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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Latest MAGA Move

With a startlingly amateurish endorsement in a Congressional contest, the hollowing-out of a once-great paper continues

UPDATE: On November 1st, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorsed Donald Trump for re-election, underscoring the questions raised in this essay. The paper’s endorsement of Trump caused such controversy, the Executive Editor issued a Letter to Subscribers two days later.

Pennsylvania threatens to be the pin in the grenade that is the 2020 election. One Congressional contest there mirrors the nation’s political ills: the faceoff between Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA17) and his Republican challenger, Sean Parnell.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week rolled out an endorsement in that race for MAGA-man Parnell. The imprimatur was startlingly amateurish and devoid of substance. It was simply the latest MAGA move by a newspaper that has been hollowing itself out in recent years.

The Endorsement

Out of the gate, the Post-Gazette’s endorsement committed an error that, had this been a high school civics exercise, would’ve invited the teacher’s red marker.

“The race for Congress in the 17th District is billed as a nationalized race testing the 2020 strength of Donald Trump in a district he won big four years ago,” the endorsement begins.

“If Mr. Trump carries the district this year, Republican candidate Sean Parnell will likely win the seat,” it continues. “If former Vice President Joe Biden carries the district, incumbent Conor Lamb will probably retain the seat.

“And that makes some sense.”

Well, this only makes sense to an observer who power-slept through the meteoric impact of a complete redrawing of the state’s congressional district boundaries.

Rep. Conor Lamb (D) introduces former Vice President Joe Biden at Robert Morris University. Challenger Sean Parnell (R) addressing the Republican National Convention.

Trump took that old district by ten points. This year’s 17th Congressional District is nothing like its former self, when Lamb rocked the 2018 midterms by capturing a district which — in its prior gerrymandered form — had been a lot more MAGA.

The district redrawing was the result of a 2018 ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. While the court meets 3 hours and 16 minutes by car from the Post-Gazette’s newsroom, this ruling should hold a place very close to their hearts.

You see, their Editorial Board applauded the Court-forced redrawing in 2018. The map do-over “offers hope for fair districts,” they wrote then, chiding Republicans by stating “If they hadn’t gerrymandered the districts, the court wouldn’t have ruled them unconstitutional.”

The biggest benefits they envisioned from the redraw was that “election cycles would favor moderate candidates” and better track “shifts in voter attitudes.” They hoped for a return to the meaning of the word “Representative”:

Ideally, the lines would be drawn to make every district competitive in every election, with candidates staking out moderate positions to attract the greatest number of votes and shifts in voter sentiment resulting in immediate change.

Erasing Lamb’s Moderation…

Back to the Post-Gazette’s endorsement of Parnell. It darkly asks: “Is Conor Lamb a moderate?” then convicts him for just one (one!) legislative matter — his vote for impeachment. It simplistically concludes Lamb has “been in lockstep with his speaker and his party caucus.”

Perhaps the Editorial Board should have glanced at the product of their own Washington Bureau, where their correspondent Daniel Moore offered the following solid take, just 48 hours prior to their Parnell endorsement:

GovTrack.com, using methodology that tracks votes, ranked Mr. Lamb as the most conservative House Democrat in the nine-member Pennsylvania delegation. He is more conservative than 86% of the 236-member House Democratic delegation, the congressional analytics site reported.

According to VoteView — an ideology score first developed some 30 years ago at Carnegie Mellon University — Mr. Lamb is more conservative than 99% of House Democrats. That means “he is as moderate as possible,” said Jonathan Cervas, a post-doctoral fellow at the CMU politics institute.

…and Parnell’s Partisanship

Meanwhile, the Editorial Board spackles over the extreme partisanship of their endorsee. In Parnell, they see “the maverick within the party, the moderate in the middle.”

