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Journalists Clash With Newsroom Chiefs Over Protest Coverage

Jun 8, 2020
Originally published on June 8, 2020 3:31 pm

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The fight over racial justice has found its way inside some of the country's leading newsrooms.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Right. So yesterday, the editorial page editor of The New York Times, James Bennet, stepped down, this after many of his colleagues protested the paper's decision to publish an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton that advocated the use of the military to quell civil unrest. And The Philadelphia Inquirer's executive editor resigned after that paper ran the headline "Buildings Matter, Too" atop a column on rioting. Reporters argued that it equated property damage to human life.

MARTIN: Now NPR's David Folkenflik offers a story about a third paper where editors' decisions involving black journalists have inspired a backlash.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: In the biggest newsroom in Pittsburgh, a firestorm has erupted over one of its own - Alexis Johnson.

ALEXIS JOHNSON: I'm 27 years old. I am a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

FOLKENFLIK: And she's a Pittsburgh native. Even though she's fairly new to reporting, she wanted to jump into the big story.

JOHNSON: Monday morning, I had came in, and I had pitched, like, four story ideas. You know, these are very much my friends and family and community members that were out there in the streets protesting against police brutality in the black community.

FOLKENFLIK: Instead, she was called by the paper's managing editor and two other top editors. They pointed to a tweet she had sent out the night before comparing the damage caused by looters with photos showing the debris-strewn aftermath of a country music star's concert there.

JOHNSON: It's almost a running joke in Pittsburgh. You know, people know - it's infamous what happens after these Kenny Chesney concerts when he comes into town.

FOLKENFLIK: She said editors called her up and accused her of betraying bias.

JOHNSON: They kept doubling down, saying I gave my opinion through the tweet and that my opinion came through in the tweet. And I don't think that's the case at all. I think people made their own opinions of what I was trying to say. I thought it was kind of clever (laughter).

FOLKENFLIK: And so they barred Johnson, an African American reporter who's the daughter of a state trooper and a probation officer, from covering a story in her hometown about police and racial justice. Editors also sidelined a black photographer, Michael Santiago. They are among just a handful of black journalists at the paper. The controversy lays bare the tension between a pursuit of impartiality that has been a journalistic tenet for three-quarters of a century and a new urgency, felt especially keenly among younger journalists and journalists of color, to bear witness to what they're seeing. Alexis Johnson says she believes her editors discriminated against her because of her race. Why would she say that? Let's meet her colleague, Joshua Axelrod.

JOSHUA AXELROD: I'm 28, and I'm a digital sports producer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

FOLKENFLIK: For the record, Axelrod is white. Like Johnson, Axelrod is also a Pittsburgh native and also pretty new. A week ago, Axelrod wrote an article about a man police accused of participating in vandalism and looting downtown. Axelrod tweeted about it, calling the accused man a vulgar slang word.

AXELROD: Not a very sound journalistic decision, admittedly.

FOLKENFLIK: Like Johnson, he was reprimanded by editors last Monday about his tweet. He erased it. These are his first public comments about his circumstances.

AXELROD: It felt like the nation and my city were undergoing a very tough time, and it was tough to separate myself as a journalist and just a person in the world. And I recognize the mistake I made, but it came from a place of emotions running high.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet Axelrod says he received no directive preventing him from covering stories involving the protests. In fact, he posted another article the very next day. The NewsGuild weighed in, noting that Johnson had been treated more severely than Axelrod. The paper didn't relent against Johnson. Instead, the Post-Gazette then banned Axelrod from protest coverage, too. Axelrod tells me he supports Johnson and Santiago.

AXELROD: I made a legitimate journalistic mistake. I do not think either of them did.

FOLKENFLIK: Managing editor Karen Kane and executive editor Keith Burris did not respond to detailed requests for comment. The paper's union has scheduled a press conference for later this morning.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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