Photo by Jeff Swensen for The New York Times.

The long-simmering war between the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh union and the Post-Gazette’s Trump-backing publisher, the Block family, has escalated.

Friday morning, both the Pittsburgh and Toledo union locals (the Toledo Blade is also owned by Block Communications) protested an edict from Blade Executive Editor Kurt Franck that they couldn’t refer to the Washington, D.C. rioters as “Trump supporters,” after mobs descended on the Capitol at Trump’s urging.

Other changes to copy disturbed NewsGuild members.

“Blade newsroom managers inserted the qualifiers ‘a majority,’ ‘mostly,’ and ‘some’ in front of references to Trump supporters, both in wire copy, wire photos and a story written by a Blade reporter,” said the NewsGuild in a statement Friday morning. “Doing so waters down the truth of what happened on Wednesday and is a disservice to our readers. They are also done in a political climate where some are attempting to create misinformation about who was responsible for, and participated in, Wednesday’s chaos.

“These actions follow years of blatant moves by the Blocks to push their political views into the newspapers that the communities of Toledo and Pittsburgh depend on for fair and accurate reporting.”

Adding fuel to the fire: The wife of Block Communications chairman Allan Block, Susan Allan Block, wrote an incendiary tweet spreading false claims about the election and more.

Susan Allan Block on Twitter.

“Calling our incoming Vice President a whore is beyond the pale and perpetuates the sexism and racism that plagues, our society and our nation,” said Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh Unit Secretary Ashley Murray. (Susan Allan Block resigned from the board of the Ohio Arts Council as a result of the tweet.)

In response to a question about what she would like to see happen now, Murray replied, “I would like for the members of the Block family not to post those things on social media. And I would also like a contract for the workers in Pittsburgh and in Toledo so that we can carry on with our jobs as journalists, without a heavy weight on us and fear on us while we work.”

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh is currently mulling a strike, which members voted 88-31 to authorize in August. Their contract with the Post-Gazette expired in March 2017, and union members have been without a raise in 14 years.

Independence from political interference in news coverage is another part of their fight.

“Our readers deserve factual, fair news,” said Toledo Blade reporter and Toledo NewsGuild President Nolan Rosenkrans, whose post of Block’s tweet went far and wide. “They should expect that the journalism they see is untainted by personal bias, and they should expect that management and the ownership of the newspapers adhere to strict codes of ethics like the journalists in our newsroom.”

Rosenkrans continued: “We deserve better and the community deserves better. We think what’s happened in the past 24 hours is a perfect example of why our unions are so important, because they give us the power to speak out against unethical acts by ownership in the fight for ethical journalism. It’s also why the company is so unwilling to change and so ready to fight us, and doesn’t want to give up the power to insert their views in the stories and to manipulate coverage.”

The Blade’s union has made a major move in protest. “The Toledo NewsGuild is engaging in a byline strike right now to protest management’s actions and to send a message to the community that we stand with them and not the owners,” said Rosenkrans. At this moment, the Post-Gazette, which staged a byline strike in 2020, has not taken that step.

“Our goal is to send a message to our communities that were as shocked and appalled as they are,” said Rosenkrans. “And that we’re asking that they stand with us in our fight against the Block family. Fight the owners. Stand with the workers.”

Both papers are great papers, Rosenkrans noted, with the Post-Gazette winning Pulitzer Prizes. But their editorial independence is frequently violated by management.

“The Block family has this reputation for slanting coverage over issues that they care about and that might be something as innocuous as dogs or historic preservation, or it might be something more serious about the attempted fascist coup of our country,” said Rosenkrans. “But this is something that readers see, which is why we’re speaking out again, trying to get the message out to people that there are dozens and dozens of great journalists and both papers that are fighting for the right thing.”

Both newspapers endorsed Trump in the November election.

Other recent flashpoints between the union and publisher include disputes over the coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer and the treatment of the Post-Gazette’s Black journalists. Alexis Johnson was barred from covering the protests after tweeting about litter and property damage following a Kenny Chesney concert. When reporters tweeted in solidarity with Johnson, management deleted articles by Ashley Murray and Lauren Lee, replacing them with abridged copy without bylines.

“We’re on the side of the truth,” said Murray. “We are trying to uphold democracy, and I don’t say that lightly this week.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.