Local TV anchor criticized for her weight: 'I don't take a lot of crap from people'

Wisconsin TV news anchor Jennifer Livingston has gained thousands of supporters this week by publicly taking on one critic who called her fat. Her story has since been broadcast on NBC's "Nightly News" and she has appeared on the "Today" show, "Good Morning America," and "CBS This Morning."

Last week, the WKBT-TV morning newscast anchor received an email from Kenneth Krause, a La Crosse man who says he is an occasional viewer. Krause criticized Livingston for being overweight, saying she was not a good role model for her three daughters and for others who watch.

Livingston, who told me by phone Tuesday night, "I don't take a lot of crap from people," said she emailed back and forth with Krause a few times. "I said, 'Whoa buddy, this is far beyond what is OK to write to somebody in an email, even somebody who is in the public like me.' " But, Livingston said, Krause would not back down. "He kept saying I was a poor role model."

Jennifer Livingston has anchored the morning news for more than a decade.

Livingston is well known to her viewers. She shared her struggles with infertility, and when she got pregnant she shared her experience in a public "baby blog."

WKBT News Director Anne Paape told me, "Her viewing public really knows her on many levels, not just as a TV news person." So it seemed logical to take this conversation public.

Livingston's husband, Mike Thompson, anchors the WKBT 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news programs. He posted Krause's email on his Facebook page, but didn't use Krause's name:

Hundreds of comments followed, overwhelmingly supportive of Livingston; many people shared their own struggles with weight discrimination. A few of the comments named Krause and one person even posted a home address that Livingston's fans could go visit and express their displeasure.

Mike Thompson met his future wife Jennifer Livingston when the two were out covering the same story; he was working, at the time, for the competition.

The local radio stations in La Crosse were all over the story, feeding off of the Facebook frenzy.

"I decided Monday night after I put my daughters to bed that I had to say something myself," Livingston told me.

Tuesday morning, she delivered a four-minute editorial on air about bullying and weight, speaking directly to Krause.

"The truth is, I am overweight," the anchor said, looking straight into the camera. "But to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don’t know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something that I don’t see? You don't know me, so you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside and I am much more than a number on a scale."

She then spoke to the rest of the viewing audience. "If you are at home and you are talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat."

After the editorial aired Tuesday morning, the station's website received about 50,000 hits, reported Anne Thompson for "Nightly News," "almost one for every person in La Crosse." Schools used the broadcast to talk about bullying, she said. And hundreds of people wrote notes of support on the station's website and on Facebook:

As the story spread beyond Wisconsin and then internationally, the comments, especially on YouTube, took a rude turn.

Late Tuesday, Krause released a statement re-affirming his original position.

Given this country's present epidemic of obesity and the many truly horrible diseases related thereto, and considering Jennifer Livingston's fortuitous position in the community, I hope she will finally take advantage of a rare and golden opportunity to influence the health and psychological well-being of Coulee Region children by transforming herself for all of her viewers to see over the next year, and, to that end, I would be absolutely pleased to offer Jennifer any advice or support she would be willing to accept. -- Kenneth W. Krause

I asked WKBT News Director Anne Paape to explain the thinking behind taking this public. She responded by email:

The conversation began when this person emailed Jennifer and accused her of setting a bad example in our community. She did what journalists do, and asked him whether she could invite the community to comment on the conversation. He agreed, and the conversation suddenly got a lot more inclusive. Initially, people seemed to take this personally on Jen’s behalf and rushed to her defense. When Jen decided she wanted to address this on air during our morning newscast today I knew she had the opportunity to do great good and told her she had my full encouragement to comment on how this was impacting her as a professional and as a person.

Though, "airtime is precious," she said, it was "absolutely" worth spending four minutes on this segment. "I have never been more proud of her or this TV station."

"Clearly, appearance is part of the package for anyone on TV," Paape said, "But only part of the package."

Livingston said she realizes that TV is a visual media and that most people on TV are fit and thin. But her station has been more interested in what else she brings to her audience.

"The pressure from my bosses is not there; any pressure would be from myself. I would not choose to be the weight that I am," she said, but "I don’t wallow in the fact I am overweight. I am not promoting my lifestyle."

She said she has not always been overweight but put on pounds when she had children. "I have not had to deal with this my whole life, but I have always been one who would stand up for others who were being bullied."

Livingston told me that that she has been flooded with interview requests, including from "Good Morning America" and the "Today" show. She appeared on both shows Wednesday morning and on "CBS This Morning."

On the "Today" show, Livingston said, "I can deal with being called obese. It was calling me a bad role model that rubbed me the wrong way. And not only a bad role model for our community, but for young girls in particular. I'm the mother of three girls."

It was one of her daughters, in fact, who indirectly inspired Livingston to talk about the bullying, she told Savannah Guthrie, who asked whether Livingston was afraid she'd be insulted even worse if she went public. No, Livingston responded:

I do have a pretty thick skin. I'm a tough gal. I can handle those kind of emails. What I was thinking instead was, I'm having conversations with my 10-year-old daughter about bullying right now and I'm telling her, I'm trying to inspire her that if she sees bullying happen in other people, she needs to take a stand, it's important to take a stand. What kind of message am I teaching her when my husband and I are talking about this mean email that I received and I'm not taking a stand for myself? I can stand up for myself, there's a lot of people that can't. And I'm gonna do it.

Livingston and Thompson said on "Good Morning America" that they told their 10-year-old "she needs to be strong."

Among the many emails of support, Livingston, who has a thyroid problem that makes weight loss difficult, received an offer to publish a children's book on bullying. "It's so easy to be cruel," she told Guthrie.

Livingston closed her on-air editorial with that same message:

I leave you with this: To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face, listen to me right now. Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience — that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.

Livingston told Guthrie the response has been "beyond what I could have imagined when I went on air yesterday. I was hoping to impact the people in our own market, I was hoping to send a message to them. What has happened has been really overwhelming but inspiring at the same time."

Julie Moos contributed to this report.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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