Pittsburgh City Paper obtained a letter that was sent to members of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which is the union that represents 140 journalists at the P-G. The letter indicates that reporter Alexis Johnson was removed from any coverage related to the George Floyd protests that have been ongoing in Pittsburgh for the last several days.
According to the letter, Johnson was pulled off of any protest coverage because of a tweet she sent on May 31 which poked fun at the mess typically made outside of Kenny Chesney concerts, and compared that to people who were upset about property damage that occurred following a protests in honor of George Floyd, a Black man killed last week by a Minneapolis Police officer.
“With Alexis Johnson's permission, we are letting you know about an extremely troubling situation,” read the letter. “Attached please find a tweet that Alexis posted, which went viral. It came to the attention of the powers that be, who on Monday confronted her in a conference call, told her 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.”
Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!— Alexis Johnson (@alexisjreports) May 31, 2020
.... oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops. pic.twitter.com/lKRNrBsltU
When reached for comment, Johnson directed CP to Guild President and P-G reporter Mike Fuoco.
Fuoco says he was not the one to leak the letter, and that it was meant to be shared between guild members. However, he says he stands by the letter’s demands, including that Johnson be reinstated to coverage.
“This is such an extraordinary case, and with Alexis’ permission, we wanted to let our members know what was going on,” says Fuoco. “We are appalled. And our international [union] is appalled.”
Fuoco says that guild members met with P-G management over Johnson’s coverage removal yesterday to try and resolve the issue and get her coverage reinstated. Fuoco says management told him Johnson’s tweet called into question her objectivity. Guild leadership responded, calling that logic specious. At that point, Fuoco says that P-G managing editor Karen Kane told guild leadership to just “go file your grievance.”
“In previous administrations at the P-G, this never would have happened,” says Fuoco, who has worked at the paper for more than 30 years. “It would have been resolved. This is how management acts now.”
Kane told CP that she can’t comment on this story. A request for comment to P-G executive editor Keith Burris was not returned.
Fuoco also notes that the P-G doesn’t have a social media policy, and defends Johnson’s tweet, calling it “food for thought with a touch of humor.” He also thinks Johnson should be on coverage of protests more than other P-G staffers because of her experience as a Black woman.
He says the guild’s view on race coverage is steadfast.
“In my view, there are no two ways of looking at racism. It is wrong,” says Fuoco. “The fact that the company thinks her tweeting disqualifies her is disingenuous. She has more understanding about it being a Black woman than other white reporters and photographers.”
Johnson has been widely praised for her journalism, including compiling and constantly updated a detailed list of Black businesses in the Pittsburgh area for people to patronize.
In 2018, the Newspaper Guild took the extraordinary step of condemning an editorial published in the P-G. That editorial, which downplayed President Donald Trump’s remarks calling Haitian and African nations “shithole countries," was widely criticized by local foundations and many others as racist.
I will be working today to update this list of #BlackOwned restaurants in Pittsburgh to see if any of them were effected by the pandemic and if there are any out there that I am still missing! https://t.co/kCcVtndjA3— Alexis Johnson (@alexisjreports) June 3, 2020
Fuoco says that editorial shamed the P-G nationally, and he says it's another reminder that there are no two ways to look at racism. He says this appears to be a constant battle between P-G staff and management, noting that on June 2, the paper ran an editorial that said the property damage done in Pittsburgh and other states was “just as bad” as Floyd’s death.
Fuoco demands that Johnson be reinstated to protest coverage, and he says the guild will continue to fight through the grievance process.
“I am not prepared to talk about the next steps, but we are not letting this go,” said Fuoco.
Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh's letter shown below in its entirety:
As you know, your Guild leaders work behind the scenes much of the time, delivering advice and service to our 140 members if they encounter problems, be it a contract violation or a disciplinary problem. We keep these interactions confidential except in the most extreme circumstances. This is one of those times.
With Alexis Johnson's permission, we are letting you know about an extremely troubling situation. Attached please find a tweet that Alexis posted, which went viral. It came to the attention of the powers that be, who on Monday confronted her in a conference call, told her 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.
Forget for a moment that Alexis’ tweet was innocuous and that the Post-Gazette has no social media policy at all, only guidelines that do not include discipline. Or the fact that in disciplining Alexis, the Company violated the contract. The company's disingenuous position is that the discussion with Alexis was purely "educational" and that by barring her from reporting on one of the most consequential news events in the region’s history, Karen Kane and her deputies are merely exerting managerial prerogative over news coverage.
We see right through that nonsense. Preventing a reporter, particularly a black reporter, from covering civil rights issues of national significance because of a benign tweet — a decision made exclusively by white editors, we might add — is clearly punitive.
Let’s just for a moment try to wrap our heads around this—at a time when issues of race and racism and unequal treatment under the law are finally being verbalized so all can hear, the Post-Gazette sees fit to remove one of its few black reporters, someone who has lived the experience, from coverage of such a mammoth issue. Remember this is a newspaper that promoted to executive editor the person who wrote the “Reason as Racism” editorial and shamed an iconic newspaper forever. So, there are not only contractual issues but also racial issues at work here. And we will not stand for either.
To show our revulsion at their actions, the Guild this morning demanded that Alexis be reinstated to coverage. In an email to Kane (see attached) we gave the Company a 3 p.m. deadline to do so and offered to try to resolve the issue in a phone conversation. Kane, Tim McDonough and Matt Kennedy did call Jon and Mike but there was no effort to resolve it and the phone call quickly turned defensive and antagonistic on their part. “Go file your grievance,” Kane dismissively said. We did so immediately thereafter (also attached). Should that not resolve the matter, we and our attorneys will take another tack. We will not back down.
As we've seen in multiple instances over the last several years, management is always watching the use of social media by Guild members and we can't predict when they might choose to wrongly discipline one of us. You need to be aware that at their whim, they may choose to discipline you for an innocuous post on social media that doesn’t fit their skewed world view. Just know that you are under NO obligation to post anything on social media as part of your job and have no obligation to identify yourself as a Post-Gazette employee on your social media platforms.
Most importantly, this should be a reminder that we are a family— one that cares about the pain that has been done to Alexis, to our colleagues and friends of color and one that is cognizant of the trauma our fellow journalists experience when they are out in the streets risking their safety covering protests so we can present our readers with the first draft of this important history. Let’s be sure to check on each other, to extend our hand and our ear in compassion and kindness and concern for our fellow human beings. We need this now more than ever.
Please let your Guild leaders know if you have any problems personally or professionally that we can help correct. Immediately alert us if the Company does anything that you feel isn’t right. And please take care of yourself and each other.
Be safe, be well. We’ll get through this...together.