• Award-winning journalist dismissed for benign comment about black-on-black violence.
By John Friend —
An award-winning journalist who was fired in late March from WTAE-TV, a local Pittsburgh-based ABC news affiliate, is suing her former employer for discrimination.
Wendy Bell, who joined WTAE in 1998 and had won 21 regional Emmy Awards, was fired for comments she made on a WTAE-sponsored Facebook page where the popular journalist was active and often interacted with viewers and supporters of the local news outlet. Mrs. Bell, who is white, had covered the black-on-black violent crime wave that has impacted the Pittsburgh community particularly hard for the local news outlet.
Mrs. Bell’s Facebook post came in response to a gruesome ambush in Wilkinsburg, a largely black suburb just east of Pittsburgh, on March 9, where local law enforcement officials believe at least two men opened fired on a backyard BBQ party. Six people, including a pregnant mother and her unborn child, were killed during the attack.
When Mrs. Bell made her Facebook post roughly two weeks following the heinous attack, no arrests had been made and police had not yet released any details or descriptions of the attackers. However, given the nature of black-on-black violent crime in the Steel City, and the racial demographics of both Wilkinsburg and the victims of the attack, Mrs. Bell made the obvious observation that the attackers were likely young black men.
“You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday,” Mrs. Bell’s Facebook post, which was later deleted, read in part. “They are young black men, likely in their teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested.”
Mrs. Bell’s post went on to praise a young black busboy at a local restaurant she and her family ate at, noting that he gave her hope and that “he’s going to make it.”
A vocal minority viewed the benign post as offensive, condescending, and even racist, while others praised her for speaking her mind and caring so deeply about violent crime and the people impacted by it in the city she loves.
Since her controversial post, local police have arrested two black men, Cheron Shelton and Robert Thomas, as suspects in the March 9 ambush shootings. Shelton and Thomas have not officially been charged.
After receiving criticism for the post, Mrs. Bell eventually deleted it and apologized, saying her words were “insensitive” and could possibly be interpreted as “racist.”
“I regret offending anyone,” Mrs. Bell wrote. “I’m truly sorry.”
Soon after making the post and then apologizing for it, WTAE fired the longtime news anchor. Hearst Television, WTAE’s parent company, released a statement at the time, saying, “WTAE has ended its relationship with anchor Wendy Bell. Wendy’s recent comments on a WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
Shortly after being fired, Mrs. Bell defended herself and told an Associated Press (AP) reporter she did not get a “fair shake” from her former employer. She noted that the story is not about her or her allegedly offensive comments, but about “African-Americans being killed by other African-Americans.”
“It makes me sick,” Mrs. Bell told told the AP. “What matters is what’s going on in America, and it is the death of black people in this country. . . . I live next to three war-torn communities in the city of Pittsburgh, that I love dearly. My stories, they struck a nerve. They touched people, but it’s not enough. More needs to be done. The problem needs to be addressed.”
Supporters of Mrs. Bell took to social media and comments sections of various websites reporting on her firing to voice their outrage at her treatment. Some even said they would boycott WTAE as a result of the station’s treatment of Mrs. Bell.
In a federal lawsuit filed in late June, Mrs. Bell’s attorney argued that the WTAE violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to Samuel J. Cordes, Mrs. Bell’s attorney, had Mrs. Bell been a black journalist making similar comments, she would not have been fired.
“Had an African-American journalist said the same thing, it wouldn’t have generated the same quote-outcry-unquote,” Cordes told local media outlets after the suit was filed. “What she said was benign at best. President Obama has said similar things.”
Interestingly, the lawsuit notes that WTAE station managers met with representatives of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation (PBMF) the very same day the decision was announced to fire Mrs. Bell. PBMF members claim, however, that they did not meet with WTAE officials until after their decision was made, and that they did not call for Mrs. Bell’s termination.
Mrs. Bell hopes to have her job reinstated, as well as receive back pay and other damages as a result of her termination. The suit also seeks a guarantee that Mrs. Bell not be discriminated or retaliated against “because she opposed race discrimination,” according to local reports.
“Mrs. Bell’s posting of concern for the African-American community stung by mass shooting was clearly and obviously not intended to be racially offensive,” the lawsuit plainly argues.
John Friend is a California-based writer who maintains a blog.