A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Newsflash: Youth and Good Looks Work Well on TV.

By LASIS Staff

In 2010, seasoned Southern California weatherman Kyle Hunter got wind of a weather anchor opening at KCBS, a Los Angeles-based television news station. Mr. Hunter, who at 42 had accumulated 22 years of broadcasting experience and has a degree in geosciences and broadcast meteorology, contacted the station’s management about the job immediately. He never heard back.

Instead, KCBS hired Jackie Johnson, a 32-year-old female weather forecaster from its sister station, KCAL. Eager to fill the new void at KCAL, Mr. Hunter then contacted that station, but was told in an e-mail that there was “not an opening for you here now.” He later learned that 25-year-old weather anchor Evelyn Taft snagged the spot.

Mr. Hunter, an award winning, certified meteorologist, claims the stations hired young, attractive females, instead of qualified males like himself, in an effort to hook more male viewers. He is suing CBS Broadcasting in California state court for gender and age discrimination in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), seeking money damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees for the alleged discrimination and his “pain and suffering.”

Well-known discrimination attorney and active feminist Gloria Allred is representing Mr. Hunter in what she says is a “trail blazing lawsuit” because “most victims of gender discrimination are female.” According to the Huffington Post, CBS maintains that the accusations are “frivolous” and predicts “an early dismissal” of the lawsuit.

FEHA prohibits employers from either refusing to hire or firing someone based on gender, but let’s face it, Ms. Taft and Ms. Johnson weren’t hired just because they are female. They were hired because they are attractive, too.

This might not sound fair or just, but television is a visual medium – and television news is a business that relies on viewers and advertisers to make a profit. So, was Mr. Hunter not being hired an exercise of sound business judgment or age and gender discrimination?

The media accurately reported the facts, but didn’t analyze the legal issues. LASIS will.  

In a 2004 California Court of Appeals case, Holly Hallstrom, a model on the television game show “The Price Is Right,” sued Bob Barker, the host of the show, for gender discrimination claiming she was fired from her on-air job for gaining weight. The court found no gender discrimination because Ms. Hallstrom could not prove that a male “of comparable qualifications” replaced her or that she was let go when similarly situated male co-workers were not (there were no similarly situated male co-workers). And evidence that the show’s 300-pound male announcer wasn’t fired was “to put it politely, unpersuasive.”  He’d been hired because of the unique sound of his voice. It was no secret why the women on the show had been hired. It was because they looked beautiful. People tuned into the show just for the ladies (who had fan clubs devoted to them).

The record shows that a KCAL manager told Mr. Hunter that he “wouldn’t be the type men would want to look at,” since the station was trying to “cater to its many male viewers.” Indicating that the station sought to hire females. And it would be hard for KCAL to argue that Ms. Taft was as qualified as Mr. Hunter for the gig. In fact, the record shows that the station dropped its preference for American Meteorological Society certified weather anchors in order to hire Ms. Taft, a 25-year-old blonde beauty with only a few years of experience in front of the green screen.

So it’s possible that Mr. Hunter might succeed on his gender discrimination claim, and get some money for his litigation efforts. But keep in mind: KCAL is a business; the station was seeking to increase its male viewership. In this sense, Ms. Taft’s qualifications for the job far surpassed Mr. Hunter’s.

Mr. Hunter is also suing for age discrimination.

Last year, LASIS wrote about a 60-year-old former New York City-based news reporter who sued for age discrimination when a younger, less experienced newscaster replaced him. Reporter Asher Hawkins predicted that an aging anchor would likely lose on an age discrimination claim because a station can argue that “it had other, nondiscriminatory reasons” for ousting on-air talent.

In a 2010 California Court of Appeals case, an assignment editor at a California newspaper sued her employer for age discrimination when younger employees were promoted over her. But while the editor believed she was qualified for the promotions, her employer disagreed, and the court found that the “actual motive” for promoting the junior employees was not necessarily the discriminatory one claimed by the plaintiff.

This seems to cloud the chances of Mr. Hunter’s age discrimination claim, as the stations could argue that although he has a flood of forecasting experience, the young and female weather anchors were hired to help the stations soar ahead of the local competition.

Note that we believe the outcome would be different if Mr. Hunter had a contract and was fired and replaced by a young, inexperienced woman.

And yes, the stations’ hiring practices seem to teeter on the edge of gender and age discrimination, when looking at the law out of context. But when looking practically at the matter, news outfits can’t be forced to hire on-air talent who would garner them lower ratings – and hurt their bottom line.

Comments

5 Comments »

5 Responses

  1. Jim Duncan says:

    You utterly miss the point. Television stations are licensed by the FCC, and as such, must go by the letter of the employment law. All employees, in front of the camera and behind it, must be hired without discrimination. News programs are not entertainment programs, and are offered up by stations as a “public service” as required by the FCC. You also fail to mention that stations do not own the air waves and are licensed by the FCC as a “public trust”, and again, have to act in the public’s interest, damn the ratings. Mr. Hunter has called them on this point, and I’m sure others will do the same shortly. Again, you miss the most important aspect of this case, that tv stations cannot hire whomever they want just because young attractive females may increase ratings and revenues. Thank you.

  2. Martin Singer says:

    While the article didn’t mention the FCC, actually the article gets it right. Mr. Hunter will get a settlement but nobody can be forced to hire him if they feel his personality will not gain them viewers. He is not a news anchor, the job has nothing to do with a public trust. He is a weather anchor, which, more and more, involves smiling and having a sunny personality and looking good. Not much different from a Price is Right girl.

  3. Chris Marshall says:

    Martin, you too miss the point…news anchors READ the news, whilst weather people improvise and talk without a teleprompter! If anything, it’s the weather person who has the responsibility to being the most talented and INFORMED person in the room in regards to their expertise – and live television makes this even more important!

  4. Inez says:

    I’m with Martin — news anchors AND weather people must have personality and must make people want to watch. If someone is boring, I switch channels. We can all go online and get up to date weather on weather.com. When we watch news programs we invite these people into our home. I know my boys and my husband prefer to watch people who smile, women in particular (I’ve noticed this). And I don’t blame them. It’s human nature. So if you’d like to start a network and hire older, less attractive people, be my guest. I think the networks are mostly figuring out what sells.

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