At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, tensions between the newsroom and the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block, remain on edge after an intense and belligerent exchange with several journalists over the weekend.
According to multiple accounts, Block entered the newsroom in an agitated state with his 12-year-old daughter Saturday night and appeared out of control as he ranted about the newspaper’s union and its employees.
“Nobody has ever seen him in that kind of state, which was very agitated and possibly intoxicated,” Michael A. Fuoco, a Post-Gazette reporter and president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, told the Inquirer. “It was so disturbing, the HR director had to order the publisher out of the building. I’ve been here 35 years. This is unprecedented.”
The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, the union representing newsroom employees at the Post-Gazette, filed a complaint Wednesday with the National Labor Relations Board over Block’s actions, alleging the longtime publisher threatened to unjustly fire journalists engaging in union activity. The guild also released eyewitness accounts from four employees who were in the newsroom and on the receiving end of Block’s rant. Action News 4 in Pittsburgh also obtained audio recording of the episode.
Andrew Goldstein, a police reporter at the paper, said in his account that Block was “ranting like a madman,” upset over a “Shame on the Blocks” sign on the guild’s bulletin board, put up amid contentious contract negotiations. Web editor Marianne Mizera said she felt threatened and “started to shake” when Block began manhandling his 12-year-old daughter, whom Mizera described as “crying, shaking and pleading.”
“I’ve been working in newsrooms for more than a decade, and this is the most bizarre thing I’ve seen,” said paginator Alex Miller. “He appeared totally out of control. He was loud and violent, and it was frightening to witness because he was so erratic.”
No one at Block Communications, which owns the Post-Gazette, the Toledo Blade, and several local television stations, responded to a request for comment. Block Communications Chairman Allan Block — John Block’s twin brother — said in a statement to NEXTpittsburgh that “frustration over financial and other challenges in the newspaper industry” led to the heated episode with employees, which he described as an “unfortunate exchange.”
“It’s a false narrative,” Fuoco said. “It’s basically telling employees what you saw you really didn’t see.”
In recent years, Fuoco said, John Block has increasingly become a “bully,” yelling at individual managers and editors about the content appearing in the newspaper and online. But Fuoco said Block had never previously lashed out at employees the way he did Saturday, and as a result, the guild requested that Block not be allowed into the newsroom until he sought help for himself.
Despite that request, Block showed up at the newspaper’s offices about 4 p.m. Wednesday and remained for several hours without incident. Fuoco said employees remain anxious, and several who remain in fear for their safety have been allowed to work from home until the situation is rectified.
The episode is the latest in a string of events that have created tension between Block and the newspaper’s employees. Last June, Block fired longtime political cartoonist Rob Rogers, who was highly critical of President Donald Trump, and replaced him with conservative cartoonist Steve Kelley. Block also oversaw the publication of a controversial editorial defending Trump’s criticism of immigrants, and forced editors to remove a Trump quote with a vulgarity from a news story about his comments about Haiti and African nations.
The newspaper guild has also been in contentious contract negotiations with Block and the newspaper’s management for two years, and has filed an unfair labor complaint against ownership, alleging it has underfunded the company’s health-care premiums.