

“They told me I violated the guidelines because my opinion came through in the tweet, that it showed bias and if they were to put my byline on any of the coverage going forward the credibility of the newsroom would be called into question,” Johnson said. 

Johnson didn’t realize it at the time, but the pictures she’d used in her tweet were that of her colleague and Pulitzer Prize photojournalist Michael Santiago. At first, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, Santiago declined to cover the local protests.   

 “I was asked to cover the protests the following day and I wasn’t prepared mentally, I just wasn’t there,” Santiago said. “So I told them I didn’t wanna cover it.” 

However, when a Pittsburgh Police car was set on fire at a protest in Downtown Pittsburgh, he knew he’d be called in. He went to the protest, at which he’d be subjected to tear gas and filed his pictures. Santiago was shocked to find Johnson was barred from protest coverage. After he realized the paper had no intention of reinstating her, he voiced his support for Johnson twitter and would be taken off coverage himself.

The actions were a major concern for Michael Fuoco, the president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh. He stated there was nothing disqualifying, about Johnson’s tweet.

“My reaction [to the tweet] was I laughed, I remember thinking how clever it was and thought provoking particularly coming from a black woman and I thought that she had done a service that the post-gazette should thank her for,” Fuoco said. “As journalists we are a marketplace of ideas and she fulfilled that role.”

In addition to believing the tweet was innocuous, Fuoco added that Johnson’s background made her uniquely qualified to cover the protests. Johnson’s father is a retired state trooper, her mother worked as a parole officer. 

“To take a black woman off of the most monumental civil rights stories in generations just showed the ineptness and colorblindness of all these white editors,” Fuoco observed. “Who do you want covering this? Do you want someone like me? I know how to cover protests but I don;t have the life experience Alexis has. She’s the perfect storm. ’

The Post-Gazette’s Executive Editor Keith Burris and Managing Editor Karen Kane wouldn’t agree. More than that as the situation continued to escalate no matter what was said by subscribers, national media, and fellow journalists at the paper they doubled down. 

After roughly 100 reporters posted Johnson’s tweets on their own accounts, they found themselves barred from coverage as well. Fuoco noted that a reporter whose beat is far removed from news writing has been covering the protests.

“They made a point of bringing in someone the next day who wasn’t even scheduled to work, who usually covers the symphony who I don’t know has ever covered anything like this,” he explained. 

The panel observed, the editor’s actions are indicative of a problem at newspapers throughout the country: a refusal of news organizations to listen to and hold themselves accountable for their role in upholding systemic racism. While The Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times have joined the Post-Gazette in making headlines for it’s editorials on racism, Martin Reynolds, Co-Executive Director of the Maynard Institute explained they’re not alone. In the institute’s work to ensure communities of color and underrepresented segments of society are fairly portrayed, Reynolds told his fellow panelists that the Post-Gazette’s recent kerfuffle is all too familiar for journalists of color.

“What we’ve been hearing is that journalists of color in newsrooms have really been pushing back, particularly of Alexis’s generation,” Reynolds said. “And there is a desire to address issues, and we are saying as an institution that the soul of american journalism is at stake right now because one could argue that news organizations have been sustainers of systemic racism.”

Reynolds explained that this didn’t mean the staff at these institutions were racist, but the lack of diversity and reluctance to push back against racism over the past fifty years put them in a precarious position. He added that because everyone brought their life experiences and perspective to journalism, no reporter was truly objective and that wasn’t inherently a problem. 

“No one is objective and that’s okay,” Reynolds explained. “What people need to be is fair.”

Although the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation invited Keith Burris to the panel to share his side of things, he declined citing the labor disputes between the paper and the guild. He did however, send a letter which claimed Johnson lacked the appropriate experience, that their decisions had nothing to do with race, and that the paper offered to cover Johnson’s expenses to go to the George Floyd memorial in Houston, Texas. 

“Based on some employees’ social media posts there have been attempts to make this about much more than our original conversations with an employee,” Burris wrote. “Unfortunately our news union has misrepresented the facts in the matter by pushing its broader labor agenda in what has become ongoing propaganda against the company.”

Burris’s letter did little to assuage Santiago and Johnson’s concerns about their treatment with Johnson calling the letter “gaslighting.” She recalled that originally, she was told she’d been asked to cover the Minneapolis funeral for Floyd which had already taken place a week ago. Furthermore Johnson and Fuoco argued that due to the time frame and short notice the offer lacked sincerity. 

“I kind of already knew what the play was, it was logistically impossible to do that assignment at noon and to say that you gave me this, they weren’t setting me up to win. That was going to be an absolute disaster,” Johnson said. “I just don’t know anyone who could’ve made that turnaround.”

Johnson received the call at 7 p.m. the night before the memorial which was scheduled to take place at noon and added that she’d checked and found that there were no available flights from Pittsburgh to Houston. Additionally, Johnson asserted that the offer contradicted the letter’s suggestion that she lacked the experience to cover the protests.

“I’m not qualified to cover a protest here in my own backyard, but suddenly I’m qualified to go to Houston in 12 hours?” Johnson said. “It felt like a ‘be quiet’ kind of thing. Let’s make this whole thing go away by sending her to the funeral.”

Panelists interjected and recalled that they’d allowed interns to cover protests before, Johnson’s been in the field for three years. Johnson said that in her initial conversations with the editors they’d said it was a “shame” they couldn’t use her. 

“They definitely said to me it’s a shame we can’t use you for this story,” Johnson recalled. “It’s a shame we had to take you out of the arena.”

Shedding more light on the conversation Johnson felt the editors didn’t try to understand her point of view.

“My tweet in the context of police brutality and speaking out against racial injustice, i don’t think that’s a political issue,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong on this issue and Karen Kane said to me `I beg to differ’ so that only shows you we were never gonna see eye to eye on this issue.”

At the time of this panel, both Johnson and Santiago remained on staff and have no desire to see the paper go under, they both expressed the experience has been a disheartening one. Santiago called originally getting the position at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a dream come true, but resents being excluded from a documenting what will one day be history. 

“I love journalism, I love what I do but I’m sour right now,” Santiago admitted. “How can I continue to work for a paper, an institution that doesn’t love me?”

Three days later on June 14, Santiago announced on Twitter that he was taking a buyout from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In a statement sent June 15 regarding Santiago’s departure, PBMF President Brian Cook said, “After a whirlwind of emotions, conversations, union legal battles and an outcry of support from the community at large, it saddens me that another journalist of color feels the need to leave our city.”

As a Pittsburgh native, Johnson has vivid memories of reading the paper as a child but finds it difficult not to take what’s happened personally. 

“We didn’t ask for this, this isn’t a push by any means to sink the paper, we’re only aski ng for ramifications and a rescinding of this situation and they just continue to put their foot in their mouths and make it worse on themselves,” Johnson said. “So it begs the question, how much do you care about the paper?”

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