Inside the Civility Cage
Five months with Keith Burris editing my hometown newspaper.
BY PATRICK MCGINTY
CAGES ARE on my mind. On most minds, I imagine.
But I’m weak. I can spend only so many hours per day picturing immigrant children behind a lock. My compromise is this: rather than distract myself from the subject entirely, I at some point segue to thinking about cages, their underlying principles, and their role in a democracy.
A cage has six sides.
Though a cage may allow for conversation to pass horizontally through bars, any notion of “dialogue” is an illusion. The only meaningful discussion would interrogate why someone built the cage and why someone is inside.
A cage must be carefully built—you can’t build the floor and ceiling simultaneously. You construct it piece by piece.
WHEN I’M IN the mood to fret over lighter fare, I worry about the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which I subscribe to and love. In high school I wrote grandstanding response papers in Current Affairs that lovingly (okay, annoyingly) nitpicked Tony Norman columns as though he was my ideological father. I have relied on Bill Schackner’s education reporting as much as I have relied on emails from my own union boss. In recent months, Rich Lord’s narrative reporting on the opioid crisis has been devastating, and Peter Smith and Liz Navratil have highlighted the attempts by various Roman Catholic dioceses to shut down a statewide grand jury investigation into sexual abuse. Yet despite these and other examples of important, well-done work, the city-wide conversation is, quite unfortunately, about their supervisor.
Keith Burris is the editor of the Toledo Blade, a newspaper owned by Block Communications, which also owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Starting in March of 2018, Burris began serving as the editorial director for both of Block Newspapers’ publications. If this new role seems like too much multi-tasking, I assure you that there is nothing multi-faceted about Burris’s singular mission: to shove the Post-Gazette’s editorial page to the ideological right at the behest of John Robinson Block, the Trump-fascinated owner of Block Communications. Burris’s authorial contributions and his managerial decisions have—at least twice, probably three times—nationally disgraced the paper and city at-large.
The fiascoes can often be traced back to Burris’s myopic love of civility, which is shaping up to be the word of 2018. Rather than discuss children in cages, we, as a nation, are being increasingly encouraged to discuss civility. Those who preach civility are, as far as I can tell, advancing the following advice: pay fervent, microscopic attention to the mechanics of a particular discourse as opposed to the subject of (and reason for) said discourse.
For example: when the Red Hen in Washington, D.C., denied service to press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, civility preachers centered the discussion on the mechanics of the protest and not the reason for it. Only within a civility debate can you privilege a meal over detained children.
Civility, then, is not an ideology or even an expectation of manners. It’s certainly not a principle. In the current political climate, to preach civility is to make a rhetorical move. It is to shift the discussion. It’s a tactic employed not during broad, sustained crises (say, Congress refusing to hold hearings for Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court for months on end, or the endless scroll of Donald Trump tweets), but instead a strategy more commonly championed ad nauseum during targeted, isolated instances like the Red Hen’s refusal of service. The civility preacher tends maniacally to the tone and mechanics of a particular conversation so as to distract from the aggrieved party’s subject and argument (...which is a useful technique if a civility preacher lacks talking points and/or philosophies for a functional healthcare system, ditto an immigration system, does not want to discuss race, and so on).
In the most generous terms, preaching civility is being selective about when and where manners apply. More realistically, and as practiced in political discourse in 2018, preaching civility entails responding to the question “Why must you treat humans so inhumanely?” with “Why are you so loud?”
KEITH BURRIS is a civility preacher of the highest order. Like a degree-less doctor Conestoga-ing into town to peddle elixirs that are quite clearly civic poison, Burris is eager to shove his civility prescriptions into the hands of readers. When his work sows a great deal of destructive and largely avoidable civic unrest, his solution is of course: more civility. Many have unsubscribed, both literally and figuratively, from this tiring loop. One notable Post-Gazette staffer has been fired by it. Turnover has quite possibly been Burris’s aim all along.
Maybe it is the recurring cultural discussion of cages. Maybe it is because I have spent so many mornings cringing at Burris’s undercooked prose style. I can’t pinpoint the day or exact cause, but at some point, I started to envision an invisible Burris-made civility cage around the Post-Gazette’s op-ed page. This structure is six-sided. It provides readers and participants with the illusion of meaningful public dialogue. And it has been carefully built across several months.
The Floor of the Civility Cage: Undermine those who threaten both authority and civility in the public arena
Though Burris had yet to be appointed to the editor position at the Post-Gazette, his unsigned op-ed on January 15th, 2018, appeared in the Post-Gazette on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The piece, “Reason as Racism: An Immigration Debate Gets Derailed,” sought to justify President Trump’s use of the term “shithole countries.” More accurately, the goal was to shift the focus of the discussion, as is the civility preacher’s credo. In the unsigned op-ed (later reported to be the work of Burris), Burris is less concerned with those who espouse racist ideology than those who accuse such bigots of racism. Inhabiting the voice of an aggrieved liberal or socialist making charges of racism, Burris mock-writes:
“And, finally, having chosen the ultimate epithet, I have dodged the obligation to converse or build.”
