“Journalists are supposed to work as watchdogs. But that’s going to be hard to do now that John Block’s lapdog is in charge.”
By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
When people talk about the paper in the future, they’ll make note that Feb. 18, 2019 was the day that John Robinson Block killed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
He’s been building the coffin for years through questionable editorials, ridiculous firings and, today, an even more ridiculous hiring. Fresh off a newsroom tirade in which he terrorized not only his own employees, but his own pre-teen daughter, Block on Monday promoted Keith Burris to executive editor of the entire paper.
For those not familiar with newspaper parlance, Burris, who has put his own prejudices and personal opinions on display as editorial director of the paper’s opinion pages for the past year, is now in charge of the paper’s news coverage.
In recent years, while Block’s actions have caused reputational damage to the paper as a whole, former executive editor David Shribman (and John Craig before him) managed to keep damage to the paper’s editorial product to a minimum. Shribman stepped down at the end of 2018 (reportedly months before his planned retirement) and during his newsroom blowup 10 days ago, Block claimed to have fired Shribman, according to eyewitness accounts.
I wish I could say I was surprised by this move, but in fact I called it a few weeks ago. While I didn’t know that Burris would be the choice, I knew it was going to be a conservative lackey with no interest in fair reporting, but rather someone to take the next logical step in Block’s campaign to kill this paper–newsroom sabotage.
“The P-G is at a crossroads. Editor David Shribman left at year’s end. Shribman has had his critics, but he has served as a good steward, for the most part, keeping the news product separated from the editorial pages,” I wrote Jan. 22. “But with Shribman gone, what’s to keep Block from installing a weak editor who won’t hold that line or, even worse, an editor with a similar political mindset who thinks that it’s fine to let politics seep into the news coverage without ever really telling your readers that’s what you’re doing.”
Now, here we are. Make no mistake, this is a serious issue. There was a recent social media debate about whether giving news coverage to a certain attention-seeking conservative KDKA radio host’s “controversial” comments was just fueling troll-like behavior. In fact, she was supporting a Post-Gazette cartoonist’s trolling, sexist work. Some said giving her attention was the worst thing you could do, while other felt she needed to be called out for her words. I sided with the folks who said, writing about her is giving her what she wants (hence no name here, but worth a situational comparison).
In the Post-Gazette situation, it’s not about publicity, it’s about pushing a real agenda into a legitimate newspaper. It’s the same thing people accused the Tribune-Review of back when Richard Mellon Scaife was alive. But I feel as though the damage here could be far worse than anything Scaife managed to pull off. How long do you think strong, principled news reporters are going to be able to work for a man like Burris? Of course, most people will stay at first, but the number of resumes flying out of the emails of current P-G newsroom personnel probably hit record numbers. Why should they stay and work for a man who doesn’t respect what they do or their right to do it unconditionally?
Some will accuse me of being dramatic, but the writing is on the wall, or in the paper in this case. Last August, Burris penned an editorial entitled, “No more enemies: Trump and the Press must practice mutual respect.” If you want to jump to Burris’ defense and claim that he was asking for both sides to be respectful, that’s not his job as a journalist. His job is to protect the rights of a free press to do its job without a tantrum-throwing, truth-avoiding public official trying to squelch that voice.
In the editorial Burris wrote: “What the president really means, perhaps, is that the current press in the U.S., often, is his enemy. And he is right about that. Much of the press has been at war with Mr. Trump since his first day in office. In fact, some members of the press have acted as part of Mr. Trump’s political opposition, or the resistance. Some have agitated for the end of his time in office since that first day. This, too, is unprecedented. And the loss of detachment, of professionalism and of perspective on the part of so much of the press, as regards Mr. Trump, has badly hurt the press. The credibility of American journalism has suffered. Too many of us joined a side.”
It’s easy from his high horse to point finger at others, but what the hell has Burris done? Last year he wrote the infamous Martin Luther King Day editorial called “Reason as Racism,” in which he called racism the new McCarthyism. Last year he and Block put their peabrains together and decided to fire editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers (find him weekly on this website) because they claimed he had gotten obsessed with Trump and they spiked a number of his cartoons. Meanwhile, Block is the guy who fawned all over Trump on the then-candidate’s private jet.
This latest decision is just the most recent disturbing decision Block has made in the past 10 days. At 10 p.m. on Feb. 9, Block entered the Post-Gazette newsroom and, according to the email, “went berserk.” Block wasn’t alone on his trip, he also had his pre-teen daughter 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,” according to an email to Guild members Monday. “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.”
Eyewitness accounts from Guild members also outlined how Block interacted with his daughter, who was reportedly “terrified” during the incident. Following the incident, Guild officials asked that Block be barred from the building or searched for weapons before he was allowed to enter the building. The Guild has also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board regarding Block’s behavior.
But at this point, Block Communication officials have acted like they don’t really care what John Block does to the Post-Gazette. They released a statement last week saying they conducted a review of what happened and basically found that John Block was just venting his frustration over the paper’s financial situation. Well, they obviously didn’t “review” any of the eyewitness statements from employees on hand that night who described Block’s behavior as “berserk” and “unhinged.”
And now, the only guy standing between Block and the complete annihilation of what used to be “One of America’s Great Newspapers,” is nothing more than a cheerleader for his political ideology and its clothesless emperors. At every given opportunity, Burris has used his position to anger and inflame P-G readers and subscribers.
The Post-Gazette’s last saving grace has been its top-tier group of reporters, editors and photojournalists. There was a time when we could say, at least, that these talents were able to do their jobs without much interference from a political ideologue like Block. But now there is no buffer, no conscience, no watchdog.
That’s a shame because as journalists, we are supposed to work as watchdogs. But that’s going to be hard to do now that John Block’s lapdog is in charge.