By Neil Cosgrove
“Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.” Luke 6:42
On May 31st, during the first weekend of protests following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson posted on Twitter. The tweet displayed four photos of litter and trash covering parking lots, and was accompanied by this text: “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!! … oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”
Slyly humorous, the tweet was clearly meant to provoke thought about double standards in both individuals’ and news media’s reactions to instances of civil disorder, depending on the disorder’s context and the ethnicity of those involved. At the time, Ms. Johnson likely had no idea she would soon be a victim of that double standard.
The next day, during a conference call with editors, Johnson was told her tweet “implied bias” and that consequently she would be prohibited from working on any stories related to the protests or systemic racism. A Black reporter, Johnson hoped to widen the scope of the paper’s protest coverage. Her friends, family and community were protesting, she told WESA, “and I had gathered a bunch of stories that I thought needed to be told.”
Matters escalated from there. Johnson’s union, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, rose to her defense. Articles related to the protests, written by reporters who had supported Johnson on Twitter, were removed from the paper’s web site before being restored after extensive alteration by editors. A photographer of color who had also backed Johnson via Twitter, Michael Santiago, was removed from covering the protests. (Santiago has since accepted one of the buyouts from the paper discussed in another article. Johnson has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming violation of her civil rights.)
Deciding he and other management were being ill-used by the union, other local news sources, and social media, Executive Editor Keith Burris published an open letter on the front page of the Post-Gazette’s June 10 edition. Burris wrote Johnson’s disciplining was
merely a “teaching moment” with a young reporter, meant to reinforce journalism’s commitment to “truth” and “fairness.” “Commenting” on events diminished a “chronicler’s” credibility when reporting those same events.
The problem with Burris’s argument is that it literally whitewashes the history of mainstream reporting of communities of color, while oblivious to how his own behavior may undermine his stated commitment to “truth” and “fairness.” In those ways, Burris reflects more general forms of white defensiveness when it comes to discussions of America’s racial history.
Burris holds up reporting of “the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s” as a model for how news media should go about their business today. As someone who lived through that movement as a young adult, and worked briefly on newspapers in the early 1970s, I would be very reluctant to embrace such a model. When it wasn’t reporting on demonstrations and urban riots, coverage of Black communities at that time commonly focused on crime. The cultural and civic life of such Pittsburgh communities fell to the Courier, making that paper a necessity rather than a preference.
The dearth of editorial staff from those same communities helped reinforce mainstream media’s comforting illusion that their reporting was “objective.” The tendency, still with us, of prioritizing official versions of events had the effect of silencing other, often minority, voices. What an authority figure said happened was the “truth,” while other accounts would be couched in qualifiers or simply ignored. At this moment, such modes of reporting, as opposed to “commentary,” are still part of the devaluation and invisibility of communities of color.
How often have police reports, initially presented as authoritative versions of events, been later found to contain crucial omissions and even deliberate misrepresentation? Copy Editor Mike Laws recently noted in the Columbia Journalism Review how, in headlines and descriptive passages, protestors’ actions are depicted in active voice, “hurling,” “throwing,” or “firing” objects. Police actions, on the other hand, are couched in the passive. One New York Times story said “a photographer was shot in the eye” by police, who also “disperse,” and “defend.”
As for “fairness,” Burris published his “rest of the story” on pages one and two of the paper of which he is executive editor. No space was allocated anywhere in the newspaper, and its website, to the stories that Johnson or Santiago or the Newspaper Guild might wish to tell about the same events. Those stories can only be found on the internet and social media Burris decries as the opposite of sound journalistic standards.
In exasperation, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh urged the Post-Gazette’s advertisers to directly communicate with the paper’s management and possibly withhold advertising. By the evening following Burris’s screed, Giant Eagle did just that and also announced their stores would no longer sell the paper. Until Burris can remove the beam from his own eye, his vision of what constitutes “truth” and “fairness” will remain blurred.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 5. July/August, 2020. All rights reserved.