Here Burris argues that labeling someone a racist ultimately stifles conversation. Calling out racism is, in Burris’s mind, a destructive act, one that not only shuts down opportunities for further communication but forgoes a civic “obligation” to converse (...with racists).
His prescription is clear: polite, status-quo enforcing conversation is the solution to social and political upheaval. The response to the piece was clear, too: what a racist and racist-enabling article! The piece was trashed by nonprofit leaders and also in a letter signed by twenty-eight former Post-Gazette employees. Sixteen members of the Block family signed a letter criticizing their family’s paper, ashamed that the institution sought to “justify blatant racism.”
Which the piece clearly did. It also laid the foundation for a more “civil” op-ed page where no one could “slander” anyone—not even racists—as being racist.
The First Wall of the Civility Cage: Undermine those who threaten authority and civility in the political arena
Burris was announced as the new Post-Gazette editor on March 3rd. By the 11th, the editorial board endorsed Republican candidate Rick Saccone (“Rick Saccone for Congress: The State Rep is Ready to Move on to U.S. House”). Due to redistricting and special elections, Saccone managed to lose two elections in one year, which is easier to do when you say things like liberals “have a hatred for God.” Perhaps tellingly, the Post-Gazette’s endorsement provided scant reasoning in support of their conservative man. Their chief argument was that they feared the outcome of a Democratic majority in the House. Namely, an impeachment process:
“Regardless of whether one likes this president or his policies, one must ask what the consequence for the country will be if we dive into so great a distraction.”
Several worthy caveats: first, thus far, the two examples have been unsigned editorials—other individuals may have participated in the drafting of the arguments/endorsements. Second, Burris did not invent regrettable political endorsements at the Post-Gazette; during the 2016 election, the PG endorsed Republican Pat Toomey for U.S. Senate, a man whose central campaign strategy was to address Trump’s persistently controversial commentary the way I address household projects, i.e. “I need to look at it more closely.” Third, I am not sentimental about print journalism to the point of advising hand-wringing over newspaper endorsements.
However, for scorekeeping purposes: to Burris, accusations of racism are an impediment to conversation, and impeachment is a distraction. A week into Burris’s tenure, he had established that disruptive conversation and disruptive political processes would not be tolerated inside his civility cage.
The Second Wall of the Civility Cage: Reiterate the trustworthiness and dignity of authority figures upholding the principles of civility
It was spring. Easter, actually. Burris was feeling hopeful. On April first, in what has now become his regular Sunday opinion column, he identified three noble men who he felt could restore the political system to order, dubbed “The Men in the Middle.” In this trio he for some reason also included Speaker Paul Ryan. Burris ended his first descriptive paragraph of Ryan’s talents with: “The man thinks.”
Is that sentence a stage direction in a slow play? An unfinished thought? Like Kramer and George workshopping versions of “These pretzels are making me thirsty,” I practiced different dramatic emphases. I laughed at this three-word endorsement for a week. I laughed harder when Ryan announced his retirement ten days after the column.
The Third Wall of the Civility Cage: Enforce real-life consequence upon those who threaten authority and civility; make an example
Just over a month into his tenure, Burris was clearly feeling the heat from readers and staff. On April fifteenth, he used his Sunday opinion column to provide a “Primer on Opinion Writing,” i.e. to lecture his readership on his duty as an opinion writer to aggravate said readership (worth noting: in principle, I concur!). He advised them to keep coming back no matter how much they disagreed with him (again: I generally agree!). He closes thus: “That is the beauty, and the romance, of journalism. The inquiry does not end until we do; the conversation does not stop, ever.”
I emailed this closing line to Burris in June when it was reported that Burris was censoring the Trump-lampooning work of Rob Rogers, the Post-Gazette’s Pulitzer-nominated political cartoonist. Nineteen of Rogers’ cartoons wound up rejected under Burris’s tenure. When, I asked, would Burris abide by his own words and allow the liberal Rogers to participate in Burris’s beloved “conversation” on the op-ed page?
Never, it turned out. On June fourteenth, after twenty-five years as the Post-Gazette’s beloved editorial cartoonist, Rogers was fired by Burris for his refusal to change the tone and subject of his award-winning work.
It is hard to accurately represent what a seismic event this was in Pittsburgh. That Thursday, my aunts’ monthly neighborhood action coalition meeting ran long. Why? “Everybody spent the first twenty minutes talking about Rob Rogers.” My wife got home late from her organization’s volunteer appreciation event. How was it? “Everybody was freaking out about Rob Rogers.” The newspaper staff took out a full-page ad in the Post-Gazette assuring readers they were “committed to the independent, impartial presentation of the news, which we seek to present without interference or influence.”
