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White TV anchor fired after racial comments in Pittsburgh files discrimination lawsuit

Published Jun. 21, 2016

In March, a white, award-winning broadcast news anchor in Pittsburgh posted on her professional Facebook page what she claimed was a heartfelt call to action on the perceived black-on-black crime epidemic in the U.S., particularly in the city she'd covered for almost 20 years.

The post came two weeks after she covered a mass shooting at a backyard barbecue that left four people injured and six dead, including a pregnant woman, in Wilkinsburg, a majority black borough. The district attorney called the heinous crime calculated, planned and one of the "most brutal" he had seen in his 18-year tenure.

Police did not immediately release names or descriptions of the suspects. When WTAE-TV anchor Wendy Bell took to Facebook, there had been no arrests.

Yet the veteran journalist drew her own conclusions about the perpetrators anyway, comments that were decried as racist and demeaning -- and that eventually cost her her job.

"You needn't be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday," Bell wrote on Facebook, words that were later deleted. "... 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."

She continued, claiming she found "HOPE" after watching a young, African-American bus boy hustling at his restaurant job while Bell was out to eat with her husband and sons. She complimented the teen through his manager, who later passed the praise onto him.

"It will be some time before I forget the smile that beamed across that young worker's face -- or the look in his eyes as we caught each other's gaze," Bell wrote. "I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special."

Almost immediately, critics called her words racist and accused Bell of having a white savior complex. Two days later, the anchor removed the Facebook post and apologized. Seven days after that, on the same day as a meeting between the station management and the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, the TV station fired her.

"WTAE has ended its relationship with anchor Wendy Bell," read a statement from the station's parent company, Hearst Television, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Wendy's recent comments on a WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company's ethics and journalistic standards."

Now Bell is striking back.

On Monday, an attorney for the mother of five filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf claiming that if she were black, her Facebook post would not have been considered a fireable offense in the eyes of her employer.

"But for her being the race that she is, the decision would have been very different," Bell's attorney, Sam Cordes, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The comment was not intrinsically racially pejorative. It was interpreted to be that way."

The lawsuit claims that WTAE-TV, an affiliate of Hearst Television Inc., violated the Civil Rights Act when it fired Bell. She wants her job reinstated and to be compensated for backpay and attorney fees.

"Had Ms. Bell written the same comments about white criminal suspects or had her race not been white, Defendant would not have fired her, much less disciplined her," the suit claims.

Bell's attorney also suggests in the filing that WTAE-TV "consistently downplays misconduct" by other reporters and anchors because of their race or gender, citing one instance where an employee was not disciplined for making lewd comments to interns that led to the termination of the internship program, and another where a reporter was not disciplined after being arrested for propositioning an undercover police officer.

After she was fired in March, Bell told the Associated Press she didn't get a "fair shake" from the station.

"It makes me sick," she said at the time. "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."

Bell had worked at the station since 1998 and won more than 20 regional Emmy awards for broadcast excellence. In the suit, she describes her as a beloved community journalist who was regularly praised by her employers for her professionalism, judgment and work ethic. It claims that in her most recent performance review, Bell's bosses encouraged the anchor to continue engaging with the audience on her Facebook page.

The suit claims that the last performance review also said that Bell was "often exceeding expectations in the way she embodies [the station's] core values."

The news of Bell's dismissal was leaked to news outlets hours before the station told her, the suit claims, and emphasized that the decision coincided with a meeting the station held that same day with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation to discuss the Facebook post and issues of racial diversity.

The federation told the Post-Gazette that they did not call for Bell to be fired, and that their meeting took place after news of her termination was announced.

In the immediate aftermath of Bell's post, angry viewers and commenters flooded the TV station Facebook page, the comments sections of news reports on the issue, Twitter and Reddit. Others, however, vehemently defended Bell and praised her for speaking what was on her mind. In the post, she expressed anger and sadness for the senseless loss of life at the hands of gunmen she called cowards.

Cordes, Bell's attorney, told the Post-Gazette on Monday that he plans to add a gender discrimination claim to the lawsuit once he receives the okay from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Bell has deleted her WTAE Facebook page and scrubbed her Twitter biography of her ties to the station or the journalism profession. On a new, personal Facebook page, she has conducted informal interviews with people around the city.

Cordes told the newspaper she is looking for a job, but faces challenges because the TV station told her it would enforce a noncompete clause in her contract that ends on March 30, 2017.

"This was not easy for her and has not been," Cordes told the Post-Gazette.

The station has not commented on the suit.