by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
Posted: Friday, June 5, 9:50 p.m.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson, who is African American, took to her private Twitter account Sunday morning, May 31, with an eye-opening revelation—she posted four photos of nothing but trash and destruction left behind in the City of Pittsburgh. Johnson then wrote: “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.”
She had received high praise for the tweet, with now 162,000 “likes” on her @alexisjreports Twitter page. It showed the accurate revelation that the recent George Floyd protests, only a few of which have been destructive, aren’t the only thing that’s caused a mess in Pittsburgh. A mostly-White crowd tailgates for hours and hours before a Kenny Chesney country concert at Heinz Field, leaving a monstrosity of trash and an air of drunkenness. But the annual concert continues, no sign of it stopping.
The next day, Monday, June 1, Johnson, the Pittsburgh-area native, was informed by Karen Kane, managing editor of the Post-Gazette, and other editors that she would not be permitted to cover any “social justice” stories for the foreseeable future, including any George Floyd protests happening in Pittsburgh.
The reason? Apparently, Johnson had shown “bias” with her tweet. And reporters are to remain unbiased when covering and reporting stories.
But was it “bias?” Or was it just, the plain old “truth?”
Many local media organizations and fellow journalists are openly supporting Johnson and denouncing the decision by PG management.
The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation said on June 5 that they were “outraged” by the removal of Johnson from covering social justice protests, including the ones for George Floyd.
“To deny the African American reporter the opportunity to cover this news removes an opportunity for the Post-Gazette to present a more fair, nuanced, and informed portrait of what is happening in local communities,” the PBMF statement read. “More so, the Federation is baffled by the management’s justification used for removal. Johnson’s social media communications was from her private Twitter account. It was there that she raised a question and offered a comparison that challenged stereotypes. There was no malicious bias and nothing to suggest her reporting would be compromised or slanted if she continued telling the story of the protests. The Federation is in sharp disagreement with the action taken by the Post-Gazette’s managing editor.”
Brian Cook Sr., president of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, added that “it is unfortunate that Ms. Johnson’s voice has been silenced at a time when diversity in the media is needed more than ever. To remove one of very few African American news reporters—in the entire City of Pittsburgh—from a beat where she could make a difference, is not only troubling, it is abhorrent.”
BRIAN COOK SR.
The New Pittsburgh Courier has learned that of the many Post-Gazette reporters who have covered the George Floyd protests and reaction from local officials, as of June 5, only one has been African American: Lacretia Wimbley, who on June 4 reported on Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto calling for police overhauls. The Courier has learned exclusively that Johnson never had an opportunity to report on the local Floyd protests. The first large protest in Pittsburgh for Floyd occurred on Saturday, May 30, a day in which Johnson was not scheduled to work. Thus, the PG used reporters Sean D. Hamill, Andrew Goldstein and Mick Stinelli for its Sunday, May 31, front-page stories about the protests and aftermath. The Courier has learned that Johnson, as a general assignment reporter, would have been among the reporters covering the protests for the PG that have occurred in the past five days. However, on Monday, June 1, Johnson reported to work and learned the news of not being permitted to cover the protests by PG management. This, the Courier has learned, has left the Post-Gazette with just Wimbley as the lone African American reporter in the “local news” portion of the newsroom to cover the Floyd protests and surrounding stories.
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents the Post-Gazette newsroom and full-time faculty at Point Park University, wrote in part to its members, in a letter first obtained by the Pittsburgh City Paper on June 4: “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.”
Michael Fuoco, a longtime reporter for the Post-Gazette and president of the Guild, tweeted around 3 p.m. on June 5: “Will the @PittsburghPG treat us all as they have treated @alexisjreports? Or will they ignore this? Either way they will be wrong. The only way to resolve their unfathomable action is to remove the ban they improperly imposed on her.”
The news has made its way to Harrisburg. John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor and former Braddock mayor, tweeted on June 5: “I stand with the Guild. The PG immediately apologize to (Alexis) + reinstate.”
Dozens of fellow Post-Gazette journalists have tweeted their support of Johnson by retweeting Johnson’s original tweet. Michael Santiago, a photographer with the PG, also tweeted on June 5: “I’ve said this plenty of times this past week but I’ll say it again! I will continue to wholeheartedly support” Johnson.
Lake Fong, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist during his time at the Post-Gazette, tweeted that it was “ridiculous” to remove Johnson from covering the George Floyd protests. He then said: “She is one of the best reporters at the PG.”
Longtime PG education reporter Bill Schackner tweeted his support for Johnson and was proud of the union for “defending this talented journalist.”
The Toledo, Ohio, NewsGuild released a statement on June 5 saying they were “appalled at the actions taken by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette management to ban reporter Alexis Johnson from coverage related to racial injustice and police abuse following the death of George Floyd in police custody. Management has no grounds for its punitive actions, and Johnson did nothing wrong.”
Their statement also said that “this decision made by all-White leadership is incredibly shortsighted and does a disservice to the reporter, journalism, and the greater Pittsburgh community. People of color are and have been severely underrepresented at Block Communication newspapers in Pittsburgh and Toledo, and misguided decisions such as this only discourage journalists and readers of color from associating with BCI publications.”
The Toledo NewsGuild demands “a public apology by made to Alexis Johnson. Anything less is an injustice.”
Johnson, who is 27, grew up in Penn Hills, and graduated from Penn Hills High School in 2010, the Courier has learned. She then earned a bachelor’s in Communications Media from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2014, and a Master of Arts in Media Studies and Production from Temple University in 2017. Johnson was a reporter for WWVA-TV in Bluefield, W. Va., from June 2017 to Feb. 2018.
ALEXIS JOHNSON FORMERLY WORKED AT WWVA TELEVISION IN WEST VIRGINIA.
Later, Johnson attained the position as digital news editor for the Post-Gazette in Oct. 2018, and began having bylines in the Post-Gazette print editions in 2019.
“Knowing how she posted it (the tweet), she didn’t say anything about any race, she just posted some pictures,” Johnson’s cousin, Ruthie Walker, a Stanton Heights resident, told the Courier, June 5. “It was a general statement that she made, and somebody took offense to it…because it was the truth.”