Katie Mettler, Washington Post, June 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 United States, 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
The lawsuit claims that WTAE-TV, an affiliate of Hearst Television, 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.
Bell had worked at the station since 1998 and won more than 20 regional Emmy awards for broadcast excellence. In the suit, her attorney 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.