Monday, December 1, 2008

A Footnote to Feminist History

In an interesting epilogue to the famous Christine Craft saga, three women have sued Kansas City's news channel, KMBC-9, for age and sex discrimination.

About 25 years ago, KMBC-TV anchor Christine Craft filed a pioneering gender discrimination suit against the Kansas City television station — a suit that damaged its reputation for years.

Now three of the most senior female on-air personalities at KMBC (Channel 9) have filed their own gender and age discrimination suit against the station, claiming they were publicly humiliated, degraded and demoted.

Kelly Eckerman, Peggy Breit and Maria Albisu-Twyman, known on air as Maria Antonia, allege a “pattern and practice” of discrimination at Channel 9 and “a hostile environment, permeated with threats, intimidation and disrespect.”

“Even unaffected newsroom employees have commented about the publicly humiliating and degrading treatment of women over 40, including but not limited to these plaintiffs,” the suit states.

Eckerman is 48 and has worked at KMBC for more than 18 years. Breit is 54 and has worked there for 27 years. Antonia is 49 and has been there for 25 years. They continue to work at the station.

Eckerman and Antonia contend they were demoted as anchors even as much older men kept their anchor positions and younger women were promoted.
Eckerman claims she was abruptly demoted in October 2007 as anchor of the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. news Monday through Friday to a Tuesday through Saturday weekend shift. Eckerman, who had recently gone through “a nasty divorce that had depleted her financially and emotionally,” was allegedly told later by Sherrie Brown, who became KMBC’s news director in December 2007, that Brown wanted to hire someone “who would devote everything to the position and not be distracted by family.”

Breit, a reporter, contends that her schedule was changed from Monday through Friday dayside to Tuesday through Saturday dayside and that a 30-year-old male reporter was promoted around the same time to the coveted Sunday through Thursday prime-time nightside spot.

“Male anchors are treated much differently and advantageously, compared to females at KMBC-Channel 9,” the suit states. “Males are allowed to age, gain weight, turn grey and wear glasses. Female anchors, by contrast, have been told they are ‘no longer part of the future’ and are oppressively criticized, targeted and harassed after they reach their 40s.”

Antonia says she was told “totally out of the blue” in October 2007 that she was being removed from her anchor position to one as a full-time reporter. Station general manager Wayne Godsey allegedly told her, “You will never anchor at Channel 9 again,” although he also told her she might have the opportunity to be an anchor at KMBC’s sister station, KCWE (Channel 29), according to the suit.

Antonia, however, “was not invited to audition for the Channel 29 anchor position. A younger female in her 20s, along with plaintiff’s male co-anchor, were given that opportunity,” the suit alleges.

“Continuously since January 2008 through present, plaintiff Antonia has been subjected to a demeaning, discriminatory and hostile work environment compared to the younger female and male employees,” the suit states. “Antonia is yelled at … while on air. She is yelled at when she asks for the means to get to the scene of a live report.”
According to this article by local columnist Mary Sanchez, if you work in TV journalism, you don't even have to wait until middle age to have the lovely experience of your bosses constantly policing your appearance:
In her early 20s, my mentee was beautiful in ways society usually favors: deep expressive eyes, high cheek bones, a trim figure, long shiny brown hair, the most gleaming white of smiles.

But the attributes weren’t good enough. She worked in broadcast journalism, a far different field from print journalism, where, if anything, reporters who are a bit disheveled are more the norm.

For television, appearance meant everything. At times, it seemed more important than the stories she produced during her first years as a reporter.

I’ll spare her the embarrassment of using her name.

Every time she has changed stations, she has moved up in prestige. But each new boss demanded a new look for her.

One time, she came for a weekend visit sporting a rather a bowl-shaped, lacquered hairdo. It was far shorter and boxier than what she preferred. Her makeup was heavy, the spatula effect. Her skin was breaking out and she knew it was because of the heavy layers of product she applied daily.

“You don’t look like yourself,” I remember remarking.

“I know,” she replied.

But for her, looking a certain way was a job requirement. Like meeting a deadline is for me.Yet I’ve always wondered how much of her spirit was neutralized by the fussing to make her “fit” the profile that different news directors demanded. As a young journalist, she seemed to be expected to shift to every news director’s whim.
I wonder how Breit, Eckerman and Antonia will fare with their lawsuit. The Star article expressed the opinion that they'd have an easier time of it, since they were taking their case to a Jackson County circuit court, and using a statute that had recently been ruled able to be decided by a jury. (Christine Craft always won the juries, but judges kept throwing her case out when KMBC appealed to higher courts). But I see another legal precedent that could give them trouble: Lilly Ledbetter. These women's complaints are mostly recent --- not like Ledbetter's twenty-year history of underpayment --- but some occur outside the 180-day window mentioned in that case. I am not sure that matters for Breit, Eckerman and Antonia, though, since they aren't going through the EEOC.

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