November 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

CBS grapples with racism claims at WCBS-TV Channel 2 in New York

ViacomCBS is confronting a widening crisis over allegations of mistreatment in its TV stations group.

In the wake of a Los Angeles Times investigation, which detailed allegations of racism and misogyny at CBS’ Philadelphia TV station, current and former employees of CBS’ flagship station, WCBS-TV Channel 2 in New York, have alleged that they also worked in a “hostile environment” where Black, Latino, Asian and gay employees were treated poorly, and stories that occurred in Black and Latino neighborhoods were at times overlooked.

“The first question was always: Where is the story? How is the neighborhood?” Ken Racioppi, a former WCBS news producer, said. He added that when managers learned about news events in communities of color, “All of the sudden, the interest level would just drop.”

Late Friday, CBS Entertainment Chief Executive George Cheeks announced that CBS had hired law firm Proskauer Rose to investigate conduct by CBS Television Stations President Peter Dunn and his lieutenant in charge of local news, David Friend. The two executives have managed operations at WCBS for more than a decade.

Separately, New York Atty. Gen. Letitia James’ office last year began looking into claims of race discrimination against Black employees at WCBS, according to four people familiar with the matter but not authorized to comment. One of two former WCBS employees who said they were interviewed by investigators with the agency’s civil rights division said the office was interested in whether there is “a pattern of racial discrimination” at WCBS.

James’ office declined to comment.

“Important issues are being raised by internal and external voices,” CBS said Monday. “We have initiated an external investigation into the allegations of misconduct by CBS Stations leadership. At the same time, senior management at both CBS and ViacomCBS have communicated their support for current and former employees to raise any relevant concerns without fear of retaliation. Our employees deserve a process rooted in transparency, respect and accountability as we build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture in every corner of CBS.”

CBS placed Dunn and Friend on administrative leave last week, pending the external review. In a Jan. 24 meeting with Cheeks, leaders of the National Assn. of Black Journalists pressed for greater accountability and diversity at the New York station. According to NABJ, WCBS has just one full-time Black male reporter (who was only recently hired), one full-time Black female reporter and one Black news producer. (Friend’s attorney, in a statement, said nine of the 32 full-time on-air talent at WCBS are people of color.)

There are no Black people in management at CBS’ New York station.

“We’ve been dealing with issues with CBS for the last two years — this is not new,” said Roland Martin, a prominent Black journalist and a vice president of NABJ.

Dunn and Friend have managed CBS’ chain of 28 television stations for more than a decade. Dunn, 61, has also been directly in charge of WCBS in New York since 2005.

Friend, a CBS senior vice president, oversees news gathering at the CBS-owned television stations and has been in charge of WCBS’ nearly 150-person newsroom since 2006.

In statements, Dunn and Friend defended their management of the TV stations group and WCBS in New York.

Statements from attorneys for CBS TV Stations executives Peter Dunn and David Friend

(Handout)

“Mr. Dunn is extremely proud of the actions he took during his long and successful tenure at CBS and the progress that was made to improve diversity and inclusion across the entire CBS station group including WCBS NY,” Larry Hutcher, Dunn’s attorney, said Monday in a statement. “Any decisions affecting hiring or termination were based solely on performance…. Peter Dunn is confident that any investigation CBS conducts will show his conduct to be exemplary and without fault.”

Friend’s attorney, David M. Pohl, called the allegations against his client “wholly unfounded.”

“In a highly competitive industry, Mr. Friend operated in a no-nonsense way that drove results and value for his staff, station, and viewers,” Pohl said. “His fair and aggressive approach propelled WCBS from sixth in the market to second place and, at times, first place. There is a difference between hostility, on the one hand, and toughness on the other. It is irresponsible to conflate the two, and reprehensible to do so in an opportunistic attempt to malign the reputation and track record of a past or present boss.”

Nine current and former WCBS employees told The Times that station management seemed uninterested in providing more robust coverage of communities of color. Two CBS employees said that management moved slowly to improve diversity at WCBS. In October 2019, a newsroom veteran provided resumes of nine people of color to be considered for open positions — but none were hired, according to this person, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job. That same month, the station ran a promotional spot featuring 14 of its journalists, but absent was Aundrea Cline-Thomas, who was then the station’s only Black full-time reporter. (The station eventually added a photo of Cline-Thomas to the promo, the source said.)

Insiders also noted that WCBS didn’t have a full-time Black male reporter until March 2020, when Cory James joined the station.

“These are two of the most powerful men in the country in local television,” Don Champion, a former WCBS reporter who is Black, said in an interview, referring to Dunn and Friend. “They created an environment where they controlled you by fear, bullying and intimidation.”

