AJR  Columns
From AJR,   December/January 2010

Career Suicide?   

Demoted TV journalists are going to court in an effort to get their jobs back.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

Being shunted off to weekends has never been a coveted career move for a main anchor at a local television station. For Charles Perez, it was the last straw. When Miami's ABC affiliate changed his schedule this summer, he claimed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. When WPLG fired him, calling his accusation outrageous, Perez let fly with a new charge of retaliation. "I believe they sold me out as soon as my being gay became too widely known," Perez wrote on The Daily Beast. "It made them uncomfortable and made me, in their eyes, less advertiser-friendly."

His case is just one of a series of high-profile discrimination suits filed against local television stations in the past several months. Veteran reporter Shelly Sindland charged her employer, Tribune Co.-owned WTIC in Hartford, with age and sex discrimination, claiming she was passed over for assignments and subjected to degrading comments about her looks. Three on-air female journalists at KMBC, the Hearst-owned station in Kansas City, filed a similar complaint, alleging "a hostile environment, permeated with threats, intimidation and disrespect." And former Houston anchor Wendy Corona sued for defamation and breach of contract after KPRC abruptly let her go. All of the stations have denied wrongdoing.

Taking legal action against your employer and going public about it used to be rare in TV news. Rick Gevers, an agent who has represented on-air talent for more than a dozen years, has never had a client file a discrimination case, but he knows what his advice would be. "I would caution them that it's a small industry and it could be difficult to find that next job because of that" complaint.

So what's changed? The economy, for one thing. Discrimination complaints always jump during a recession; according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, complaints in all industries were up 15 percent last year compared with 2007, the latest data available, and age discrimination charges increased 30 percent.

"Employers may think that because they are doing layoffs, it gives them cover for discriminatory activities," says Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, an employee advocacy group. But, she adds, workers who believe they've been discriminated against are more likely to bring charges when the economy is sour. "Instead of moving on, people are unemployed, sitting home stewing or taking a job outside their profession at a significant pay cut," Brantner says.

But many of the recent complaints against local TV stations have been brought by people who still work there--or did at the time they filed--and they haven't done it quietly. Conventional wisdom says they should be grateful to still have a job in a shrinking industry. But as newsrooms cut staffs and slash salaries, highly paid anchors and reporters may be more willing to fight it out in court and in public to keep what they have. "Now you have a whole different group of plaintiffs who've made a conscious decision that airing this in the press has value to them," says William Perkins, an employment attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in New York who has represented both ABC and NBC. "We may be entering a new phase with more trials because employees have nowhere to go." For Christine Craft, there's a sense of déjà vu about all this. A quarter-century ago, she was demoted from TV news anchor to reporter after being told that focus groups found her "too old, too unattractive and not deferential enough to men." She sued and won twice, but the verdicts were thrown out on appeal. The station involved? KMBC--the Kansas City station now being sued again for age and sex discrimination.

"You'd think they would have learned something by now," says Craft, who left television to become a lawyer and radio talk show host in California. "I think they've got short memories," says attorney Dennis Egan, who represented Craft and is handling the current KMBC case, in which two of the plaintiffs charge they were demoted as anchors, while older men kept their positions and younger women were promoted.

But what's to remember, exactly? KMBC and its owner at the time, Metromedia, never had to pay Craft a dime, and the company's litigation expenses were tax deductible. As for other costs, "There is a risk in terms of public image," says Perkins. "How long it lasts in the public mind is hard to say." Twenty-five years after the Christine Craft case, it seems local television stations may be more worried about their survival than their reputations. Viewers already are tuning them out. Revenue is down. What do they really have to lose in a public fight against a discrimination claim?

Charles Perez, on the other hand, may have already lost his career. "I'll probably never work in the news business again," he wrote.

Years ago, when the TV news business was financially healthy and growing, Perez and the other plaintiffs might not have taken that risk. But these days, it seems, there's no good reason to worry about burning a bridge to nowhere.