It used to seem so black and white.
In the supercharged political climate of our times, and with the midterm elections next month, it often seems the newspapers have flip-flopped positions. Families that once considered themselves aligned with one publication or the other suddenly find themselves bewildered and frustrated by the marked change in tone.
The Post-Gazette this year endorsed a Trump-backed Republican in a Congressional special election, it fired the paper’s editorial cartoonist and it has suggested that the media often is an enemy of the president. Many people have canceled their subscriptions, according to the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents 150 Post-Gazette employees.
John Block, the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, recently said in Pittsburgh Quarterly that while he voted for Trump, he doesn’t feel the Post-Gazette has a particular bias.
“Some people on our staff who ‘lean left’ can’t accept that we are now, and have always been, a non-aligned newspaper,” Block was quoted as saying. “We are not Democrat. We are not Republican.”
The Trib’s new community engagement editor, meanwhile, says her paper has moved to the middle.
The Trib’s editorials “are a little more center than they used to be,” Lori Falce told me. “I do try and look at multiple sides. … The Trib was very much seen as a right-wing paper, and that was very much in keeping with the owner’s perspective.”
The opinion pages of modern newspapers do typically reflect the perspectives of their owners, and readers can make up their own minds based on the owner’s actions. Ever heard the one about not starting a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel?
But ownership can be a fickle thing. The Trib’s former owner, Richard Scaife, died in 2014, and now a board of trustees, with employee representatives, owns the newspaper. It makes sense, then, that the Trib no longer feels indebted to Scaife’s conservative outlook and has instead tried to reflect the communities the newspapers serve.
Falce said she tries to examine every issue from multiple perspectives before coming forth with an opinion. Most often, she focuses on local themes and said she considers positions about Trump on a case-by-case basis. She does vote but declined to talk about her personal views.
The Trib’s editorial board includes its top executive and several editors as well as two community representatives in Tarentum and Greensburg, where it prints daily newspapers.
“We represent people who have all viewpoints,” Falce said. “We’re delivering news to people who are Democrat, Republican, Green, independent, people who don’t give a damn about politics, you know, but they do care about what’s happening in their neighborhood, and we have to realize that.”
Block Communications, a privately held company controlled by the Block family, owns the Post-Gazette. A spokeswoman for the newspaper referred questions about its editorial stance to Keith Burris, the editorial page editor. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Burris, who also serves in the same position for the Blocks’ other newspaper, the Toledo Blade, took over the job in March, after he was identified as having written an unsigned editorial, “Reason as Racism,” which ran on Martin Luther King Day. In that column, the newspaper said the word racism has become a “term of malice and libel” on par with “communist sympathizer” in the 1950s.
The column triggered widespread backlash, including an unprecedented letter-to-the-editor from the Newspaper Guild, which said its members were “collectively appalled and crestfallen by the repugnant editorial.”
Burris and John Block addressed the editorial in interviews with the Yale Daily News.
“A newspaper’s job is to comment on the issues of the moment, and that’s what we do,” Block, a Yale alumnus, said. “Controversy goes right along with being an independent newspaper, and being an independent newspaper of course means that people on both sides are surprised at times when you take a position that they don’t think is consistent with other positions you’ve taken … We’ve always taken a strong stance.”
On another occasion this year, Block told editors to clean up Trump’s comments at the top of an Associated Press story in which he referred to “shithole countries.”
The newspaper not only endorsed Republican Rick Saccone for Congress in the March special election, but it reasoned that if the Democrat Conor Lamb won (which he did), that it could signal a “Democratic wave” of legislators focused on impeaching the president. In a twist, the Post-Gazette praised Lamb as an inspiring candidate after he won.
In June, the Post-Gazette fired long-time editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers. Burris said Rogers had refused to take editing direction, while Rogers said he had been fired for mocking the president too often. Block told Politico that Rogers was “obsessed with Trump.”