Let’s turn again to the Post-Gazette’s own profile of the candidates, published just two days prior, where they wrote of Parnell:

In combat for Trump…the campaign has seized on partisan discord and dived headfirst into the culture wars over racial justice, painting all Democrats as radical…

Parnell’s MAGA credentials had also been established with his appearances on Fox News. In one Fox Nation appearance, Parnell said “the idea that a woman can live a happy and fulfilling life without a man, I think it’s all nonsense.”

The Post-Gazette’s editorial version of a multiple personality disorder also afflicted their calibration of Lamb’s legislative productivity.

The Editorial Board wanly observed that “To be fair to Mr. Lamb, even a star can’t get much done in the first two years on the Hill.”

Yet two days prior, their Washington Bureau had reported:

Mr. Lamb has moved forward measures to expand health treatment options for veterans, one of which unanimously passed the Republican-controlled Senate and currently awaits Mr. Trump’s signature. In September, he introduced a trio of bills on VA health care in September with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Berks, and two other Republicans.

The Difference Two Days — or Two Years — Can Make

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called Lamb a productive moderate on a Sunday, and an empty-handed partisan by Tuesday — a comical transformation across two days.

But a lot can change in two years. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is proof of that. And ignoring voices within their own paper is just the half of it.

The paper’s masthead carries the appellation “One of America’s Great Newspapers.” And this certainly used to be true, with roots back to the late 1700s, a central role in the post-war rebirth of Pittsburgh, a gallery of awards including a Pulitzer for its coverage of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, up through snaring esteemed newsman David Shribman as editor for 16 years, until his 2018 departure.

The paper’s low-grade political editorializing is especially gruesome when set against the high standards that Shribman had brought to the outlet.

Shribman exited in 2018, replaced by Keith Burris, who observers worried would cart his conservative editorial bent over into (mis)managing the news product. (You know, the kind of shift away from moderation the Editorial Board pretends to condemn in Washington.)

Charlie Deitch of the Pittsburgh Current is a longtime chronicler of the Post-Gazette’s woes. He wrote then that Burris’ appointment threatened “The Post-Gazette’s last saving grace…its top-tier group of reporters, editors and photojournalists.”

All the discord became the stuff of nationwide shock. Some junctures in the Post-Gazette’s decline even offered up moments suited for The Dr. Phil Show.

How it started. How it’s going.

A Cruel Signal

It didn't take long for Deitch’s prophecy to become fact.

This past June, reporter Alexis Johnson and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Santiago were banned from covering Black Lives Matter protests. Their sidelining was executed with such questionable reasoning, it resulted in a newsroom revolt. Johnson sued the paper, alleging racial discrimination and illegal retaliation.

Santiago, whom the Pittsburgh City Paper called “the perfect example of who Pittsburgh is trying to attract and retain in the region,” exited the paper and prepared to depart the city.

Johnson was scooped up by VICE a few weeks ago. They’re getting a journalist talented in the multi-platform newsgathering that has become essential.

That’s a nice glowup story with a happy ending for Johnson. But the duo’s departure is a particularly sad moment for this paper, in this city, in this national moment.

Pittsburgh has almost miraculously remade herself time and again. The “Burgh” is hosting major tech companies, crafty entrepreneurs and thriving artists in one place of topographical splendor. You know you’ve got juice when Ace Hotel comes to town.

But the city is also at the pain point of tensions over gentrification, race, class, gender, and generation, all deeply abraded by the pandemic. Kind of like the rest of America.

Pittsburgh always gets her future.

But the city will step into that future without the talents and perspectives of both Johnson and Santiago, all thanks to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s a cruel signal that many have heard.

The paper is wearing a MAGA hat now — just when they’re desperate for new readers like any legacy news entity, and just when the city enters another rebirthing process — one that mirrors all the tectonic societal shifts of the nation.

A legacy paper wants its future, but will the future want that paper?

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Joel Lawson

Joel Lawson

DC-based public affairs consultant. Fmr: Capitol Hill, Ctr for Partnership Studies; Caring Economy Campaign; Fmr Chair, GenderAction. about.me/joellawson