After I recently tackled the complicated issue of whether readers should keep or cancel their subscription to the Post-Gazette (and, really, other media outlets), readers responded. We’re sharing their thoughts here, slightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Several readers thanked me for the perspective on hard-working journalists who focus on the news even when the owner and publisher may be scheming over their own ideologies.
Colleen Rodgers said she had cut back her Post-Gazette subscription to three days per week and thought about canceling altogether.
“As a graduate of Duquesne University’s School of Journalism (many years ago) and a long-time friend of a former employee of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I have struggled with this question. Months ago, I reduced my subscription to the paper to just three days per week. But, the recent editorial cartoons and an interview with Keith Burris has steered me toward cancelling the paper completely. Although I have been truly bothered by the new tone of the paper, I have been more bothered by President Trump ‘s attacks on our free press. His unfounded criticisms led me to keep my subscription in support of our free press. Your article may lead me to return to the full five-day subscription. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of the dilemma facing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette subscribers in this city.”
Another reader named Michael Pochan said he likes to read a lot of news outlets online before making up his own mind:
“Wow. What an important piece, but I fear it will be lost in the hyper-polarized, emotion-driven, knee-jerk America of today.
“I grew up in a household that read four newspapers. I currently read both the Trib and Post-Gazette online daily and several others like The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Guardian. (I realize I am an anomaly.) I prefer objective news than varied opinions; hard to find these days.
“Today people want to read/listen to media that says/reflects their beliefs (and their emotions). That makes them feel good. No time for seeking objective reports, both sides of opinion and then applying some critical thinking, maybe even discussing it with someone. Nope. Just react with no control and blurt it out on FaceBook with no filter. And then #hashtag it.
“IMHO, backed with reading original old newspapers on microfilm (a better way to access objective history and avoid a historian’s or school textbook writer’s political lens), newspapers were never ‘clean’; they always had some influence from some wealthy owner / source. My favorite in 1907 was on the masthead of a small-town local paper that read, ‘Not Influenced by Big Railroad Interests.’ Did ‘Yellow Journalism’ of the 1890’s ever really go away? Conversely, the media hid [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt]’s infirmities from the public.”
A few other readers questioned whether the Tribune-Review’s late owner Richard Scaife really had a hands-off approach to the Pittsburgh newsroom. I wrote that while Scaife had strong conservative and libertarian political opinions, he never brought them into the newsroom when I was there.
Before I arrived at the newspaper in 2001, Scaife had bankrolled a major, and ultimately unsuccessful, effort to prove that Vince Foster, a deputy White House counsel under President Clinton, had been murdered. Foster had committed suicide in a high-profile way early in Clinton’s first term, and some on the right believed for a long time that Foster’s personal tragedy signaled corruption within the administration.
Scaife became so embroiled in this effort that Hillary Clinton largely was referring to the Trib publisher when she famously talked about a “vast right wing conspiracy” targeting her husband.
“In his Feb. 21 On Media column, Andrew Conte tried to reassure us that the appointment of Keith Burris as editor of the news coverage and the editorial page at the Post-Gazette wouldn’t necessarily blur the line between the two, allowing the newspaper’s political opinions to affect the objectivity of news coverage.
“Conte cited the example of his former boss, Richard Mellon Scaife, the late owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, who, in Conte’s 15 years at the Trib ‘never once . . . told me to write a hit piece on someone or squashed a story he didn’t like. Instead he used his money to let us tell honest, accurate stories, realizing that if more people read the news, a few might check out the opinions page.”
In fact, Scaife used his inherited billions (I doubt if he personally ever earned a dime in his life) to not only support very conservative causes and organizations, some of which he formed, but to spread crackpot ideas about people he didn’t agree with.
Scaife hired Christopher Ruddy in 1994 to write rightwing conspiracy fantasies, most notably that the Clintons murdered the White House legal counsel Vincent Foster. These Ruddy-written claims were first in the pages of the Trib.
Ruddy is now an alleged confidante of President Trump, even after changing his mind once he left Scaife about the Clintons. In fact Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor of Bill Clinton, absolved him of Foster’s death.
