The feud between a journalist in Pittsburgh and the newspaper she works for took a turn for the worse on Wednesday after the executive editor published a “dehumanizing” op-ed categorically denying accusations that center on race. And it’s all because of a tongue-in-cheek tweet that apparently offended her white colleagues and bosses.
Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was “removed” from covering any of the city’s protests over George Floyd‘s police killing in Minneapolis, according to the union representing the newspaper’s journalists. The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh claimed in a letter to its members that “the powers that be” told Johnson that “she showed bias and as such, could no longer cover anything related to the protests of the police murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism that for too long has been a dirty segment of our national fabric.” In addition, the Guild claimed that Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Michael Santiago — who is also Black — was not allowed to cover the protests, either, because he tweeted support for Johnson.
The so-called “bias” mentioned in the letter referred to a tweet Johnson posted on May 31st in which she quite obviously attempted to debunk the racist looting narrative that detractors used to try to take attention away from the real reason why people were demonstrating in the first place. Johnson’s tweet included photos showing a trash-strewn parking lot following a concert by a country music star.
“Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!” Johnson wrote before letting her followers in on the joke: “…. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”
The tweet came at a time when proponents of law enforcement across the country sought to criminalize the diverse group of people protesting the police killing of a 46-year-old Black man who was handcuffed and unarmed when a cop used his knee to apply deadly pressure to his neck for nearly nine straight minutes.
On Tuesday, Post-Gazette Executive Editor Keith C. Burris published an op-ed addressing the controversy in no uncertain terms that Johnson called “dismissive, insensitive, and worst of all — dehumanizing.”
Burris, who is also vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers, which owns the Post-Gazette, took the unusual step of calling the Guild and Johnson and Santiago liars, denied racism informed the decision to keep them from covering the protests and refused to apologize. He then made the outrageous and unfounded statement that “no newspaper in America, whether considered over the past 100 years or 100 days or 100 hours, has devoted more time, words or space to questions of discrimination, race prejudice, or justice than the Post-Gazette.”
Burris went out of his way to say that “This person was not taken off a story, but was never on it,” a curious comment considering Johnson tweeted Tuesday that “management” tried at the last minute to send her to Houston to cover George’s funeral. By that time, however, it was “logistically impossible,” she said.
You can read the full op-ed here, but suffice to say that it leaves a lot to be desired for a media company being publicly accused of racism at a time when the nation was being forced to confront its racist heritage.
At least, that was the reaction from Johnson, who tweeted a statement responding to Burris and suggested he needs to find something else to do with his life.
“Any leader who looks to gaslight its personnel when confronted with challenges to managerial decisions is not fit to remain in a position of power, she said in part. “The cognitive dissonance coupled with a lack of empathy for any experiences outside of their own is disheartening and reflects the exact systemic racism and oppression of the diverse voices that I dared to call out in the first place.”
She said she and the Guild only asked for an apology and a way to get them “back to our jobs.” Instead, she wrote, “we were met with a message that looked to bully us into silence even further.”
Statement regarding the “Open Letter”:
The disagreement with no resolution in sight comes at a time when the parts of the nation are reckoning its past in the face of hundreds of years of systemic racism with structural obstacles designed to prevent people of color — especially Black folks — from achieving any semblance of equality, be it socially or economically. For Burris to take such a hard-nosed stance as other companies are softening theirs (albeit after being called out like how Johnson did the Post-Gazette) shows an unenviable level of tone-deafness typically reserved for the so-called 1 percent.
The publishing industry has been front and center amid this forced awakening of America to try to acknowledge and rectify its legacy of racism. Its already experienced multiple casualties in the slightly more than two weeks since Floyd’s killing drew attention to how deeply entrenched racism is in all aspects of American culture, including the publishing world.
In just under one week, the New York Times’ editorial page editor resigned over an op-ed from Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton urging the military to attack protesters; Bon Appetit’s top editor resigned over an old “brown face” photo and racial insensitivity; Refinery 29’s editor in chief resigned over a lack of diversity; and the lead editor of the Philadelphia Tribune resigned after approving a headline that was contextually dismissive the Black Live Matter movement.