Black photographer Michael Santiago leaves the Post-Gazette

Couldn’t work for ‘someone that doesn’t love me,’ he said

 

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

Michael M. Santiago has had enough of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Santiago, who identifies as African American, has snapped photos for Pittsburgh’s major newspaper for roughly two years, covering everything imaginable.

Santiago has been atop Mt. Washington snapping the beautiful Pittsburgh skyline; in tight quarters at Woodland Hills School Board meetings, chronicling the tense moments between board members and concerned citizens; at the Tree of Life Synagogue, capturing the hours, days and weeks after the shooting that left 11 dead in October 2018…

Santiago’s been taking photos everywhere in his brief time with the Post-Gazette, and now, in the blink of an eye, it’s all over.

Santiago was one of two Black journalists at the Post-Gazette who were banned from covering the local George Floyd protests, after he retweeted a post that reporter Alexis Johnson originally posted on May 31 that editors claimed contained “bias,” which disqualified Johnson from covering the protests.

Johnson said she jokingly compared the looting and destruction from local protests a night earlier, May 30, with photos of a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate, which showed tons of trash. She never mentioned Pittsburgh by name.

Johnson reported to work on June 1 and was subsequently informed by management of their decision. Johnson said she fought the decision, claiming the tweet showed no bias.

Santiago said all throughout the ordeal that he was in full support of Johnson. But when he found out on June 5 that he, too, was barred from covering protests, it left a sour taste.

“Yesterday (June 13) I accepted the buyout at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was offered to employees in May,” Santiago wrote on Twitter, June 14. “It was not an easy decision, but as I said on Thursday night (June 11) during the PBMF (Pittsburgh Black Media Federation) panel, how can I work for someone that doesn’t love me.”

MICHAEL SANTIAGO, during a June 8 press conference held on the North Shore. (Photo by Courier photographer J.L. Martello)

Neither Santiago nor Johnson were feeling the love from Post-Gazette upper management after the Post-Gazette’s executive editor, Keith Burris, wrote an open letter to the public on June 10, in response to Johnson and Santiago’s press conference two days earlier, in which the two journalists publicly expressed their displeasure with the PG’s decision.

ALEXIS JOHNSON, the reporter pulled from covering George Floyd protests.

 

“Let’s start with this: Editors at this newspaper did not single out a Black reporter and a Black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd. And we certainly did not single out two people and keep them from covering local protests because they were Black. That is an outrageous lie—a defamation, in fact,” read part of the op-ed from Burris.

Burris’ op-ed did not include an apology to Santiago or Johnson, rather stating: “We will not apologize for upholding professional standards in journalism or attempting to eliminate bias.”

Now, Santiago, a member of the Post-Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team for its coverage of the Tree of Life shooting, is gone.

“Pittsburgh has been an amazing city and I gained so much experience as a journalist working alongside my colleagues and grew as a human being with the work I was able to do within the community,” Santiago’s statement continued. “My fellow NewsGuild members are amazing, dedicated journalists who I will truly miss working with.

I hate to be departing under these circumstances but it is necessary.”

The Post-Gazette’s top newsroom editors, Burris and managing editor Karen Kane, have stuck to their guns and have not allowed Johnson to cover any local protests, which have stretched from Dormont, to Mt. Washington, to Bellevue, to Uniontown, to Downtown Pittsburgh, to East Carson Street on the South Side.

In response, Giant Eagle pulled out their bazooka, announcing last week that its stores in the region would no longer sell the Post-Gazette, while simultaneously announcing the store chain would donate $350,000 to support social justice causes.

“It is critical that we uphold the values that have defined Giant Eagle for nearly 90 years. These measures will remain in place until the publication (Post-Gazette) demonstrates an equal commitment to all those in the communities it serves,” said Laura Karet, Giant Eagle’s CEO, on Twitter, June 10.

Pittsburgh Black Media Federation President Brian Cook Sr. said in a statement that “Pittsburgh is losing a tremendous talent in Mr. Santiago, a man who says he ‘thought’ he found a home in the ‘Steel City.’”

Cook spoke to a larger issue of Black journalists who often leave Pittsburgh after a few years, finding a more prosperous position in another city or just liking the culture better in another city.

“We feel that it is imperative for media outlets to be deliberate in ensuring that their staffs are reflective of the communities they serve, and personnel is trained on ways to reference all communities of Western Pennsylvania, in coverage,” Cook said.

“It is our hope that this is a wake-up call to media organizations to take a step back and assess past and current hiring practices and treatment of all employees within their newsrooms,” Cook added. “In addition to that, think about how your loyal supporters would be better served with staff that can identify culturally to all of its audiences across the board.”

At the June 8 press conference, Michael Fuoco, president of the local Newspaper Guild, said African Americans represented only 10 percent of the newsroom staff at the PG. Johnson said in addition to Tyler Batiste, the Post-Gazette’s sports editor, the only other Black editor works at the night desk, David Garth.

Seasoned readers of the Post-Gazette might be able to realize that, with the loss of Santiago, there is just one Black photographer whose photos appear in print regularly—Nate Guidry.

“On so many levels I am so sorry to see (Michael Santiago) depart the (Post-Gazette) but I totally understand why he is doing so. Neither he nor (Alexis Johnson) nor any fellow member of the NewsGuild deserved the abominable treatment they’ve received,” wrote Fuoco on Twitter, June 14. “Management has driven away yet another Black journalist from a far-too-low pool. And worst of all, they are unrepentant in the face of national criticism in journalism and civil rights circles.”

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