Or, the last clause implies, Keith Burris.
Some Americans survived the Bush years with Jon Stewart. Some marched. As a young teenager, I read Tony Norman and Rob Rogers. The former is still dutifully acting as the city’s liberal conscience on the Perspectives page. The latter was fired because he refused to practice Burris’s authority-respecting civility. He did not fit, in other words, inside or even alongside the emerging civility cage.
The Fourth Wall of the Civility Cage: stoke enough fear to make a cage seem preferable
On April twenty-second, Burris focused on the president’s potential forthcoming legal woes, advising civility right in the title: “Due Process—Even for Those We Dislike.” The lede: “If the Constitution is skirted to prosecute Trump, it can [sic] skirted to prosecute you as well.”
Upon reading the missing “be,” I figured the copy desk was in open revolt. Perhaps they saw Burris’s typo and left it in. Perhaps they added it after reading his argument, which employs such classic conservative fear-mongering—“It Could Happen to You, Too!”
The “It” in these conservative scenarios is always something comically grandiose. The “It” is never some common, tragically frequent occurrence. The argument is never “What if cancer happens to you and you don’t have health care?” Nor does the deep male voice in the television ad ever ask “What if education cuts devastate your district and you can’t afford a new neighborhood/private school?”
No, the “It” favors more fantastical renderings. President Trump’s scary “It” is most often something akin to a gang of Mexican cannibals moving into white rural neighborhoods. In Burris’s scenario, the “It” is possibly even more imaginative: what if, as a private citizen, your endlessly complicated and shady financial relationships with foreign oligarchs made you the target of a special investigation?
With five sides built, let’s take stock. Thus far, the civility cage has instructed participants and readers to reject both the identification of racism and also political threats to authority. It has placed faith in incumbents and dismissed perceived rabble rousers. To this last point, Burris has now subtly added “Remember: act up, and this can all happen to you.”
The Ceiling of the Civility Cage: do not preach at the civility preacher; remain in conversation with the civility preacher
On June twenty-fourth, Burris responded to the outpouring of venom he received after firing Rogers. Sort of. In “On Being Labeled,” Burris shares that “I started to be excoriated—not for the first time—on social media.” Tellingly, he never directly responds to reader complaints. As is the civility preacher’s style, he focuses instead on the tone of the complaints. A sticking point for Burris is the persistent notion from readers that he is a “right-winger from Ohio,” which gives Burris his opening to shift to the mechanics of the discussion: “Well, I am proud to be from Ohio.”
Just as Burris shifted from Trump’s racism to those accusing Trump of racism in “Reason as Racism,” here Burris shifts from accusations aimed at the civility preacher (presumably about censorship and Rogers) to the delivery style of said accusations. In listing all the ways in which his values transcend the label “right-winger from Ohio,” he laments “the war on civility, which comes from all directions.”
Yet Burris, as a master civility preacher, does more than lament. He advises. About his columns and the paper at-large, he invites readers to “Read them for a few months and judge them for yourselves.” Responding on June twenty-seventh to the aforementioned Red Hen incident, the editorial board—presumably Burris—calls readers to action:
“If you care about this country, and you are a conservative, take a liberal to lunch, at a place you know you both will be served, and listen to him. If you are a liberal, hug a Republican.”
Without context, these passages pass as mildly useful, if saccharine, advice—continue to engage with differing views, seek them out, etc. Within the context of Burris’s Pittsburgh oeuvre, which began with a defense of racism, the passages inoculate the civility preacher from criticism and place no less than the burden of future American discourse on the audience’s ability to remain in tortured discourse with civility preachers. It’s an unappealing offer. It’s actually less an offer and more a slight—if you care is the language of a relationship crumbling in a dorm hallway. I dare you to break up with me.
If it seems like I’m unfairly inserting an imperative, abusive mood into that line, I assure you that the addition isn’t derived (entirely) from my own biases. The bossy, angry tone is quite evident in many of Burris’s own greatest hits, notably his February 5th Blade column that appeared in the wake of the “Reason as Racism” article. In “What Happened to Candy and Flowers,” Burris blames “the 1960s and feminism” for our coarse, uncivilized brand of modern discourse. “Feminism,” Burris writes, “was a step back toward barbarism, not away from it. It is a ridiculously inconsistent ideology: Let us be feral but victims too.”
There are two curious adjectives in that last sentence. The first is “inconsistent,” by which I think Burris subconsciously means to say “enviable.” Unlike the civility preacher, whose injuries are at best perceived and at worst fabricated, feminists have physical, economic, historical claims to injury. One imagines a civility conference where writers and thinkers try to brainstorm tangible injuries stemming from incivility so as to compete with the feminists.
