The Media Equation
Michael Fuoco was a bigfoot reporter with a fiery personality and a reputation for harassing young women. No one seemed to want to rein him in.
The new leader of a journalism union appeared to react slowly to accusations against a reporter and local union leader at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette but ultimately took action.Credit…Jared Wickerham for The New York Times
- Dec. 6, 2020
As the American news business shrank and struggled over the past decade, a new wave of labor activism caught fire. A younger generation of labor leaders rose up and offered a powerful and progressive vision: They would be transparent, sensitive to issues of racism and sexism and truly accountable to workers.
The movement delivered new leadership, including a stunning upset last December, as a 32-year-old data reporter named Jon Schleuss ousted the longtime, 61-year-old president of the NewsGuild, the nation’s largest journalists’ union.
“We must do more to promote democracy and transparency in our own house,” declared Mr. Schleuss, the first openly gay president of the union.
So it would seem natural that when Mr. Schleuss was alerted, just days after his election, to sexual misconduct by a prominent union official, he would be eager to investigate.
The initial accusation, as is often so in these cases, was unconfirmed and secondhand. Its subject was a powerful union figure any new leader would be reluctant to alienate: Michael Fuoco, the 69-year-old formidable and charismatic president of the Pittsburgh local, which was headed toward a possible strike in a bitter contract fight.
Mr. Schleuss did not aggressively pursue the claims about the Pittsburgh local president, allowing Mr. Fuoco, a bigfoot crime reporter at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to hold onto his power.
But had he looked into Mr. Fuoco’s conduct over decades at the guild and the newspaper, he would have found a startling picture of a man repeatedly accused of abusing his position.
And it would not have taken much sleuthing.
An afternoon’s phone calls I made this summer turned up three former Post-Gazette journalists who described experiences involving Mr. Fuoco making unwanted advances on them or sexually harassing them. Other female journalists at the paper told me they routinely warned young women to avoid Mr. Fuoco at regular guild-hosted happy hours. And more reporting revealed darker secrets: two women who were taught by Mr. Fuoco in college journalism classes said he had pressured them into sexual relationships. One became pregnant with his child, according to court records.
He was so prolific in his harassment, that woman told me, he was like Pittsburgh’s Harvey Weinstein.
The NewsGuild was hardly the only institution that looked the other way. The Post-Gazette management received at least two complaints about Mr. Fuoco’s conduct over two decades. The newspaper’s executives knew of his sexual relationship with at least one former college student and gave him a wrist-slap of a week’s suspension — part of what many women say was a climate in the newsroom in which they had no real support or recourse. “I felt like both the management and the union lacked respect for women,” said a former Post-Gazette reporter, Annie Siebert.
But the way the NewsGuild handled the accusations is, in part, the story of a new generation of activist-minded labor leaders struggling to take hold of the movement’s sprawling organization, and grappling with a legacy inside the labor movement that contains the same troubling dynamics around race and gender as other institutions of American life.
Image Michael Fuoco speaking in support of Post-Gazette journalists in June. He resigned as the local union president in September and also quit the paper.Credit…Julia Maruca for Pittsburgh City Paper
Pittsburgh is a union town, and the characters and history that gave it its identity still play an outsize role here. The journalists’ guild was long a junior partner to the other big unions — mailers, Teamsters, platemakers, paperhandlers, pressmen, machinists and others — who manufactured and distributed as many as 530,000 Sunday copies of The Post-Gazette in the 1990s.
Now, the paper is printed only three days a week, and Sunday circulation barely tops 100,000. Mr. Fuoco has led guild members in confrontational battles with management, which has moved to shrink health care benefits and other spending.
And yet The Post-Gazette remains one of the best local newspapers left in America. The staff, which has gone 14 years without a raise, still competes for Pulitzers even as members grudgingly produce society stories about the lavish Kentucky Derby party hosted by John Robinson Block, one of the eccentric twins who inherited and still run the paper.
The accusations about Mr. Fuoco came to Mr. Schleuss from an independent labor journalist and activist who lives in Pittsburgh, Mike Elk. After Mr. Elk wrote about sexual harassment in another union in 2019, a reporter for The Washington Post, Moriah Balingit, contacted him with a tip about her own bad experience at The Post-Gazette. Even though she didn’t give him her permission to tell her story to the union, he decided he had an obligation to do so. He emailed Mr. Schleuss in December 2019, requesting “that the Guild open its own investigation into this.” He met with Mr. Schleuss in January to press the matter and shared Ms. Balingit’s name with him.
