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Wendy Bell sues WTAE, alleging racial discrimination

Matthew Santoni
| Monday, June 20, 2016, 4:36 p.m.
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor
WTAE
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor

Former Pittsburgh television news anchor Wendy Bell is suing her former station for discrimination because the racially loaded Facebook post that got her fired would not have created such controversy if she were black, her lawyer said.

WTAE fired Bell in March after she wrote a post on her WTAE-sponsored account that speculated on the race and family background of the suspects who killed five people and an unborn child in Wilkinsburg, saying how upset the killings made her and contrasting her idea of the suspects with a black busboy she and her family encountered later.

The post — and WTAE's eventual reaction — caused a firestorm that garnered national attention, with Western Pennsylvanians arguing over whether it was racist, insensitive or merely the longtime, Emmy-winning anchor using her freedom of speech to speak her mind.

Representatives of Hearst television, which owns WTAE, were not available for comment. Both are named in the suit. Bell declined to comment, saying, “I haven't said anything up to this point, and I'm not about to start.”

In the federal lawsuit filed Monday in Pittsburgh, attorney Samuel J. Cordes said the station violated the Federal Civil Rights Act because Bell would not have been fired for her comments if she were not white.

“Had an African-American journalist said the same thing, it wouldn't have generated the same quote-outcry-unquote,” Cordes said Monday after the suit was filed. “What she said was benign at best. President Obama has said similar things.”

In a post that was later edited, then deleted on an account sponsored for her by WTAE, Bell wrote: “You needn't be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday. ... They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs.”

In the same post, she said she was given “hope” by a hard-working black busboy at a SouthSide Works restaurant who “moved like a dancer with a satisfied smile on his face. ... He's going to make it.”

Police have since named two black men, Cheron Shelton and Robert Thomas, as suspects in the shooting but have not charged them.

They remain in the Allegheny County Jail on unrelated charges from a 2013 case that defense attorneys say was resurrected to keep the men in prison for months.

The lawsuit noted Bell was fired March 30, the same day of a meeting between WTAE management and members of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, and the station announced the firing to the media before notifying Bell.

The federation leaders said they did not meet with management until after Bell's firing and did not call for her employment to end.

Bell is seeking reinstatement to her job, back pay and other damages, along with a guarantee that the station be prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against her “because she opposed race discrimination.”

“Ms. Bell's posting of concern for the African-American community stung by mass shooting was clearly and obviously not intended to be racially offensive,” the lawsuit stated.

It also said WTAE failed to take similar action against a black staffer who was accused of making lewd comments to interns and a white staffer who was arrested for propositioning an undercover police officer.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com. Staff writer Jason Cato contributed to this report.

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