A Pennsylvania news anchor who was fired after she was accused of writing a racially insensitive Facebook post about black people claims she was let go because she is white. Wendy Bell filed a lawsuit Monday against WTAE-TV, her former employer, that alleges the Pittsburgh station discriminated against her race and violated her civil rights, according to local media reports.
The firing was "undertaken with reckless indifference to plaintiff's federal protected right," said the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. It cites the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which provides equal rights regardless of skin color.
Bell was let go March 30 after viewers complained about a Facebook post where she discussed the March 9 shooting of five black people in the low-income Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg.
"You needn't be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts," Bell wrote March 21. "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."
WTAE, a Hearst-owned ABC affiliate, apologized for the post and said it was "inconsistent with the company's ethics and journalistic standards." But Bell's lawyer, Samuel Cordes, said Bell was doing her job after management encouraged her to speak up on social media about newsworthy topics.
"Had she been African-American and done the same thing, she would not have been fired, or even disciplined," Cordes told local reporters. The lawsuit said WTAE "consistently downplays misconduct by similarly situated reporters and anchors because of their race or gender."
Bell's comments were published on the news station's Facebook page, not her personal account, he noted.
"The employer has, at any stage, the right and ability to edit," he said. "This was not a Wendy Bell Facebook page; it was a Hearst/WTAE Facebook page that Wendy Bell was encouraged to write on to increase ratings. She was encouraged to comment on stories and cases that she covered. I can't tell you that it's OK to do something and then turn around and fire you when you do it."
Bell wants her job back as well as unspecified compensation and punitive damages. She told the Associated Press she did not get a "fair shake" from her former employer. She said she had sought to highlight the problem of "African-Americans being killed by other African-Americans."
But critics said Bell should have known better.
"In her statement, she reveals certain biases which she seems to be attributing to an entire group of an entire ethnicity, or at least an entire age group of a certain ethnicity," media ethicist Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, told a local NPR station. "It's hard to see in what context that would not be inflammatory."