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Its credibility at stake, WTAE did what it had to, social media expert says

| Thursday, March 31, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor
Mike Mancini
Wendy Bell, former WTAE news anchor

The combination proved to be explosive.

The powder keg was a city still raw and reeling from an act of meticulously orchestrated savagery. The lit fuse was ill-advised public speculation regarding those responsible for the crime.

The resulting blast blew up Wendy Bell's 18-year career at WTAE-TV.

Should it have? Opinion on the matter remains sharply, emotionally divided.

The award-winning anchorwoman was fired Wednesday for a controversial Facebook post concerning the March 9 slayings of five adults and an unborn baby at an evening backyard cookout in Wilkinsburg.

The crime was heinous. One gunman fired from an alley, prompting the victims to flee toward the house, where a second gunman was waiting near the back porch to ambush them.

If suspects already were in custody, Bell doesn't post speculation, and she is behind the anchor desk today. But when no one was quickly apprehended, she unwisely felt inspired to hypothetically profile the killers as part of a longer post on the executions.

“They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s,” Bell wrote. “They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have seen the system before … they know the police. They've been arrested. They've made the circuit and nothing has scared them enough.”

Bell's many detractors consider the theoretical descriptions racially insensitive and consider her ouster justified. Her many fans believe her apology for the post should have sufficed and WTAE and parent Hearst management overreacted in dismissing her.

Scott Kleinberg is a nationally syndicated social media columnist and the Chicago Tribune's senior social media editor. He remembers watching Bell while working as a Tribune-Review editor and designer in Pittsburgh before leaving for the Windy City in 2005.

Kleinberg believes WTAE acted appropriately in dismissing Bell. He contends that although the controversy eventually would diminish if she stayed, her continued presence would undermine the station's ability to cover stories — particularly ones regarding race.

“They want people to take their coverage seriously, but they wouldn't be able to as long as all the talk is about them having a racially insensitive reporter,” he said. “This story would overshadow everything else.”

It did Thursday, even with Bell dispatched to occupational oblivion. As we spoke on the phone, Kleinberg browsed WTAE's website for coverage of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' appearance in Pittsburgh.

“Look at the posted comments on that story,” Kleinberg said. “The second one isn't about Bernie Sanders; it's about Wendy Bell. So is the third.”

While he feels bad for Bell, Kleinberg said he couldn't believe she didn't realize how incendiary her comments were before posting them.

“As a member of the media and as a human being, I really wish there was a way to give her a second chance, because you can't learn without failing,” he said.

“But this was the action the station had to take.”

Eric Heyl is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@triblive.com.

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