But it’s the second adjective that shows there is nothing truly civil about a civility preacher. That adjective is, rather obviously, “feral,” which I imagine is not listed in any civility preacher’s handbook of adjectives that help promote quiet, sane discourse. Burris’s use of feral is not a one-off slip up, an exception, a mistake. It’s a direct and penetrating look beneath the veneer of civility and into the actual point-of-view inhabited by the civility preacher—namely, that people who do not buy into civility are uncivil animals. If Burris were to be called “feral,” he would advise civility. That he is able to wield the term against others is because civility does not mean “an even application or advisement of manners.” It has nothing to do with the preservation of civic norms. As currently practiced, civility’s only long-term function is to preserve the civility preacher’s role in the civic arena.
THE CIVILITY PREACHER’S response to a sustained inquiry like mine is obvious: A cage? My my, that’s a bit imaginative, isn’t it? A bit much, perhaps? Aren’t I allowed an opinion or two? “What,” the PG’s Red Hen editorial bemoans, “has become of the United States of Tolerance, where everyone was entitled to his or her opinion?”
(Ask Rob Rogers, is one answer.)
Such a place has never existed, is how protesters have answered for three weeks all over Pittsburgh, eschewing complaints concerning the civility of when and where they demonstrated after seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose II was killed with three shots in the back by a police officer on June nineteenth.
Tony Norman tacitly answered Burris’s question in his June twenty-ninth column, responding to requests from nervous white readers that he explain why so many black people were protesting in the city, upsetting the status quo: to believe that a United State of Tolerance ever existed is to offer “false hope and the dubious civility that comes with it.”
This civility nonsense is worse than dubious. It’s duplicitous. It’s shooing “political correctness” with one hand and using the other to serve those same generous principles onto the plates of white authority figures. The civility preacher applies none of his so-called “principles” to the president, who fashioned the press as the enemy of the people the same week that five people were shot in a Maryland newsroom. He offers none of his civility pills to ICE or child immigration facilities, workers at the latter of which, as reported by the Associated Press, injected drugs that were quite real into children so as to make the children more civil. Antwon Rose II is murdered by police on June eighteenth, Republican Councilman Gregory C. Wagner drives his Mercedes through protesters on June twenty-second, a video of Sean Williams being tased in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, goes viral on June twenty-eighth, and yet no civility preacher will include any of the perpetrators in the civility discussion—a discussion that is a time-wasting, authority-protecting, bad-faith distraction.
I’VE TRIED TO IGNORE Burris’s work, to establish a cut-off date for this essay. It is difficult to quit when his pieces keep one-upping each other. In a July seventeenth editorial, following the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Burris finally managed to count Trump among his civility warriors. Long the crass round orange peg in Burris’s civility cage narrative, the president’s bizarrely acquiescent performance gave Burris his long-awaited moment to heroize a man who is the breathing antonym of civil. The editorial’s title was a Burrisian masterpiece: “It is better to talk: Russia is not America’s friend, but we can converse.” “The president,” the editorial suggests, “was brave to have the meeting.” What was said at this meeting? What are the consequences? To Burris, these are irrelevant questions. What matters is that the participants conversed in a civil tone that the civility preacher approves of. Tone is king. Words and arguments are immaterial. Quotes are quite literally absent in what is a profoundly embarrassing editorial from a paper nominally in the words business.
The Post-Gazette is evidently going to help me out with my Burris diet, though not in the exact way I’d prefer. On June twenty-eighth, the paper announced that, come August, it would drop two days of print coverage. The early popular line of thinking is that the move is a result of Burris-related subscription cancellations. The reality is that the company has been promoting its new digital “NewsSlide” enterprise since last fall.
Even at five days, I will subscribe. I confess that the full-page staff ad after the Rogers firing moved me deeply. I want the PG’s work to remain stellar and funded even while Burris lords over his civility cage, which is, I must remind myself, his right. It also happens to be his job. Civility preaching on the editorial page is what John Robinson Block wants, evidently. It is, after all, his business.
But is civility a good business practice? The answer may come later in 2018. I was morosely staunch in my belief that the PR damage over Burris-related drama far outweighed the actual damage to the paper’s bottom line, yet inertia is any institution’s greatest ally, and when the new distribution model arrives, the PG will be reminding readers that they have a choice in how they receive their news. Thanks to Mr. Burris, it is a particularly perilous time for the paper to make such an ask. In the wake of the firing of a local and national institution like Rob Rogers, and having subjected them to five months of Keith Burris’s civility cage, will it be wise to place a new subscription model in front of readers?
They may think.
Correction: August 7, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated the day Keith Burris’s “Reason as Racism” appeared in the Toledo Blade. Burris’s editorial was published in the Toledo Blade on the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in the Post-Gazette on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.