A Black journalist is suing her employer after she says she was removed from protest coverage due to a tweet, while the same actions were not taken in regard to a white male colleague.
Alexis Johnson has filed a federal lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, alleging that her employer violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866 by not permitting her to cover protests, reports Poynter. Johnson had tweeted pictures of a trash-filled parking lot taken after a concert, comparing it to looters at protests.
"Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city," Johnson wrote in the tweet. "…. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops."
Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!
…. oh wait sorry. No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops. pic.twitter.com/lKRNrBsltU
— Alexis Johnson (@alexisjreports) May 31, 2020
“The Johnson Tweet was intended to, and did, mock, ridicule and protest discrimination against African Americans by society in general and by whites who equate property damage with human life,” the lawsuit states, according to CBS 2 Pittsburgh.
After posting her tweet, which currently has over 150,000 likes, Johnson said she was told to hold off on pitches regarding protests, reports CNN. She was then completely barred from covering them.
Her lawsuit cites other employees and colleagues who have spoken out about current events, and some who have even discussed discrimination and hate following the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shootings, but who were not removed from coverage of that topic.
Editors say Johnson violated their social media policy. Johnson, 27, said that guidelines for social media usage were sent out, but her union did not agree to any policy. She also said she was not given any warning before being removed from coverage.
The reporter added that a white male reporter also tweeted about the protests, but editors only gave him a warning. He was later removed from protest coverage after union representatives discussed the issue in a meeting, according to CNN. The representatives also tried to get Johnson’s coverage privileges restored, but editors refused.
"They need to take a hard look at why they made that decision," Johnson told CNN. "They may very well thought I violated the guidelines, but I guess they need to think about why they felt so strong about that, and not a white male reporter. I guess they need to try to figure out why they are standing so strong on this."
Johnson's lawsuit seeks an end to her employer's alleged retaliation, restoration of her ability to report on protests and race and undetermined monetary compensation for damages, CBS 2 Pittsburgh reported.
“Precluding Johnson from covering major stories involving race based protests and demonstrations is a materially adverse employment action because a reasonable newspaper reporter would have been dissuaded from complaining of race discrimination had she known she would have been precluded from the assignment of coverage of a major story,” court documents read.
The suit states that Johnson suffered mental anguish, emotional strain, humiliation, inconvenience and diminished career advancement.
Michael M. Santiago, a Black photographer for the newspaper, said he was banned from protest coverage for the same reason. He has accepted a buyout and is resigning from the publication.
“I hate to be departing under these circumstances but it is necessary,” he wrote on Twitter. “How can I work for someone that doesn’t love me.”
— Michael M. Santiago (@msantiagophotos) June 14, 2020
Post-Gazette Executive Editor Keith Burris appeared on Fox News' The Ingraham Angle where host Laura Ingraham said the publication was “smeared by the left as, you got it, racist.”
“I think it is the power of the big lie and the mob. The Twitter mob,” Burris said.
Before his appearance on Fox, Burris wrote a piece for the Post-Gazette detailing his understanding of the incident, saying many people do not have the full story.
“Editors at this newspaper did not single out a Black reporter and a Black photographer and ban them from covering Pittsburgh protests after the killing of George Floyd,” he wrote.
He called the accusations an act of defamation. Burris referred to social media as a reason this story has gained traction and blamed it for labeling the paper's leaders as racist.
“No one was taken off the protest story because of race. One person was not assigned a story because of the suggestion of bias,” he wrote. “This person was not taken off a story, but was never on it. And this person does not cover race or protests. There is no such beat. This person covers social media, normally.”
He said that editors had a conversation with Johnson after the tweet and decided her commentary was out of line because she was only supposed to report facts. He said that other white reporters were also barred from covering protests after they stated their opinion on the tweet.
He called the backlash a “propaganda campaign.”
“We will not apologize for upholding professional standards in journalism or attempting to eliminate bias,” Burris wrote.
Before the lawsuit was filed, Burris and Managing Editor Karen Kane faced widespread criticism. National journalism union, the NewsGuild-CWA, and its local affiliate, the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, called for their resignations, reports Pittsburgh Business Times.
"Executive Editor Keith Burris and Managing Editor Karen Kane have shown outrageous insensitivity in directing coverage of protests of racism and police brutality, dismissed criticism from within their own newsroom and dehumanized their staff. They must resign immediately," NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss said in a statement.