TV station says it fired meteorologist for replying to viewer on Facebook

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.”

Rhonda Lee’s bio remains on the TV station’s website.

Lee says she responded to the comment after it “sat and festered” for five days. Richard Prince and The Grio republished the comment and response:

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.

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  • Reed Cook

    Where is there news here? She’s an african with an attitude. Their are tens of millions more just like her. As a matter of fact, there’s one living in the White House right now.

  • Valerie McCrumb Merkes

    Agree. The station needs to apologize to her and the public. They also need to give her a good referral plus moving expenses so she can get out of the 1960’s.

  • Valerie McCrumb Merkes

    She should take this opportunity to move West. According to some. she might fall off the planet if she travels too far West since the world is flat.

  • Brady Smith

    Having worked in television news for 5 years, I can tell you that the station management’s actions were unfortunate, but typical. In my experience, local television news stations are owned and operated by old (mostly conservative) white men who are, in this current state of media transition, scared to death of change or doing anything that might offend even a handful of viewers. I support this woman’s response. It was to the point and professional. Viewers who have nothing between their ears to control what they type need to have these types of comments shoved back down their throats, or else they’ll just go on thinking they can do whatever pleases them.

  • Oliver W. Martin III

    Let get them a copy of Chris Rocks Moive – Good Hair — and yes give her back her job —

  • Poynter

    It was five days before she responded, which matches what she said on “Starting Point.” The summary in the excerpt was incorrect. I’ve added specifics and supporting material to clarify. Thanks for catching that. –Julie Moos, Director of Poynter Online

  • Carl Campbell

    I know some who do not like any woman with short hair, I admit on some it doesn’t look all that great (Though not with her). The fact that they fired her for explaining why she has her hair short is ridiculous.

  • JH

    Didn’t say it was a good idea. Just pointing out the enormous contrast in the reactions, as the above article did.

  • Chrisbam

    This is not
    about race but about appearance. How many female anchors have close
    cropped hair? How many male anchors are bald? How many are obese? How
    many men are allowed to have facial hair?

  • Chrisbam

    You designate someone to respond as the station did in their email

  • Chrisbam

    I’m not sure allowing the WI anchor to lecture the audience was a good idea either

  • Chrisbam

    Were they discriminating against the white reporter also? This is not
    about race but about appearance. How many female anchors have close
    cropped hair? How many male anchors are bald? How many are obese? How
    many men are allowed to have facial hair?

  • Michael W. Douglas

    I think a wise person to contact would be former WSB-TV news anchor and TV news icon Monica Kaufman-Pearson of Atlanta, Georgia. She was known for her hairstyles and her tact as a pioneer for women on television.

  • Joseph Stratton

    Attention adults: Rules ARE Rules. You want to throw away your career because some anonymous troll zinged-you, then go ahead. Just be prepared to accept the consequences. She IS a beautiful woman. Granted, but with her beauty should come sensibility and good judgment. Enjoy your unemployment- my guess is your bosses were just looking to get rid of you for some previous reason(s) and they are using this ‘policy’.

  • Bruce Apar

    The viewer comment was beyond ignorant, all the way to maliciously stupid. Why the station thinks it needs to leave such low-life posts intact is just one among many questions in this hair-raising tale.

  • Susanna Speier

    Wow. Unacceptable situation. Awesome reporting. And what a stupid, STUPID decision for KTBS to have made. If there’s a ‘Five most incompetent’ list floating around the network Earth they certainly belong at the top of it. Makes Fox’s epic typos seem benign.

  • Chad Cookler

    Sorry kids, you can’t have an interactive system, ala Facebook, and not allow your staff to interact. It’s not a one way street. If you don’t want them replying, don’t have a station Facebook page.

  • Lisa Elia

    It’s not unusual for any company of any type (not just news outlets) to control their public communications and require that all comments come from specific spokespeople. Social media has made this policy a bit confusing to some people who believe they are simply expressing themselves in the public forum. Social media an ever evolving and tricky terrain from a PR perspective.

  • Butch McSnutch

    Poor woman. Leave her alone and let her do her job.

  • Sandy

    1.) I think she’s gorgeous and 2.) “Best not to respond” doesn’t mean “Don’t respond under threat of being fired”.

  • Thomas D

    “Lee says she responded to the comment after it ‘sat and festered’ for about six days.”

    “Lee replied the same day, ‘Hello Emmitt … ”

    Er… which is it?

  • Thomas D

    Why the “sic”?

  • JH

    I cannot believe the anchor in Wisconsin was heralded for weeks on end, and this woman gets fired. Her response was so professional and great, and it’s actually perfect to put it out on Facebook so everyone can see it and (potentially) learn from it. What a rigid policy – I understand if an employee says something tacky or rude, but this was not that.

  • Robert B Levine

    If print journalists had to be polite and stylish, there would be even fewer of them than there are now.

  • Afi Scruggs

    Apparently, the station needs a social media manager.

  • Jan Hare

    I don’t think she should have been fired BUT I don’t think she should have responded.The person who originally posted was trying to get a rise out of her – it was essentially a fake post. The part about letting a “male with waist (sic) long hair….” and the I don’t know if she’s a cancer patient – those were just ugly, stupid things to say. So because she responded honestly, she got fired and the dope who posted it is laughing.

  • Crystal Bolner Forte

    TV stations talk about all kinds of personal issues on air, including TV personalities’ pregnancies, their battles with cancer, their weight loss. And when those topics are discussed, TV stations call it connecting with their audience. But when this woman, who I think gave a very articulate and professional response, responded to a commenter’s attack of her hair, she is fired. I think it is time she get a good lawyer and file a lawsuit. That is discrimination if I ever saw it.

  • Erik Gable

    This policy is insane. If the station felt she responded inappropriately, they should say so … but to say that it’s simply best not to reply to viewer complaints at all is a relic of the old days when media folks acted like they were too good to engage with the plebians. It flies in the face of all good social media practice.

  • canardnoir

    Her initial response clearly shows why such a policy was in place and tells the readers all they need to know about someone who’s working in the public view…that shouldn’t be and is no longer.

  • Katie Currid

    Her reply is included in the gray box with the viewer’s original post.

  • Drew Sidener

    What exactly was her response to this viewer?