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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers say ‘intoxicated’ publisher threatened them

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's union has filed a grievance against publisher John Robinson Block after he allegedly stormed the newsroom and berated employees. (screencap via WTAE)

This story has been updated.

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, tensions have run hot for years between the newsroom and the daily’s publisher, John Robinson Block. The journalists’ union hasn’t had a contract for nearly two years, and Block has overseen the contentious firing of an anti-Trump cartoonist and the publication of a hotly debated editorial that defended President Trump’s offensive language toward immigrants.

The relationship is so sour that the union recently put up a “Shame on the Blocks!” poster in the newsroom. That message, the paper’s staff members now say, sparked a late-night outburst from Block on Saturday so disturbing that the union has filed a federal labor complaint and some reporters have refused to return to work out of fear.

After Block’s brother, with whom he runs the company, defended his actions as “an unfortunate exchange with employees” driven by financial worries, the union released four statements Wednesday from staff members who witnessed the tirade. They describe the publisher as “intoxicated” and say he threatened to fire employees while roughly handling his weeping 12-year-old daughter, who was trying to escape the scene.

“The only reason that we released these statements is because the company is putting out a false narrative of what occurred,” Michael A. Fuoco, a longtime reporter at the paper and president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “I find it absurd that the chairman of a media company is putting out a lie.”

In a statement sent late on Thursday, Block Communications said the union’s depiction of Saturday night’s confrontation was incorrect. “Last Saturday evening, the Publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette expressed his frustration to the newsroom staff about several issues of concern to him. We have conducted a review of all information available, and we disagree with the characterization of Saturday evening’s events as expressed by the Newspaper Guild. No one in the newsroom was physically threatened contrary to published reports ... The Publisher expresses his sincere regrets over his conduct that evening and did not intend his actions to upset anyone.”

On Tuesday, Block’s twin brother, Allan Block, had defended his actions.

“The frustration over financial and other challenges in the newspaper industry led to an unfortunate exchange with employees of which I have been made aware,” Allan Block said in the statement originally published Tuesday in NEXTpittsburgh. “Block Communications regrets if anyone present may have misconstrued what occurred as anything other than an indication of strong concern and support for the legacy and future of the Post-Gazette.”

Allan Block’s statement is simply not true, Fuoco said. What really took place in the Post-Gazette newsroom on Saturday was conveyed by the journalists in the room who immediately took notes, he said.

The trouble started about 10 p.m., when about 15 staff members were working to finish up the Sunday print edition. That’s when John Robinson Block showed up with his daughter. Marianne Mizera, a Web editor, wrote in one of the four witness statements released by the union that she immediately noticed that he was “slightly stumbling” and “awkward,” adding, “It was clear he was intoxicated.”

The publisher zeroed in on the “Shame on the Blocks!” poster, and began “punching and slapping the poster and the wall,” wrote Alex Miller, a paginator. Block yelled at a photo editor, demanding that a photo be taken of him and his daughter in front of the poster to run on the front page of the next day’s paper.

But Block’s daughter, who was crying, didn’t want to take the photo and tried to get away, the staff members said.

“She was screaming that she didn’t want to, crying hysterically and red-faced. I felt terrible about what I was watching,” wrote Andrew Goldstein, a night police reporter. “He was screaming in [her] face about the Block family legacy: ‘Do you want to be high class or low class? You’re a Block, you’re one of us!’ ”

Mizera wrote that he “forcefully grabbed his daughter’s forearm,” and Carl Remensky, who works on the sports desk, said that “he had hold of her, with his arms around her waist, trying to pull her back in front of that bulletin board.”

Eventually, Mizera wrote, she was able to take Block’s daughter down the hall for a drink of water. But in the newsroom, staff members said, Block continued to berate them and threatened that “he’d close the whole paper unless we took down the poster,” Miller wrote.

Later, the paper’s managing editor and a human resources executive arrived and the argument moved to a smaller office. Finally, an Uber was called for Block, who left with his daughter.

Staff members took photos and video of the confrontation, Fuoco said, although the union hasn’t released any yet. On Wednesday, Pittsburgh’s WTAE aired a brief clip that a newsroom employee gave them. It appears to show Block complaining about how much he’d spent on the paper and threatening to fire a human resources manager who repeatedly orders him to leave the newsroom.

After Block left, Fuoco said, the union sent photos, video and witness statements to the company, and demanded that the publisher be barred from the newsroom and ordered into treatment.

“John Block acted in an menacing and erratic way that gives us concern for what’s going on with him,” Fuoco said. “And we have tremendous concern for the welfare of his daughter, who he manhandled that evening.”

But by the end of business hours Monday, Fuoco said, Block Communications had not issued any substantive response to the union’s demands. Later that evening, the union advised newsroom employees that they could work from home if they were fearful of Block — an offer several accepted on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the union went a step further by filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Block improperly threatened employees with termination.

But about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Block returned to the newsroom for the first time since the weekend outburst, tweeted Jonathan D. Silver, the union’s unit chairman.

“He came in today and it gave us pause,” Fuoco said. “People are frightened. There are people who are not reporting to work in the office, because they are frightened.”

Block’s family has owned the Post-Gazette since 1927. His relationship with the newsroom has been tenuous because of editorial decisions and unfulfilled demands related to health care and raises from the union, which has stalled contract negotiations since March 2017.

The paper’s editorial pages have tilted toward supporting Trump in recent years. In January 2018, the paper ran an editorial defending the president for reportedly asking, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” during a meeting about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa. The union and a number of staff members wrote letters objecting to the piece.

In June, Block fired editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers after 25 years at the paper. Block said the firing had “little to do with politics, ideology or Donald Trump,” but Rogers, who was sharply critical of the president, said he’d had 19 cartoons spiked in the months before his termination.

Fuoco said the union’s ultimate goal in speaking out about Saturday’s incident is to pressure Block Communications into acting. The company hasn’t provided counselors to employees who were working Saturday, hasn’t kept Block out of the newsroom and hasn’t formally interviewed anyone who saw what happened that night, he said.

“We find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to tell the public what truly happened that night in the hopes the company will do the right thing and protect its employees,” he said.