KTBS meteorologist Rhonda Lee was fired last month from her job at ABC’s Shreveport, Louisiana affiliate–a position she had held for almost a year. It was not for anything she said on-air, or in the newsroom. It was for responding to viewer comments online regarding her hair, comments such as these from a viewer identified as Emmitt Vascocu, written on the station’s Facebook page on Oct. 1:
“[T]he 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).”
Lee wears a close-cropped, natural hairstyle. “I’ve even had a news director once say that my hair was too aggressive for Sacramento, so I wasn’t even allowed to interview at that point… It’s been an interesting journey with my hair,” Lee told CNN in an interview Wednesday. It got more interesting after she replied to Vascocu via Facebook:
“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 later apologized to Lee and to KTBS’ station manager, George Sirven, theGrio reported.
As Mediaite noted yesterday, Lee also responded on Facebook to another viewer who complained that the children participating in an annual station Christmas shopping spree were all African-American. Both comments, though seemingly professional in nature, were deemed a violation of station rules. Sirven issued a statement about Lee’s firing to msnbc and on Facebook, saying Lee repeatedly violated the station’s written procedure. He wrote:
Typically[,] this station does not comment on personnel matters, but due to the publicity and interest about this issue, the station has included the following statement.
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… The policy they violated provided a specific procedure for responding to viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page… 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.
Sirven attached an image of an email allegedly sent to Lee and a number of other unidentified employees on Aug. 30 of this year, emphasizing that inaction was the best approach. “When we see complaints from viewers, it’s best not to respond at all,” the image of the email reads. “If you chose (sp) to respond to these complaints, there is only one proper response”: to provide the viewer with the contact information of an unidentified official at the station, and assure him or her that KTBS would be happy to address any concerns. But Lee alleges that she wasn’t afforded the same courtesy.
Lee told the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education that she was not, as promised, given the opportunity to discuss her violation of this rule with her superiors prior to her dismissal. Additionally, she told CNN that she never knew the rule existed, and had yet to see the policy which she was told “isn’t written down”–a curious explanation, given the email justification KTBS is providing as evidence Lee was provided notice of the rule.
La Crosse, Wisconsin anchor Jennifer Livingston, who in October fended off a viewer’s criticism of her weight with a well-publicized on-air retort, responded to Poynter with a supportive email about Lee’s firing:
“I don’t think when you decide to become a journalist it means you have to put a piece of duct tape over your mouth regarding comments directed at you…
“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.”
Given the nature of this story, it’s worth revisiting host Melissa Harris-Perry’s June discussion about the politics of natural hair. View below all four segments, starting with Melissa’s “Teachable Moment.”