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WTAE fires anchor Wendy Bell over controversial Facebook remarks

Jason Cato
| Wednesday, March 30, 2016, 4:15 p.m.
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor
Mike Mancini
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor
WTAE
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor

WTAE-TV fired longtime news anchor Wendy Bell on Wednesday, more than a week after she posted a controversial message on Facebook.

Bell returned to work at Channel 4 after a Florida vacation but never returned to the air. Station officials fired her in a meeting and then informed the rest of the news staff.

“WTAE has ended its relationship with anchor Wendy Bell,” read a statement from Hearst Television, the station's parent company. “Wendy's recent comments on a WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company's ethics and journalistic standards.”

A Hearst Television spokesman declined to comment further.

Bell said Wednesday she didn't get a “fair shake” from the station and that the story was not about her, but about “African-Americans being killed by other African-Americans.”

“It makes me sick,” she told The Associated Press. “What matters is what's going on in America, and it is the death of black people in this country. ... I live next to three war-torn communities in the city of Pittsburgh that I love dearly.

“My stories, they struck a nerve. They touched people, but it's not enough. More needs to be done. The problem needs to be addressed.”

Charles Wolfertz, president and general manager of WTAE, did not return calls for comment.

On March 21, Bell posted to her work Facebook page thoughts concerning still at-large shooters who killed five adults and an unborn baby at a Wilkinsburg cookout this month as well as her observations of a restaurant worker in the South Side.

Many viewed her post as racist, and she received criticism and support online.

Bell, who is white, later edited her post and apologized, saying she regretted “offending anyone” and that her post had been “insensitive and could be viewed as racist.”

The entire post has been removed from Facebook.

WTAE issued an official apology last Wednesday after Bell was last seen on air. The apology, in part, stated: “Her post offended us. … Wendy is sorry for the words she chose, and so are we. It was an egregious lack of judgment.”

Bell joined WTAE in 1998. The native of Calabasas, Calif., lives in Point Breeze with her husband and five sons. Over her career, she won 21 Emmys, two Edward R. Murrow awards and a National Headliner Award.

Within hours of her firing, Bell's WTAE Facebook page was gone and she no longer appeared on WTAE's web page staff listing.

Her controversial Facebook post opined that the shooters of the March 9 slaying in Wilkinsburg are black men in their teens or 20s who have prior arrests and who “have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs.”

No arrests have been made.

Bell's post also praised a black teen she saw working diligently in a SouthSide Works restaurant.

“He's going to Make It,” she wrote.

Damon Young last week publicly criticized Bell's post on VerySmartBrothas.com, a site he founded in 2008.

At first, Young said he wasn't calling for Bell to lose her job. But he said he also isn't sorry that she did.

“This isn't something to be happy about,” said Young, 37, of the North Side. “I'd be happy if she didn't possess the thoughts that led to her getting herself fired. That would make me happy.

“But I do believe she should be fired because she is a journalist. I think journalists have a certain responsibility for objectivity.”

Al Tompkins worked in broadcast news for nearly 25 years and is a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit media training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I hate it when an anchor loses a job in a humiliating way,” Tompkins wrote in an email. “Sadly this case is a reminder of a few things: Everything that a public person, including an anchor, says online and on social media is public.”

News directors and editors often encourage journalists to use social media to share opinions and glimpses into their private lives — with little editorial oversight. Tompkins said.

“That may not be the best idea,” he said. “Generally my feeling is if you wouldn't say something on the air don't say it online.”

Tompkins admitted he knows nothing of Bell's situation other than reports of her Facebook post. “I cannot explain why political candidates these days can say outrageous things and gain support while in this case a single social media post resulted in such a blowup,” he said. “But the public is on edge.”

Racist is a loaded word, said Tim Stevens, CEO of the advocacy group Black Political Empowerment Project. He said he doesn't often use it — even in this case.

“That was a super insensitive thing to write,” Stevens said of Bell's post before noting that he chooses his words carefully when making public comments. “Someone like Wendy should know that — to her bones.”

Stevens said he was conflicted over whether Bell should have been fired. Still, he plans to use the incident as an opportunity to discuss race in the news. He said he plans to contact WTAE and other local news outlets about holding a public discussion on the issue.

The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation said its leaders and WTAE-TV agreed to collaborate on “improving news coverage of communities of color.” Federation board members met Wednesday with WTAE management, after the station released its statement on Bell, the organization said, adding it didn't call for Bell's employment to end.

Tompkins said people can learn from Bell's post and firing.

“We all benefit from using this incident to heighten our sensitivity to how others might read what we write,” he said.

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed.

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