There has been a shake-up at the top of one of the big three in broadcast television. CBS has removed Peter Dunn, the TV station executive, and David Friend, Senior Vice President of News while the company investigates dozens of gender and racial discrimination claims. The change has already increased diversity among newscasters, and promises to result in more drastic actions.
In January 2021 the Los Angeles Times released its article, “Inside CBS’ fraught investigation into allegations of racism and misogyny.” In it, the newspaper revealed that more than a dozen current and former CBS staff members had raised complaints of gender and racial discrimination. They said executives at the company had created a hostile work environment.
The piece of investigative journalism also revealed that the company’s 2018 sexual misconduct investigation had not resulted in the kinds of change the news station’s employees had been hoping for. When the LA Times interviewed Marty Wilke, the former general manager of CBS’ Chicago TV station, he asked:
“What was that whole investigation about? Was it just for show?” Wilke asked. “The culture starts and stops with Peter Dunn.”
Dunn has run the chain of 28 CBS-owned TV stations since 2009. According to the Times, Dunn keeps a tight grip on those stations, personally managing which anchors and reporters appear on CBS.
In New York, Black journalists reported that managers often passed over news coverage related to communities of color. The New York flagship station, WCBS, didn’t have any full-time Black male reporters under Dunn.
In Philadelphia’s City Center, CBS’ local station KYW was often called “White-Witness News” by Black residents who made up 44% of the population. After a popular Black journalist was promoted to lead evening anchor, Dunn disparaged him, calling him “just a jive guy” a racial slur referring to a form of dance popular among African Americans. Dunn also rejected a Black woman who was the local manager’s number one pick for morning show anchor, along with a second anchor candidate, calling him “too gay for Philadelphia.”
Less than a year after Dunn took over the TV Stations group, he promoted David Friend to oversee news operations across the country. In 2016, after Brook Thomas, a new Black co-anchor, appeared on the Philadelphia morning show, Friend called Margaret Cronan, who ran the local news crew. The LA Times reported:
“It was just immediate screaming on the phone, not constructive criticism — just venom and profanity,” Cronan said. “He screamed: ‘Tell her to shut the [expletive] up,’” in reference to Thomas. “I was flabbergasted...”
Friend followed up with an email… “Can you please tell her to stop shouting, stop talking in a fake Southern accent and stop sucking the air out of the show?”
He demanded that Thomas be terminated as soon as possible and that Cronan stop promoting the morning show.
Friend also targeted Cronan herself, publicly calling her “a [expletive] idiot” and telling her she was “running out of time.” Several women reported being bullied by both Dunn and Friend during their time at CBS. Marty Wilke retired at age 53 in 2018, citing clashes with Dunn.
After its 2018 investigation, CBS’ board promised to do better, saying improving “the working environment for all employees” would be a “high priority.” But the CBS investigator never contacted Wilke at all. Brien Kennedy was asked to help with an internal review of workplace misconduct by Dunn. Five months later he was fired.
Then, in January 2021, the LA Times published its report. The light of a news investigation apparently did what dozens of internal complaints could not. Within three months, CBS removed both Peter Dunn and David Friend from their positions in the company pending a new investigation.
“Removing these two individuals is a good start,” prominent Black journalist Roland Martin [told the LA Times]. “But there is so much more work that needs to be done throughout CBS. There are some systemic and cultural issues that exist, and I want to hear a deeper and broader plan to address them.”
This time, the investigation will specifically review Dunn and Friend. By mid-April, dozens of CBS executives, past and present, had met with the attorney-investigators. Dunn’s replacement, George Cheeks announced:
“We have determined that CBS Stations President Peter Dunn and SVP of News David Friend are not returning to their positions and will be leaving the Company.”
This time, there is reason to believe that the gender and racial discrimination investigation will get results, particularly when it comes to increasing diversity at CBS. George Cheeks, who was appointed the company’s new chief executive in March 2020, is himself bi-racial. That same month, WCBS (New York) got its first full-time Black male reporter.
“I prayed that CBS executives would make this decision, and I am relieved that they did,” Cronan [told the LA Times]. “There is still much work that needs to be done, but with these two individuals out, there is promise ahead. There’s hope — and that’s something that those who have worked in that division of CBS haven’t felt in a long time.”
When racial discrimination and sexual misconduct starts at the top of a nationwide company like CBS, sometimes it takes more than an internal complaint to change the toxic work environment. At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced racial discrimination and sexual harassment attorneys know what it can take to get a harasser out of an executive position. We can help you and your coworkers file individual complaints with the EEOC or New York Human Rights Commission, and come together to tell your story in court. Contact us to schedule a consultation at our office in New York City, or over the phone.