Among the allegations are that biases seeped into news coverage.

One former WCBS journalist recalled a Christmas 2013 shooting at a strip club in New Jersey that left three people dead. A reporter and videographer were sent to the shooting scene in Irvington, a predominantly Black community, and interviewed the family of one of the victims. But this person said when they called the newsroom manager and described the interview with the family member, they were told the station wasn’t going to air the interview.

“That astonished us. It was like all the sudden, three people who were dead didn’t count,” said the former journalist, who declined to be identified because a family member works in the business.

Racioppi, who worked as a news producer, said WCBS management encouraged coverage of predominantly white communities and affluent suburbs to appeal to local advertisers. “They even had a term for that; they would call it “in the bosom,” Racioppi said. “The key audience was Bergen County, New Jersey…. That was ‘in the bosom.’”

Pohl, Friend’s attorney, disputed the allegations.

“WCBS has conducted extensive reporting on issues of importance and impact to diverse communities, some of which are award-winning,” Pohl said. “To claim that the station ignored matters of importance to its viewers due to race and prejudice is flat-out wrong and shows a lack of familiarity with the WCBS newsroom.”

CBS in 2019 looked into complaints raised about Dunn and Friend. “The investigation found no evidence of any wrongdoing on Mr. Friend’s part,” Pohl said. “In fact, CBS was so satisfied with Mr. Friend’s work and performance that he was given a new contract later that same year.”

Last week, CBS said that, after an internal review in the spring of 2019, it had not “received any complaints about [Dunn’s] conduct during the period since then.”

Current and former CBS employees said high-level executives were aware of the tensions at WCBS.

Former CBS Chief Executive Joe Ianniello, who replaced former CEO Leslie Moonves in 2018, tried to improve CBS’ culture and added human relations staff, but his efforts stalled as the company focused on a merger with sister company Viacom, which finalized in December 2019. Ianniello declined to comment.

During a “listening tour,” Ianniello convened a meeting July 9, 2019, with about 30 people of color from CBS’ various business units at CBS’ headquarters.

According to four people who attended the meeting, all of whom asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, the discussion quickly turned to the environment at WCBS. One anchor began crying, said three of the participants. “These people began explaining this terrible mistreatment and abuse at WCBS,” said one CBS employee who attended.

Six weeks later, on Aug. 26, 2019, Dunn assembled the Black, Latino and Asian employees in his third-floor conference room at the CBS Broadcast Center to discuss issues that had been raised in the earlier session with Ianniello. Dunn seemed taken aback by the complaints, according to two people who attended the meeting.

“The August 2019 meeting was called by Mr. Dunn to ensure that all of CBS’ employees’ voices, regardless of race, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation were heard and considered,” Dunn’s attorney, Hutcher, said in a statement. “Mr. Dunn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is best demonstrated by the fact that in 2019 55% of all new hires and promotions at the WCBS NY newsroom were of diverse employees.”

In a widely shared post on Facebook last week, Champion detailed his alleged mistreatment when he worked at CBS for nearly six years, including two years as a reporter at WCBS.

“Nothing I could do would impress David Friend. His first complaint was my ‘on-air presence.’ Months later it was my ‘voice,’” Champion wrote. “Looking back, I now know ‘presence’ and ‘voice’ were code; in Friend and Dunn’s eyes, I was too gay.”

“I’d never faced anything like the discrimination I faced at WCBS,” Champion said in an interview. He now works as a program manager for a tech giant.

Racioppi, who is white, said the environment was harsh to all employees.

He recalled one December “ugly holiday sweater” day in the newsroom, which he believed was in 2018. During an editorial meeting, with several producers and managers in attendance, Racioppi said, Friend began ridiculing his attire, including a goofy hat and a sweater festooned with Christmas ornaments. Racioppi said he was deeply embarrassed and wondered why he was being singled out.

“I just remember being in front of all of my colleagues and feeling that way,” he said. “This was a toxic work environment that took a toll on everyone.”

Separately, the New York City Commission on Human Rights is reviewing WCBS’ ouster of a Latina news producer a year ago. The producer had used profane language in an argument with a colleague and had later apologized, according to the complaint, which was reviewed by The Times. The complaint alleges that a CBS human resources executive subsequently used an ethnic stereotype by describing the woman as a “feisty Latina” who was told to leave vulgar language “in the Bronx.”

A person close to WCBS said that the station has responded to the Commission on Human Rights complaint, and that it disputes that a CBS executive made any such comment. CBS declined to provide a copy of its response to the complaint.