An African-American meteorologist who was fired after she responded to criticism of her short Afro hairstyle on her news station’s Facebook page has seen an outpouring of support from her Louisiana community.
Ronda Lee was terminated Nov. 28 by Shreveport, La. ABC affiliate KTBS-TV, but since then has appeared on several news shows and has received a deluge of support from the online community.
The news station’s Facebook page has been overrun with comments on the issue, running the gamut from outright nasty to respectfully constructive.
Brad Smith, who said he was a lawyer from Rockford, Ill., reprimanded the news station for not defending its employee.
“The way I see it, you, KTBS, failed to protect her by not deleting this post and warning the sender that personal attacks against its staff will not be tolerated,” Smith wrote. “Your employee should not have been put in a position like this to where she felt she had to defend herself against such harmful and damaging comments as this.”
User Amia Reynolds and others attributed KTBS’ reaction to racism.
“KTBS, I hope you go under for running such a slipshod, bigoted news station,” Reynolds said. “I hope you feel the heat from the endless voices joining in to defend Ms. Lee and say that YOU ARE WRONG. I hope she sues you all blind, and you owe her an apology for firing her for defending herself, after being attacked for her own biological makeup!”
Several observers compared Lee’s situation to that of La Crosse, Wis., TV anchor Jennifer Livingston, who won national acclaim—and retained her job—after her public response to a viewer who criticized her for being overweight.
“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,” Livingston wrote in an e-mail to the journalism think tank Poynter Institute.
Lee’s firing stemmed from an Oct. 1 comment by a viewer identified as Emmitt Vascocu, who wrote: “the 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….”
In a measured response that same day Lee replied: “Hello Emmitt—I am the 'black lady' to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don't like my ethnic hair…. 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…. 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.”
In an earlier incident, Lee also responded on Facebook to a viewer who complained that the children featured in a project organized by the station were all “people of color.”
In a statement posted on Facebook, KTBS news director Randy Bain said Lee and another White male employee were fired due to repeated violations of the company’s social media policy. Attached to the post was the image of a redacted memo that was e-mailed to employees on Aug. 30. In it, staff were advised, “When we see complaints from viewers it’s best not to respond at all…If you choose to respond to these complaints, there is only one proper response” and that is to direct the viewer to an appointed contact.
“Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued,” the statement read. “Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance.”
The longtime meteorologist denied knowing about the memo and argued that the social policy was neither fully outlined nor written down.
The National Association of Black Journalists said that instead of firing Lee, KTBS could have used the opportunity for a public dialogue on diversity.
“NABJ believes Lee’s managers missed a golden opportunity to initiate a community dialogue about respect, identity and diversity, particularly as it relates to redefining standards of beauty, what is aesthetically acceptable in television news and the value of on-air journalists beyond appearance,” the organization said in a statement.