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Meteorologist Fired for Civil Response to an Ignorant Facebook Post by a Viewer About Her Natural Hair

Rhonda Lee

Former KTBS-TV meteorologist Rhonda Lee

“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).”

— Viewer Emmitt Vascocu, addressing Shreveport, La. ABC affiliate KTBS-TV’s meteorologist Rhonda Lee‘s hairstyle, a short natural afro.

For those of us who have endured numerous ignorant comments about natural (nappy) hair that expose the embedded racist belief that there is “good hair” (Euro) and “bad hair,” in patient moments it can be a teachable moment. That’s what meteorologist Rhonda Lee did in response to Vascocu’s post:

“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.”

Vascocu replied that Lee was right to be proud of who she is and that he is not a racist, but “. . . this world has . . . certain standerd (cq). if youve come from a world of being poor are you going to dress in rags?. . .”

Yes. That’s not racist.

KTBS fired Lee, stating she violated a company rule.

Lee wrote to Journal-isms:

“I had a meeting with my ND [news director] and GM [general manager] Friday trying to get my job back. They told me the policy I violated isn’t written down, but was mentioned in a newsroom meeting about a month-and-a-half prior. A meeting I didn’t attend. So when I asked what rule did I break there isn’t anything to point to.

“The week I was brought in to discuss [the] last post, I was told by my ND that there were a few unclear things in the policy and that we were going to have a meeting with George Sirven, the GM about it. I was instead fired the next week — no discussion had. Sirven claims that even if a policy isn’t on paper we as employees are responsible for abiding by them. There isn’t anything in our employee manual talking about social media dos and don’ts. I was accountable for a rule that essentially isn’t in existence.”‘

“. . . Race has been the issue with me since I started. That much is VERY true. Weather is an older white boy business and arms have been less than open for a young black girl — a polar opposite. As reported I’ve had more problems here in the south than I have anywhere else in my 25+ years in the business. Perhaps there is a pattern, but I am a glutton for punishment (ha, ha), and I want what I deserve as any professional would so if I have to fight for it I will.”

Randy Bain, KTBS news director, responded to the situation on the station’s Facebook page (something unusual since personnel matters are usually not publicly discussed by an employer), feeling public heat from the decision to fire Lee:

On November 28, 2012, KTBS dismissed two employees for repeated violation of the station’s written procedure. We can confirm that Rhonda Lee was one of the employees. Another employee was a white male reporter who was an eight year veteran of the station. The policy they violated provided a specific procedure for responding to viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page. Included is an email that was sent to all news department employees informing them of this 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.

Unfortunately, television personalities have long been subject to harsh criticism and negative viewer comments about their appearance and performance. 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 and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued. Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure.

You might recall another station that handled a viewer’s commentary about an on-air employee’s appearance quite differently. WKBT News 8 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Jennifer Livingston,  actually won praise for her response to an attack on her weight.

Livingston recently received an email from a male viewer criticizing her weight. Her husband and fellow news anchor Mike Thompson posted the text to the Facebook page for “WKBT News 8 This Morning.”

“I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years,” wrote the viewer, who said Livingston was not a “suitable example” for young girls. “I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”

Livingston addressed her bully on-air Tuesday, prefacing her message by saying that she has received words of support from “hundreds” of people and that the response has been “truly inspiring.”

“The truth is, I am overweight,” she said. “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.”

Why the difference in treatment of these employees? Surely an on-air (read consuming time set aside for news) is more disruptive than a post on social media, if we’re strictly talking about impact on the station’s reputation or business concerns. And that’s why Livingston has Lee’s back:

In an email Tuesday, Livingston wrote, “If someone is going to post on a public site, there should be a reasonable expectation that those comments will be addressed.”

Of course, you need to do so in a respectful and thoughtful manner. I think we as journalists are still trying to pave the way with integrating social media into our daily workflow. No clear rules have been defined so every station is different.

Personally – I’d have written that person back in a heartbeat.

In the end, Lee paid with her job for simply, with grace, addressing a viewer on social media. Whatever policy was violated, KTBS is paying a steeper PR price than if it had let the post be.

Rhonda Lee on Facebook:

KTBS on Facebook:
Phone: (318) 861-5800

H/ts, Patrick O’Neill, DKos’s Steven D and Vita Brevis.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding