By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
When it comes to the boorish behavior of Post-Gazette Publisher John Robinson Block, nothing really surprises me anymore.
Well at least that’s what I thought until I opened my email this morning. In it, from a couple of different sources, was an email detailing a Saturday night tirade by Block that not only surprised me, but left me speechless until after my third read-through.
The email sent to Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh members from union rep Jonathan Silver details a nearly hour-long tirade by Block over a Guild sign in the newsroom that reads, “Shame on the Blocks!” The sign has been up on a Guild bulletin board for a couple months sources tell me, before Block showed up at the paper at 10 p.m. on Saturday.
Before I get into this, I need to say a couple of things. I have spent most of the day trying to decide how to deal with this information. Some folks will say we’re only running it because it’s salacious and I’m cognizant of that.
But the behavior here is newsworthy because, I believe the actions that reportedly occurred were nothing short of employee intimidation and, possibly, violations of labor law. The Guild and the P-G have been in contentious negotiations over a new contract for some time. I also believe it’s newsworthy because Block owns one of the largest papers in the country and the opinions and cartoons of his editorial pages have a lot of people wondering where the paper is heading.
Finally, the email’s authenticity has been verified by several sources and Guild President Mike Fuoco would not comment for this story. The Post-Gazette also didn’t return a request for comment.
At 10 p.m. on Feb. 9, Block entered the paper’s newsroom and, according to the email, “went berserk.” Block wasn’t alone on his trip, he also had his pre-teen child with him following a dinner at the Duquesne Club. Block’s goal, according to Silver’s email, was to take the child’s picture next to a newsroom sign that read, “Shame on the Blocks!” Guild members anonymously told the Current that the sign was put on a bulletin board controlled by the Guild in protest of negotiations over healthcare benefits.
“His stated goal was to have the picture published on our front page. Block ranted about the sign and how its sentiment is now part of the family’s legacy. He lamented the several hundred million dollars he said the Blocks have lost on the Post-Gazette over the years and criticized the Guild for trying to take money out of the family’s pockets,” Silver wrote in the email.
“Block was screaming at the top of his lungs, raving like a lunatic and repeatedly and loudly slapping the Guild bulletin board with his hand. Block threatened to fire various managers, get rid of Mike and me and, most significantly, shut down the paper if the “goddamn Guild” did not remove the sign by Monday or Tuesday.”
The child was understandably upset and newsroom managers there at the time did their best to intervene on the upset child’s behalf as Block, according to the email, tried to pose the child in front of the sign and took their phone.
During the incident, Guild members became concerned and called both Silver and Fuoco, who arrived at the paper by 10:45 p.m. By that time Managing editor Sally Stapleton and human resource head Steve Spolar were also on the scene.
Spolar and Stapleton, according to the email, eventually took Block to a conference room to talk with him.Eventually, Block was ushered out of the building.
“In the end, Spolar and Sally got him out the door — Spolar confronted Block and loudly told him, ‘You need to go’ — and sent him on his way in an Uber with his [child],” Silver wrote. “It was an ugly situation that went far beyond a mere JR flare-up. Numerous people were left on edge, worried for their safety …
“We have been in contact today with our attorney about how to proceed. We will do everything in our power to ensure that everyone feels safe in the workplace. Such behavior by any Guild member or manager would not be tolerated for even a nanosecond, and just because Block owns 25 percent of the paper doesn’t mean he gets a pass. Of course the Guild has no intentions of capitulating to Block’s outlandish demands about the sign. Previously, I have personally let him know that the sign will come down immediately on one condition and one condition only: if the company pays our health care and backs off its legal battle with us.”
It’s been hours since I first saw the email and it still bothers me to read it. The worst part of this entire ordeal is the fact that a child had to see their father act in the way described. I honestly wanted to leave any mention of the child out of this entire situation, but i think it brings another dimension to this story. That this could happen in front of a kid scares me.
I’ve heard of the “JR flare-ups” that Silver mentions. They’ve been described to me as tantrums about some content or other being in the paper or not being in the paper. Or anything else that angers Block. But this doesn’t seem to be that.
I’ve railed about Block’s petulant behavior in the past. Be it firing Rob Rogers for drawing anti-Trump cartoons, for publishing overtly racist editorials or overtly sexist comics. But this is a level of dysfunction that I can’t understand.
I have no idea how leadership decisions are made at the P-G. I have no idea if Block can be removed from his post, but it feels like that needs to happen. He’s already turned a once-great paper into a laughing stock with his decisions. Now with this behavior, I’m left shaking my head wondering what’s going to happen next. I can imagine what the people who work for him must be thinking.