A crackdown in Pittsburgh media?

June 21, 2018

Katie Fustich writes from Pittsburgh on two troubling firings at local newspapers.

PITTSBURGH HAS long provided a beacon for the left amid the closed-minded, libertarian politics of some parts of Appalachia. Its history as a major hub for unions and public universities has fostered a healthy culture of citywide dissent, today taking the organized form of substantial Democratic Socialists of America and International Socialist Organization branches.

The city even recently voted for two openly socialist, female candidates in the House primaries, running against big-name candidates from local old-money families.

Yet recent events within the Pittsburgh newspaper industry offer a clear picture of just how much control conservative groups continue to have over mass media, and how willing those with the deepest pockets are to cater to the Trump administration and right-wing politics as a whole, at the expense of free speech.

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In mid-June, Rob Rogers announced he had been terminated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after serving as the paper’s editorial cartoonist for 25 years. His firing was directly related to the content of his work, which often featured images that ranged from light mocking of the current administration to more severe takes explicitly calling out political corruption.

One recent cartoon, suggested to be the “final straw” of Rogers’s tenure, depicts an “Immigrants Crossing” highway sign, featuring the addition of Donald Trump yanking the figure of a child away from behind its guardians.

“He’s just become too angry,” John Block, the editor-in-chief of the Post-Gazette recently told Politico. “He’s obsessed with Trump.”

Rogers has refuted this position, maintaining that his work simply focuses on pressing issues in politics, and that Block and the paper’s upper management were increasingly critical of his timely cartoons leading up to the firing.

THE POST-Gazette is the city’s leading newspaper, with a circulation of 317,000. It’s also considered the more “liberal” of the area’s top two local papers, with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review (circulation: 202,000) acting as the city’s “conservative” voice.

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The incident at the Post-Gazette follows a similarly disturbing incident at the Pittsburgh City Paper.

The popular alternative weekly with a circulation of 70,000 abruptly announced the firing of its editor-in-chief, Charlie Deitch, after four years at the head of the paper. The press promptly replaced him with sports commentator Rob Rossi, best known for his inflammatory takes on the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team via the conservative Tribune.

In multiple interviews following the mid-May firing, Deitch said the paper’s ownership, Eagle Media Corp., refused to reveal the specifics of his otherwise unprompted firing. Still, Deitch maintains that the firing was undoubtedly connected to his criticisms of local legislator Daryl Metcalfe.

The paper reported on Metcalfe’s bigotry multiple times in recent years, including a blog post, published just days before the firing, that reported on members of the white supremacist group American Guard in attendance at a Metcalfe-hosted pro-gun rally.

As it turns out, Eagle Media Corp. is also the publisher of the Butler Eagle, the daily paper in Metcalfe’s House District. Deitch explained to Splinter that he was explicitly told to cease criticism of Metcalfe. His refusal came just days before his sudden firing.

THIS IS an alarming trend. Within a few short months, high-profile political dissenters (and rather tame dissenters at that) have been dismissed with little to no consequence or outrage. Furthermore, Pittsburgh is a piece of a larger puzzle we are witnessing come together — one in which mass media is openly being reworked as a mouthpiece for right-wing politics.

Recently, a viral video has circulated showing dozens of local news anchors at stations across the country owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group reciting, word for word, a prepared script that criticized the “troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”

Sinclair has been allowed by the federal government to consolidate control over nearly 200 local news stations. The company has openly pushed conservative, pro-Trump politics in the past, but the recent incident highlighted the extent to which the media conglomerate can force its news anchors to become mouthpieces for its own political-business interests.

Though the media landscape of the U.S. will always be home to the David Brookses and Katie Roiphes of the world, our current political moment is giving rise to an even greater crisis of free speech than mere neoliberal spew. It is up to us to keep a sharp eye on the business dealings of local news sources, which are both increasingly rare and increasingly relevant to building an informed and proactive population.

It’s no secret that the manipulation of media dissemination can have major political consequences, and we can’t let the death knell of local media ring without resistance.

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