AFTER LESS THAN three hours of deliberation yesterday, an all-white jury decided that former Fox 29 anchor Tom Burlington had not been fired for racial reasons.
Burlington was terminated on July 12, 2007, after using the N-word during a June 23, 2007, staff meeting about the Philadelphia Council of the NAACP's symbolic burial of the infamous epithet.
"Does this mean we can finally say, 'N-----'?" Burlington testified he'd said in the meeting. However, Anne Malone, to whom Fox 29 referred Burlington for sensitivity training, wrote that he had said the word three times in rapid succession during the June 23 meeting.
Jerome Hoffman, attorney for Fox 29, said in his closing argument that Malone's notes predate Burlington's lawsuit, and may best reflect his honest recollection of the meeting.
"Just stop and think: Who in the world would ever say that?" Hoffman said yesterday about Burlington's comments.
Hoffman also spent considerable time in his closing argument describing Burlington's exchange with his then-co-anchor Joyce Evans, in which Burlington said that someone else had called Evans a "N----- bitch."
Burlington had denied using this phrase in an earlier deposition, but later admitted to saying it during his trial testimony. Robin Taylor, the Fox 29 reporter who originally reported on the NAACP story, was present during the conversation and testified that Burlington had used the phrase with Evans.
Hoffman compared it to calling a woman a c---.
Burlington's attorney, Laura Mattiacci, framed the case in her closing argument as "not about whether a white person can say the N-word."
The case, she said, centered on "workplace equality [applying] to everyone, regardless of their race."
Mattiacci said Burlington's comments were "not malicious." She criticized the use of the N-word by black employees at the station. One anchorman, Dave Huddleston, allegedly called a criminal "another dumb n-----" without being disciplined, Burlington testified.
But Hoffman sharply denied this characterization of Fox 29's workplace.
"No other newsroom employee heard it," he told the jury yesterday. "It's a big lie . . . "
Other concerns stemmed from whether Evans had a "discriminatory animus" against Burlington. She told one employee present at the June 23 meeting, Becky Rogers, that a white person needed to complain about Burlington because at that point only black people had complained, Rogers said in a deposition.
Evans was on vacation in the lead-up to Burlington's firing, although she did make a phone call to human-resources manager Ameena Ali saying that the National Association for Black Journalists and the Pennsylvania Association for Black Journalists had concerns about Burlington. Mattiacci said the calls led to the decision to fire Burlington.
Hoffman said the firing, which was decided by General Manager Mike Renda, stemmed from negative publicity surrounding the incident.
Both sides yesterday agreed on one point - the supposed irrelevance of the Daily News. Burlington's attorneys insisted that Fox 29 could have countered the adverse publicity brought about by former gossip columnist Dan Gross' series of articles, as well as other reports in local papers.
"The defendant in this case is Fox Television Inc., and they're worried about . . . - with all respect - the Daily News?" Mattiacci said.
But Hoffman had some backhanded praise for the People Paper.
"It's a significant paper," he said. "At least for sports - not for other things, maybe."
Hoffman and Mattiacci both declined to comment on the verdict. It was unclear whether Burlington's attorneys intended to appeal.