If former WTAE news anchor Wendy Bell were black, her attorney said, she would not have been fired for controversial comments she posted on Facebook about the mass shooting in Wilkinsburg.
Sam Cordes made the comment Monday — the same day he filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf. Ms. Bell claims race discrimination against Hearst Stations and is seeking reinstatement.
“But for her being the race that she is, the decision would have been very different,” Mr. Cordes said. “The comment was not intrinsically racially pejorative. It was interpreted to be that way.”
Neither the general manager at WTAE nor a spokesman for Hearst could be immediately reached.
Two weeks after the March 9 shooting in Wilkinsburg that killed six people, Ms. Bell wrote on WTAE’s Facebook page: “you needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago … they are young black men, likely in their teens or early 20s.”
Later in the same post, she wrote about a young African-American employee at a South Side restaurant, talking about the rhythm in his step as he worked and wrote, “I wonder how long it has been since someone told him he was special.”
The post was immediately divisive and controversial. Many called for Ms. Bell to be fired, and others praised her for being unafraid to speak what she felt.
However, according to the lawsuit, it wasn’t until March 30, the same day as a meeting with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation to discuss Ms. Bell and issues of racial diversity, that she was terminated. She was told that her comments on the Facebook page were ”inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation said at no time did the organization suggest or ask for Ms. Bell to be fired.
Mr. Cordes challenges WTAE’s statement that Ms. Bell’s post violated the company’s ethics, noting in the complaint that two other high-profile on-air personalities at WTAE committed acts that were “at least as egregious” as Ms. Bell’s situation and were not disciplined. They included one man who made lewd comments to interns, causing the newsroom internship program to end, and another who was arrested for propositioning an undercover police officer, the attorney wrote.
Mr. Cordes expects to add a claim for gender discrimination in Ms. Bell’s lawsuit, as well, as soon as he receives a right-to-sue letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Also on Monday, Mr. Cordes said that WTAE officials had control over the Facebook page and could have edited his client’s post or removed it if they felt it violated journalistic standards.
“It was their page. They could clearly do that,” he said.
In the lawsuit, Mr. Cordes wrote that WTAE management repeatedly called Ms. Bell a “model anchor and newsroom leader” and encouraged her to use social media in her work, praising her for it.
“Ms. Bell’s work and reputation in defendant’s target audience area was so good that defendant encouraged Ms. Bell to use social media to communicate with that target audience. Indeed, in defendant’s last formal performance appraisal of Ms. Bell, defendant noted she has ‘launched a Facebook page for her work at the station’ and ‘this has proven to be a great platform for her.’ According to defendant, Ms. Bell ‘is very good about engaging her audience [on that Facebook page].’ ”
In addition to reinstatement, Ms. Bell is also asking for back pay, attorney fees and that Hearst be permanently enjoined from discriminating or retaliating against her.
In the meantime, Ms. Bell continues to look for a new job, Mr. Cordes said. However, he continued, that prospect is complicated because WTAE management told her that it would enforce a noncompete clause in her contract through March 30, 2017.
“This was not easy for her and has not been,” Mr. Cordes said.