CBS’s top two news executives were placed on administrative leave after a bombshell story in the Los Angeles Times alleging they were responsible for creating a hostile work environment. The story, which is based on a CBS internal investigation, alleges serial instances where CBS TV president Peter Dunn, who is in charge of CBS stations across the country, bullied women managers in Philadelphia and other cities, as well as discriminated against and disparaged Black employees and potential employees. Dunn’s lieutenant, David Friend, has also been accused of similar discriminatory acts. CBS3 anchor Ukee Washington was named as one of the targets of these attacks.
In 1991, when I came to Philadelphia to work in news at WCAU (which at the time was CBS), Washington was already a popular fixture at KYW. More than 30 years later the fact that he is still on TV as the station’s main anchor is a testament to his skills, popularity, and resilience. Given the culture described in the L.A. Times, his longevity is nothing short of miraculous. The derogatory comments allegedly made by Dunn about Washington are straight out of the Jim Crow minstrel shows only seen on the TCM channel.
During my 30 years of working in five television markets across the country, I heard countless stories from colleagues of both overt and subtle experiences of racism akin to what is alleged in the CBS investigation. Far too often women and people of color find themselves navigating newsrooms full of land mines at the intersection of race, gender, and age.
As a young reporter I was often accused of being too aggressive (aka an angry Black woman). These comments were not made about my male colleagues. Or I would be passed over for an assignment that went to a less qualified male. A news director once told me in a staff meeting in front of other coworkers, “Sometimes when you are ‘on air’ you get this look on your face — and you just look dumb.” As I got older, some comments were ageist. A supervisor matter-of-factly stated that when hiring a coanchor to work with me, it was “tough because all the candidates are young and you end up looking like their grandmother.”
Let me be clear: For most of my television career, I worked in newsrooms that were racially diverse and overall, it was a wonderful experience. To this day I love it when someone stops me and says, “I grew up watching you.” While my personal experiences with disparities were less about race and more about gender and age, most of us know that race runs through every aspect of our lives, making it difficult to parse.
Some part of this problem is inherent in the superficial nature of local television news because so much is based on appearances. It allows executives to get away with assessments or calls that would never fly in other industries. In television news, executives make judgments on a “talent’s” looks. If the boss has a racial bias then that is the lens through which they see the candidate. It gives them license, under the guise of “chemistry,” to say “I don’t like her face.” That was the comment Dunn allegedly made about a former CBS3 Black anchorwoman. Or the bias that can exist in the common practice of “maintaining a balance” when putting together anchor teams. That was shown when, as reported in the Times article, Dunn felt comfortable saying “there was too much diversity” on the CBS3 anchor desk when both coanchors were Black.
And of course, none of this addresses the complexion of journalists behind the scenes. A news release from the National Association of Black Journalists set forth that CBS3 has not had a full-time Black news producer in six years.
How can an industry whose raison d’etre is built on shining a light on the wrongs of others be so blind when it comes to the importance of valuing race, age, and gender? Not to mention the fact that our nation is now being led by those in their 70s and 80s, that women are the second and third persons in the chain of command, and the new administration’s cabinet is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history.
All newsrooms have to be held accountable and those of us in news, current and former, can’t be silent. Some of the executives who saw the behaviors spoke out while it was happening, but others did not. I failed to speak out and challenge ageist remarks while I was still working in the newsroom. In the Los Angeles Times story, several reporters of color were anonymous sources for the allegations of racism in the newsroom. That was courageous, but it is not their responsibility alone. We need allies in the newsroom and that means the support of white male colleagues. If Black Lives Matter is more than a slogan on a sign, then everyone has a responsibility to speak up.
Of course, ultimate responsibility rests with CBS.
It appears the top brass at CBS made the decision to put Dunn and Friend on administrative leave only after the National Association of Black Journalists demanded they be fired. “Leadership matters,” “the buck stops here,” “the fish rots from the head” — pick whatever euphemism you choose, but real change starts at the top.
CBS will never be able to create a culture of inclusion, it will never have the trust of its employees and ultimately the communities it serves, if it is led by individuals who have betrayed the very values and traditions CBS maintains it stands for. Both men should be removed from their positions.
In the words of CBS legend Walter Cronkite:
“And that’s the way it is.”
Renee Chenault Fattah is a lawyer, broadcast journalist, and a former NBC10 anchor and reporter. She is currently the director of pro bono action at SeniorLAW Center.
Editor’s note: A previous headline referred to a CBS3 executive’s comments. It has been corrected to refer to CBS, the local station’s parent company.