A white Pittsburgh TV news anchor who was fired for racial comments she made in a Facebook post about a shooting she covered is now fighting back: She has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit saying that she would not have been fired for her remarks if she were black, the Washington Post reports.
Back in March, Wendy Bell, an award-winning broadcast news anchor, posted on her professional Facebook wall about a shooting at a backyard barbecue two weeks earlier that had left four people injured and six dead, including a pregnant woman, in the predominantly black borough of Wilkinsburg. Although authorities did not immediately go into detail about the suspects, the WTAE-TV anchor profiled them anyway.
"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 in the post that was 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.”
Bell then went on to describe the "hope" she felt after she saw a young black busboy going about his restaurant job while Bell was eating out with her family.
“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 continued in her post. “I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special.”
The backlash was immediate and severe. Bell's comments were denounced as racist; others accused her of having a white-savior complex, the Post notes. Within a week of her call to action, she was fired.
“WTAE has ended its relationship with anchor Wendy Bell,” read a statement from the station’s parent company, Hearst Television, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. “Wendy’s recent comments on a WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
In an interview with the Associated Press after she was fired, Bell said, "It makes me sick," adding that she didn't get a "fair shake."
“What matters is what’s going on in America," she continued, "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."
Now, however, Bell has filed a lawsuit saying that if she were black, her post would have been received differently and 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,” her attorney, Sam Cordes, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Monday after the suit was filed. “What she said was benign at best. President Obama has said similar things.”
The lawsuit accuses WTAE-TV of violating the Civil Rights Act. Bell is demanding back pay and attorney fees, as well as the reinstatement of her job.
“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 alleges.
The suit also charges that Bell's bosses encouraged her to engage with her audience on Facebook, noting that her last performance review indicated that she was "often exceeding expectations in the way she embodies [the station's] core values."
The shooting that cost her her job, the Post notes, has not yet been solved. Two suspects are being held on drug charges from an unrelated 2013 case but have not been charged with the slayings.