The union didn’t try to contact her. “It did not feel appropriate for me to approach” Ms. Balingit then “because of the sensitive and nonspecific nature” of the tip, Mr. Schleuss wrote to Pittsburgh union leaders on Saturday.
Mr. Elk then began a series of increasingly angry email exchanges with the union president demanding that the union look into it, a campaign that lasted several months. A union official finally spoke to Ms. Balingit in August, but she said she wasn’t interested in lodging a complaint in the union’s formal disciplinary process, according to both her and Mr. Schleuss.
Unions have a long tradition in Pittsburgh. The United Steelworkers building is also home to the NewsGuild’s Pittsburgh local.Credit…Jared Wickerham for The New York Times
The union did not take the inquiry any further.
But disturbing secrets lay just below the surface. The news business in Pittsburgh is a small world, full of people who have worked together for decades. Mr. Fuoco had led the union since 2010 with a fierce determination and outsize personality. He had a reputation for telling great stories and for passionately defending reporters facing discipline for anything from showing up late for work to plagiarizing from Wikipedia — and for harassing young female interns.
Post-Gazette veterans called his behavior an open secret, dating back at least to the 1990s. One woman, who asked not to be identified, said she complained both to the union and to the company’s head of human resources about both hostile and sexual emails from Mr. Fuoco in January 2000, when he objected to her doing a story on his police beat. (The newspaper said it had no record of the complaint.) “All the women knew to keep an eye out for him,” Annie Siebert, who worked at The Post-Gazette until 2013 and was active with the union, told me in a phone interview last week.
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Other women I interviewed offered more specific accusations. Ms. Balingit described how, as a 22-year-old reporter at a guild party in 2008, she stepped outside for a smoke, and Mr. Fuoco tried to kiss her. A former staff photographer, Rebecca Droke, said he kissed her, unexpectedly and inappropriately, while they were seated next to each other at a gathering after an awards banquet in Harrisburg in 2013.
“There needs to be a real reckoning and real accountability for what happened there,” said Ms. Droke, who worked at the paper from 2006 to 2019, including as an assistant managing editor.
Ms. Balingit, who worked at The Post-Gazette from 2008 to 2014, said she realized how hostile the environment had been only after she left to work at The Washington Post, and things were different.
“I remarked to a friend that I’d been working there for 18 months and hadn’t been harassed a single time,” she said. “It was striking to me.”
Mr. Fuoco’s stature in the city extended well beyond the newsroom, as did his reported misbehavior. He taught journalism classes at Point Park University (where the guild also represents faculty) and the University of Pittsburgh. Diana Kelly, who was a 22-year-old senior in his class back in 2002, had transferred home to Pitt because she was struggling with depression. She told me that Mr. Fuoco had encouraged her, telling her she was a talented writer with a big future, and invited her out for a drink after the semester ended. “It became very clear that it wasn’t about him talking to me about my future career opportunities,” she recalled. Soon, she felt trapped in a sexual relationship with him that continued until 2006, emails she shared with The Times and a former college friend confirmed.
“As a teacher now, it just horrifies me,” Ms. Kelly told me in an interview last week.
Ms. Kelly knew she wasn’t the only student to have had that experience. Mr. Fuoco was, simultaneously, trying to distance himself from another young woman, whom he had met when he came to lecture before a journalism class at Point Park University in 2002. Later that year, when she was 22 and still a student, as well as a stringer for The Post-Gazette, she became pregnant and had Mr. Fuoco’s child, an account confirmed in part by court documents in their child support case.
The former Point Park student complained to the Post-Gazette in 2011, describing their relationship and claiming that Mr. Fuoco had threatened her, according to emails she shared with me. The newspaper’s vice president of human resources, Stephen B. Spolar, responded in another email, saying that based on reading her email and talking to Mr. Fuoco, “I have concluded that your argument is a personal one,” and he instructed her not to contact Mr. Fuoco “during work hours.” The Post-Gazette suspended Mr. Fuoco, for one week, for using company time and resources such as his company email account on the personal matter, a current and a former Post-Gazette executive said. Both said they would discuss it only on the condition of anonymity because it is a personnel issue.
