Louisiana meteorologist Rhonda Lee was fired after responding on Facebook to viewer comments, including one about her hair. Her employer, KTBS, says she was fired because responding at all is a violation of company procedure.
During an appearance on CNN’s “Starting Point” with Soledad O’Brien, Lee says she’s been denied job interviews because of her hair. “I even had a news director once say that my hair was too aggressive for Sacramento.”
On Oct. 1, a viewer identified as Emmitt Vascocu wrote, “the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady.the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news.what about that (cq).”
Lee replied… [Oct. 6], “Hello Emmitt–I am the ‘black lady’ to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer. I’m a non-smoking, 5’3, 121 lbs, 25 mile a week running, 37.5 year old woman, and I’m in perfectly healthy physical condition.
“I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. I’m very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.
“Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.
“Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.”
KTBS News Director Randy Bain released a statement that said, “If harsh viewer comments are posted on the station’s official website, there is a specific procedure to follow. Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued.”
Lee says she “has yet to see” such a policy or procedure. O’Brien showed an email, also posted on Facebook, sent August 30 from a station marketing manager to staff, including Lee. It reads:
When we see complaints from viewers, it’s best not to respond at all. … If you choose to respond to these complaints, there is only one proper response: Provide them with [redacted name] contact information, and tell them he would be glad to speak with them about their concerns. Once again, this is the only proper response.
Lee says she felt the need to respond because “the station didn’t do anything.”
“Racial instances, racial comments can be very sensitive and if they’re allowed to just sit there, to me it’s almost condoning harsh comments like that,” Lee says.
O’Brien suggested Lee’s experience could have launched a conversation about “why is your short natural hair scary to people, why is it aggressive?”
Lee says her first response was to educate.
I feel like I was punished for defending myself; whereas other people are given platforms, I was given a pink slip instead. I feel that a lot of times, and particularly in the deep South, that racial issues can be scary, they can be very touchy and, as my former employer saw it, as controversial. … You may have the policy, but I also feel there’s a responsibility to educate viewers. And if that opportunity comes up, then grab it, take hold of it, embrace it, and use it as a platform for helping repair relations within our community. And I really feel that hiding is doing more of a disservice than actually helping to educate the viewing population when you have the opportunity.
The posting on KTBS’ Facebook page says a second employee — “a white male reporter who was an eight year veteran of the station” — was fired at the same time as Lee for violating the same procedure.
“This procedure is based on advice from national experts and commonly used by national broadcast and cable networks and local television stations across the country,” reads the station’s Facebook note. If you are aware of another TV station or network that has the same policy — “it’s best not to respond at all” — please let us know.
Wisconsin TV anchor Jennifer Livingston, who made news for responding on air to a viewer who called her fat, told Poynter in an email Tuesday, “I don’t think when you decide to become a journalist it means you have to put a piece of duct tape over your mouth regarding comments directed at you.”
Related: “I would never have dreamed in a million years that I would get all this support,” Lee tells the Daily News | Sporty Afros notes the many other times female African-American on-air talent have addressed questions about their hair.