Scaife spent close to $1 billion concocting other conspiracies while flushing millions down the drain supporting the Trib which was just the wrapping around his editorial page.
Here, I need to jump in for clarity. Scaife hired Ruddy, who now heads Newsmax, a conservative news site. Ruddy not only counts Trump among his friends, but also the Clintons. Scaife ended up friendly with the Clintons too, and Bill Clinton actually gave Scaife’s eulogy at a memorial service when he died in 2014.
(It should be noted, too, that Scaife left $364 million to the Allegheny Foundation, which funded the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, the space I run.)
Hoover goes on to say that he noticed editor influence at the Pittsburgh newspapers where he worked.
“I worked for 38 years at the Pittsburgh Press and the Post-Gazette and know plenty of examples of opinion bleeding into news coverage. At the Press under John Troan in the 1970s, the newspaper went to great lengths to write positive stories about the Roman Catholic Church in Western Pennsylvania and the Vatican. Troan was a devout Catholic who killed negative stories about the Vatican and demanded that the Press publish the lengthy list of priest transfers in the Pittsburgh Diocese, unware of why some of those men were transferred in the first place.
“Luckily for Troan, he retired before the revelations of sexual crimes in the church were exposed.
“John Craig hired me at the Post-Gazette, so I am in his debt, but despite his positive qualities, he became a supporter of Mayor Tom Murphy and his projects such as the Fifth-Forbes development (a flop) and PNC Park, a success even though voters initially killed funding for the ball field. He appreciated positive stories about those issues.
“Craig saw himself as a force for an improved Pittsburgh and supported the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust under its first leader Carol Brown. When I wrote a story showing that the Trust was nearly giving away the store to lure the Pittsburgh Public Theater from the North Side to Downtown — ironically based on Murphy’s sources — Craig called me on the carpet after the Trust complained and I had to write a follow-up ‘clarifying’ the situation.
“Craig was on the board of the Riverlife Task Force, a clear conflict of interest, and he wasn’t shy about what he saw as its importance. When the nephews of Bill Block took over the papers here and in Toledo, Craig was successful in keeping the erratic John Robinson Block under control. …
“With Block in charge of the editorial page and Craig’s replacement, David Shribman heading the news department, the crossover worries were gone.
“Now they’re back which indicates it’s business as usual at the Post-Gazette.”
Bill Steigerwald, an author and former reporter for both the Post-Gazette and the Trib, offered his own perspective on how Craig might have influenced the news.
“At the Post-Gazette, where I worked mainly as a feature writer in the 1990s before going to the Trib’s opinion section in 2000, editor John Craig was the almighty and energetic opinion dictator of the news and opinion pages.
“He kept a very careful watch for the smallest glint of divergent political opinion in every corner of the paper, from my weekly column on magazines to Robert Bianco’s TV critiques.
“A centrist Democrat and blatant civic booster, like the Blocks, Craig’s opinions shaped/controlled the PG’s coverage of important civic issues like the city’s subsidized ballparks, mass transit boondoggles and serial eminent domain abuse.
“In both the news pages and opinion pages, he also did his best to protect the interests of his power-brokering pals who ran the Port Authority, City Hall, the County, the Allegheny Conference and various favored corporations.
“I’m sure the editorial staffers who worked under Craig on the news and opinion pages can tell many stories that would prove how frequently his opinions and biases ‘guided’ news coverage.
Steigerwald also worked on the opinion desk at the Trib, and he offered a perspective on Scaife’s influence as well.
“I agree with you that Mr. Scaife — the first and only publisher I worked for who both understood, appreciated and usually agreed with my libertarian politics — was not someone who messed directly with Tribune-Review reporters regarding news coverage/slant. (Of course, he let his mostly liberal Democrat news editors enforce his conservative/libertarian/Republican opinions and news biases, which they did, even when they hated them or were embarrassed by them, as they usually were.)”
Thanks for the feedback. I always appreciate hearing when a particular column has provoked your thinking. Keep the comments coming.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.