Business

A newsroom tirade and a controversial hire: tension rises at Pittsburgh newspaper

Posted February 19, 2019 4:59 p.m. EST

— The last 10 days at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have been turbulent. But then, so have the last 12 months.

The latest drama to envelop the newspaper added two more layers on Monday.

First came yet another eyewitness account detailing a bizarre incident earlier this month involving Post-Gazette publisher John Robinson Block, as the union renewed its demand for him to stay out of the newsroom.

By Monday evening, Block invited more scrutiny with the sudden appointment of Keith Burris, the editorial director of the Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade (both papers are owned by Block Communications Inc.), as executive editor of the Post-Gazette. Burris will continue to oversee coverage of the opinion pages at both papers while taking on the duties of executive editor at the Post-Gazette -- a decision that immediately raised ethical questions.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh has made repeated calls for Block to be barred from the Post-Gazette's premises after he showed up in the newsroom with his pre-teen daughter on the night of February 9 and allegedly went on a tirade in the newsroom. On Monday, the Guild released another detailed account of Block's "newsroom rampage," describing him as abusive toward his daughter and threatening toward staff.

"In 22 years at the Post-Gazette, this is by far the worst period I've experienced," Jonathan D. Silver, a reporter at the paper and the Guild's unit chair, told CNN Business.

The Guild said it has now collected a total of 14 eyewitness accounts of Block's actions that night, along with video of the incident that surfaced last week. The accounts indicate that Block appeared intoxicated, and grew angry by a sign posted to a Guild bulletin board protesting the company's actions in a health care dispute.

The eyewitnesses recounted Block demanding to have his picture taken in front of the sign with his daughter, who was said to be upset by the scene. Additionally, Block is said to have made threats to fire various editors and managers.

Last week, the Guild filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, asserting that he "[threatened] employees with shop closure or job loss unless they cease engaging in union or other protected concerted activity."

"We want Block to get the help he apparently needs. He appears to be having a problem and we want him to be physically and mentally well before he returns to the newsroom," Mike Fuoco, a reporter for the Post-Gazette and the president of the Newspaper Guild, said in a statement on Monday. "We have continually asked BCI to bar him from the premises until he is evaluated and is shown to present no danger to himself or his employees -- and by danger we not only mean that of a physical nature but verbal threats, intimidation and retribution."

It isn't exactly clear whether those demands have been met, though Fuoco told CNN Business that Block has not been in the Post-Gazette newsroom since Thursday. Block did not respond to multiple inquiries about the situation.

Despite his absence, Block still managed to create a stir this week. On Monday, according to Silver, a notice appeared in the newsroom announcing Burris' appointment to executive editor.

Burris has been the editorial director of the Post-Gazette and the Blade since last year, a tenure that has been marred by unflattering headlines.

In January of 2018, Burris authored an unsigned editorial in both the Post-Gazette and the Blade that defended President Trump from charges of racism.

"Calling someone a racist is the new McCarthyism," the editorial read. "The charge is pernicious. The accuser doesn't need to prove it. It simply hangs over the accused like a great human stain."

The Guild responded with a letter decrying the editorial, calling it "a blight on the 231 years of service the Post-Gazette has provided its readers." Shortly after that piece, Burris authored an editorial, this time with his byline, in the Blade titled, "The Left's war on thought," which defended the previous piece on Trump.

Months later, Block and Burris were ensnared in another ideologically charged dispute with staff when they refused to publish the work of veteran editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers, whose work was highly critical of Trump. In June of last year, following a highly public standoff, Rogers was fired.

Block and his twin brother, Allan Block, who serves as chairman of Block Communications Inc., are staunch conservatives; the Blade reported in 2016 that both John Block and Burris spent time with Trump following a campaign rally in Toledo.

Neither Burris nor Allan Block responded to a request for comment.

Rogers told CNN last year that the paper was "trying to tamp down the voice I was having, being critical of Trump."

His successor, Steve Kelley, has produced cartoons that have been criticized as sexist. In a cartoon published last month, a young girl is depicted as saying, "Maybe one day I'll grow up and divorce a man just like Jeff Bezos!" Another cartoon showed Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, each with thought bubbles above them.

"Can't Blink...Too Much At Stake..." Trump is depicted as thinking.

"Can't Blink," reads the thought bubble over Pelosi, "Too Much Botox..."

In a statement, the Guild called the cartoons "misogynistic, pure and simple."

The Guild declined to comment on Burris' appointment as executive editor, but there have been complaints within the Block media empire of his role overseeing both the editorial and news operations at the papers. Traditionally, newspapers maintain a strict firewall between opinion and news divisions.

"This is a huge conflict of interest, and just [another] in a line of unethical acts taken by Block Communications," tweeted Nolan Rosenkrans, a staffer at the Blade and the president of the Toledo Newspaper Guild.

In an email on Monday, Burris urged Post-Gazette staffers to help "uphold the hallowed legacy of the Post-Gazette and to march forward into a future worthy of its past."

"Our immediate task begins today: We must deescalate. We must heal. We must build again," Burris wrote in the email, which was provided to CNN Business. "I need your help. I ask for your help."

Burris will replace David Shribman, who served as executive editor at the Post-Gazette since 2003 before stepping down in December.

Those who witnessed John Block's visit to the Post-Gazette newsroom on February 9 said he directed much of his animus toward Shribman, claiming to have fired the longtime editor. Shribman did not respond to CNN Business' request for comment.

It doesn't appear that Block will be as distrusting of of his new editor.

When Block returned to the newsroom last week for the first time since the incident, he was escorted by Burris.