Sparked by complaints of racism and sexism at KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KNBC-TV Channel 4, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said Wednesday that it will initiate an investigation into the hiring and treatment of minorities and women in newsrooms at all seven major local commercial TV stations.
Philip Montez, western regional director of the commission, said the probe was largely prompted by a formal complaint filed Tuesday by Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, in which he alleged that there was a "systematic effort to deny equal treatment to Latinos, other ethnic minorities, women and the gay community employed in the broadcasting industry."
Alatorre singled out CBS-owned Channel 2 in his complaint, saying that he had "received information on KCBS that describes working conditions that are unacceptable." Although he declined to give specific information about what he had been told by employees, saying that he wanted to protect the confidentiality of those still working at KCBS, Alatorre wrote, "Latinos and other minorities should not be subjugated to constant harassment and intimidation, demotions and indiscriminate and disproportionate firings and/or terminations."
Leaders of the Los Angeles Urban League, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation/L.A., and the National Hispanic Media Coalition also said they have heard numerous complaints over the past several weeks from employees at KCBS regarding what were described as insensitive racial comments by management, favored treatment of white male reporters, lack of promotion for minorities and negative coverage of ethnic communities.
All of the organizations are planning to request or already have asked for meetings or reports from station management about the accusations.
KCBS General Manager William Applegate on Wednesday denied the accusations by Alatorre and others, saying the charges were news to him: "Alatorre has not spoken to me. Nobody has come to my office to complain."
He added, "KCBS has an excellent record of hiring minorities, and to the best of my knowledge, no minority has been demoted or harassed. The station is going through changes, but there is no policy to single out minorities for demotions. Anybody who says that is wrong."
The controversy regarding KCBS comes little more than a month after KNBC-TV was hit with charges by Latino journalists who said that discrimination by management played a key role in the departure of five Latino reporters and anchors in less than five months. KNBC executives denied the allegations.
In addition to KCBS and KNBC, the Civil Rights Commission's investigation will cover KTLA-TV Channel 5, KABC-TV Channel 7, KCAL-TV Channel 9, KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KCOP-TV Channel 13.
"I don't know what we'll find in this investigation," Montez said, "but there is a lot in the air. The best thing to do at this point is to look at all the channels. We may even look at the Federal Communications Commission to see if they are properly monitoring the practices at all these stations."
He said he was also concerned about what he called "negative" coverage of minority communities by the stations.
Montez said he hoped to reach some conclusions about the extent of the investigation in six to eight weeks.
Urban League President John Mack said he already had planned to meet with KCBS chief Applegate on Friday to discuss "disturbing complaints" he has heard from newsroom employees about the treatment of African Americans. He said he was particularly concerned about the fate of weekend anchor Hosea Sanders, whom he said has been told that his contract will not be renewed when it expires this summer.
Sources in the KCBS newsroom said that when Sanders was hired as a weekend anchor in 1986, he and community groups were told by management that he was the most likely candidate to become the first black male weekday anchor at the station. He has never been promoted beyond the weekend shift.
"In our opinion, it is very troubling that they are not renewing Sanders' contract," Mack said. "He is an excellent reporter who cares about our community."
Sanders and Applegate declined to comment about his status.
Other groups said they had received their own complaints about KCBS. Lee Werbel, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation/L.A., on Wednesday sent a letter to the station requesting a meeting to talk about allegations of discrimination against gay employees. Esther Renteria, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said she has requested a written report from Applegate to determine whether KCBS has lived up to an agreement it made with her organization years ago to have at least one Latino as a finalist when there is a job opening at the station.
Said one newsroom employee, who asked not to be named, "It's like the management has its own agenda to whiten up the newsroom--to make it whiter and maler. There is little sensitivity to minority concerns."