Media Repeatedly Ignores Summer Lee’s Charges of Racism Against Her Opponent

Summer Lee has repeatedly made charges of racist conduct against her opponent Steve Irwin, but the Pittsburgh media refusing to publish them.

PITTSBURGH, PA. –  With Election Day on May 17th, the AIPAC-affiliated United Democracy Project super PAC and the Irwin campaign are spending over $2 million dollars to attack congressional candidate Summer Lee. Likewise, the local media is helping by refusing to cover the racist nature of many of the attacks. 

Pittsburgh media has been notoriously racist, as documented in the 2019 Columbia Journalism Review study: “The Pittsburgh Problem: Race, Media, and Everyday Life in the Steel City”  by Dr. Letrell Critteden. In the current race for Congress, we are seeing the local Pittsburgh media fail, once again, to cover charges of racism.

On at least three different occasions, Summer Lee has accused Irwin, his campaign, or the Unity for Democracy Project of racism, but no local media has covered Lee’s accusations. 

In late March, Irwin’s campaign manager referred to the Black state representative as a “professional protestor” and “showboater” in the pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. When Lee accused Irwin of engaging in “dog whistle politics” the Post-Gazette did not run her response

Later in the week, Irwin also set off a firestorm among Black activists in Pittsburgh with remarks he made to Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle.  

“The attraction of having a Black woman as a congressperson, on its face, is very attractive,” Irwin told the Jewish Chronicle. “That’s something that has to happen at some point. But I have gotten to know my opponent over the last few years. I supported her when we first met. I know how she’s worked with other people in the community, I know how she’s worked with people in business, I know how she’s worked with people in the House and government, and I can tell you that it does not indicate that it would be as conducive to getting things done.”

Lee called out Irwin for the remarks. 

“1st he diminishes me as just a ‘professional protestor.’ Which is obviously offensive. But THIS, is disgraceful,” wrote Lee on Twitter.  “This is the misogynoir we witnessed w/#JudgeKBJ & COUNTLESS qualified Blk women who threaten white male hegemony. And as we see it doesnt just come from Republicans”. 

While big-name national reporters like The Intercept’s Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy highlighted the remarks on social media, no local Pittsburgh media outlets even covered the accusations of racism leveled against Irwin. 

This past week, AIPAC-affiliated groups coordinating with Steve Irwin began airing more than $2 million in ads against Lee. Some of the ads drew criticism for suggesting that Lee, who campaigned for Joe Biden, had been a supporter of Donald Trump.

On Thursday, Lee took to Twitter to call out how the ads perpetuated racial inequities in politics. 

“Theyre trying to silence Blk women who stand against inequity, injustice & have the nerve to speak against our own oppression,” wrote Lee on twitter. “They want to prevent another me ever existing.They want little girls empowered by our mvmnt to shrink in shame instead of swell w/pride when they see this”. 

Lee pushed Irwin to denounce the attack ads issued by these groups. 

“These tactics are disenfrachising, discouraging &disgraceful. And they don’t just hurt me. They hurt the democratic process @SteveIrwinPA should be ashamed to be connected to or run a campaign that would go to such desperate lengths to win,” wrote Lee on Twitter. 

Highlighting how the super PAC running the ads against her was also supporting GOP representatives who tried to overturn the 2020 election, Lee said that the complicity and failure to speak against the ads was reinforcing racist white supremacist structures. However, once again, the local media did not cover Lee’s comments.


When Payday Report exposed how Leech Tishman Fuscaldo and Lampl, the law firm that Steve Irwin co-owns, filed an amicus brief with the National Labor Relations Board against collective bargaining rights for college athletes, no local outlets covered Irwin’s union-busting ties. 

The local AFL-CIO, however, declined to endorse Irwin in large part due to the revelations by Payday Report. 

While Irwin and his allies are spending millions of dollars against Lee, the local media in Pittsburgh is working against Lee by covering up the racist messaging in Irwin’s campaign for Congress.

Donate to Payday to Help Us Cover this Crucial Election

(Full Disclosure: Summer Lee and I attended Woodland Hils High School together in the early 2000s)

About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter, who covered everything from the Brazilian labor movement to major league baseball and spent years covering union organizing in the South for The Guardian. In 2015, he used his NLRB settlement from being fired illegally for union organizing at Politico to start the crowd-funded Payday Report. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh but speaks Portuguese which he learned in journalism school in Rio de Janerio. Email: [email protected]

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