Mr. Fuoco responded to the suspension by blaming the former student for the salary he lost. “I want my money and I want it before I leave work today,” he wrote to her on April 16 in an email she shared with me.
The company said in a statement this week that it believed that it had “appropriately addressed the single complaint.”
Some inside the newsroom were not eager to cross Mr. Fuoco. They feared his power, and for their reputations, in a town that effectively has just one major newspaper left. Others worried about undermining their cause during a bitter contract fight with the Block Communications Group, which owns the newspapers and is trying to impose a tough new contract on employees.
Mr. Elk, an abrasive gadfly whose website covers corruption inside unions, did not have those restraints. He became almost fixated on the issue, sending Mr. Schleuss increasingly personal emails, calling his inaction on Mr. Fuoco “pathetic.”
On September 22, Mr. Elk published anonymous accusations on his independent labor-focused website, Payday Report. “Fuoco, president of the Pittsburgh NewsGuild since 2010, has been accused of using union happy hours to prey upon, make unwanted sexual advances, and grope women who were sometimes 30 to 40 years younger than him,’’ the website reported.
Three days later, Mr. Schleuss was in town to march with Post-Gazette members demanding a new contract. He also met privately with Mr. Fuoco, telling him “everything was fine because everyone knows that Elk is insane and has a vendetta against the Guild,” Mr. Fuoco told me in an email. (Mr. Elk describes himself a “dissident member of the guild” and said he identifies as autistic.) Mr. Schleuss said he didn’t recall the details of that conversation.
But as he was driving back to Washington that night, Mr. Schleuss received a call from the former Point Park student, who had gotten his number from Mr. Elk. “I was worried that because of his reporting style, people weren’t believing the substance of Elk’s reporting,” she told me. “I knew it to be true because I experienced it.” She said she was impressed by the union leader’s “zero-tolerance attitude” on their call. Mr. Schleuss then moved swiftly, briefed the Pittsburgh union leadership, and Mr. Fuoco agreed to step down that evening. He also resigned from the newspaper.
Mr. Schleuss said he thought he and his union had handled the accusations appropriately throughout, despite almost a year of inaction. “The moment that I got concrete evidence that was credible and actionable, I acted,” he said.
Mr. Fuoco said in an email that the accusations of sexual misconduct are “false,” and he said the union had not at any point conducted a real inquiry.
“If there ever was an investigation over the past two months I have no knowledge of it because NO ONE ever contacted me,” he said in an email.
Last week, Mr. Schleuss sounded a bit like the management executives the union has chastised in recent years, promising new training to fight sexual harassment and other forms of bigotry and to enforce an environment of mutual respect.
(I was on the management side of an organizing drive last year and wrote about that and the union revival in May.)
But it is clear that the searing cultural and generational issues tearing at newsrooms cannot be easily tamed within the union.
Mr. Fuoco’s resignation set off a new election at The Post-Gazette, and last month members watched election committee members count ballots over Zoom. The results, when they arrived, shocked guild leaders. Members had, by a vote of 55 to 52, chosen a 28-year-old breaking news reporter, Lacretia Wimbley, over a member of the paper’s old guard as their new president. A young Black woman would lead the union.
It was a rejection of, among other things, Mr. Fuoco’s theatrical preparations for a strike that had divided the newsroom and raised concerns with top national union officials.
But a week later, in a miniature echo of Rudy Giuliani’s Pennsylvania misadventures, Post-Gazette reporters received an email: Some mail-in ballots had not come with return addresses, and were therefore, well, invalid. The election was open to challenge if the losing candidate chose to. The acting president of the Pittsburgh guild, Ed Blazina, announced that the election would be rerun, prompting a furious response from the apparent winner and her supporters.
“On the same day the guild sends out a statement demanding more diversity in the newsroom, it removes an African-American woman as its president,” Mark Belko, a real estate reporter, wrote in an email to other members, calling it an “outrage.”
For now, the union is in the hands of a longtime union colleague of Mr. Fuoco, Mr. Blazina, a transportation reporter who has worked at the paper since 1983.
The accusations against Mr. Fuoco came as “a complete, total shock to me, and to this day I know nothing firsthand about it,” Mr. Blazina said. When asked about Mr. Fuoco’s reputation for, at minimum, being overly aggressive with women at union gatherings, he said: “I can tell you — he wasn’t handsy with me.”