John Block ’77, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, came under fire last week for pushing for an editorial about racism and President Donald Trump’s recent alleged comments about “shithole countries” to be published in both papers.
The editorial, titled “Reason as Racism,” defended Trump in light of a recent incident in which he allegedly questioned why the United States continued to accept immigrants from “shithole countries.” The editorial argued that calling someone a racist was “the new McCarthyism,” comparing the use of the word “racist” today to that of “communist” in the 1950s. It also stated that such accusations derailed discussions of the immigration deal and that if the “president [was] wrong on immigration” policy, then his opponents should fight him on the details of the policy itself, rather than by calling him a racist.
Both papers belong to Block Communications — a family-owned company led by Block’s brother, Allan. The editorial originally ran in the Toledo Blade on Jan. 12, and was then reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at Block’s request on the next available day, which was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The Block family has a close relationship with Yale. Paul Block Jr., the father of John and Allan Block, graduated from Yale in 1933. Through the Paul Block Journalism Internship program, multiple Yale students — including past and present editors of the News — work at the Blade and the Post-Gazette each summer.
The editorial drew ire on multiple fronts. The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh argued that the piece was “extraordinary in its mindless, sycophantic embrace of racist values and outright bigotry espoused by this country’s President.” And 16 Block family members, in a letter they co-signed, said the editorial “[went] against everything” that William Block Sr., who steered the papers for nearly 60 years, “worked for and valued.” The Post-Gazette published the letter from the Block family members, but not those from the guild or the former employees who also expressed anger about the editorial.
The controversy came as stalled contract negotiations and “12 years … of cuts and other concessions” led the Post-Gazette’s employees to go on a byline strike this Thursday as a protest, according to a press release from The Newspaper Guild.
In an interview with the News, Block said that controversy is just part of the journalism business.
“A newspaper’s job is to comment on the issues of the moment, and that’s what we do,” Block 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.”
Block explained that the word “communist” was used freely against people who had nothing to do with communism in the McCarthy era, which led to their defamation or dismissal from work.
In response, the courts ruled that only card-carrying members of the American Communist party could be called communists, so that the term could not be used to slander non-Communists. Any other use of the term would fall under “libel per se” laws that do not require a plaintiff to provide proof of damages.
“We want to explore the possibility that the overuse of not just the word ‘racist,’ but of many other terms that divide this country, that tear us apart, [should prompt us to] consider whether the law needs to evolve to protect people,” Block said. “Of course, the right-wing has a full vocabulary of negative things they call people too, like infamous ‘feminazi’… From where I am, we ought to be having respectful debate and people of good will ought to understand that there is going to be disagreement.”
The editorial was penned by Keith Burris, the editorial page editor for the Blade since the spring of 2016. Burris told the News that before publishing the editorial, he and Block had a number of conversations on the use of word “racist” in today’s America. Burris added that he thought Trump’s “ability to do the job and not whether he might or might not be a racist” was more important for political discussions.
“We go from distraction to distraction in American politics and many of those distractions are these highly emotional name callings that don’t really help us,” he said. “It is our mission to make people think, and sometimes you have to risk offending people to make people think. The whole point of opinion journalism is to provoke thought.”
Students who took park in the Paul Block Internships condemned the papers for publishing the editorial in their interviews with the News.
Elena Saavedra Buckley ’18, who worked at the Blade in the summer of 2016, said that the editorial was “a gigantic letdown.”
“Like Trump’s comments, it furthers the myth of his immigration opinions as meritocratic and somehow agrees that ‘crass’ rhetoric isn’t attached to racist beliefs with violent consequences,” she said. “What bothers me the most is not necessarily that these papers published an extremely off-base, harmful argument, but that they were pushed to do so by their owner in a financial climate that keeps employees who disagree in a bind.”
She added that she still “felt for” the employees of both papers who did not agree with the editorial, but “needed to keep their jobs” and for the residents of Toledo and Pittsburgh “who deserve better from their local publications.”
Saavedra Buckley also said that given the choice today, she is not sure if she would apply to the Paul Block Journalism Internship. While she thought that the Blade was home to “a collection of great, committed journalists,” she said she would be concerned to work for a paper “owned by someone who believes the pages are his to direct.”
Gabrielle Deutch ’18, who also worked at the Blade in the summer of 2016, called the editorial “thoughtless and cruel,” adding that the reporters whom she worked with at the paper agreed.
“Because of these smart, tireless reporters I got to know during my internship at the Blade, I have faith in the paper’s integrity,” Deutch said. “[If I were to apply for it now,] I would absolutely take the internship again, to learn from journalists who know the importance of holding people in power — even their publisher — accountable.”
Mark Oppenheimer ’96 GRD ’03, the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative, said that “as at any good newspaper,” the editorial and the news side of the papers were independent and separate from each other, and that most Yale students go to work on the news side, which, he believes “always operates with the highest level of integrity and offered terrific mentorship to students.”
He added that he expects and hopes that the University will continue sending “really, really terrific Yalies” to the papers.
“But I should add that even if they were going to work for a very conservative editorial page, I don’t have a problem with that,” Oppenheimer said. “I think students can get great journalistic experience from publications that purport to be neutral, or that have liberal or conservative bents.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade were founded in 1786 and 1835, respectively.
Anastasiia Posnova | firstname.lastname@example.org