Disney to Settle Racial Bias Suit Over Radio Gag

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walt Disney Co. has agreed to pay $2 million to a former employee to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit stemming from its involvement in a radio promotion called "The Black Hoe."

The action comes barely a year after Disney blasted the suit as meritless and vowed to fight it in court.

The suit, filed by a black former employee named Judy Goodwin, followed a promotion on KLOS-FM's "Mark & Brian Show," during which "Black Hoes"--black, plastic gardening tools--were given away as gag prizes to listeners and advertisers by the Disney-owned station.

In her suit, filed Aug. 6, 1999, in Los Angeles Superior Court, the KLOS-FM traffic controller contended that Disney and ABC violated anti-discrimination laws by airing a "racist and sexually degrading" promotion that was built upon a double-entendre involving a slang pronunciation of the word "whore."

The dispute is seen as a public relations blunder for Disney, a company obsessed about its wholesome image. Only after its initial resistance was met by community protests did the family entertainment conglomerate negotiate a resolution.

The incident also shines a light on the behind-the-scenes workings of a racial controversy, illustrating how a civil rights group can attempt to exploit a media firestorm to its advantage. Disney accommodated its loudest critics through a pledge of a cash payment, but ignored demands to fire personnel involved in the promotion at KLOS-FM, one of its most profitable radio properties.

Executives at Disney and ABC declined to comment, as did Goodwin and her attorney.

When the dispute broke out last August, Disney ignored the racial discrimination suit and balked at demands from civil rights groups to issue a public apology. But as pressure of a boycott mounted, Disney apologized and began seeking ways to mollify critics, who were also asking the government to revoke KLOS-FM's license.

In October, the corporation dispatched ABC Chairman Robert Iger, one of its top executives, to try to calm the waters with civil rights leaders at a meeting at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Congress of Racial Equality, the most vocal critic of the promotion.

Over the next few weeks, representatives from Disney's human resource department met with CORE several times. Sources say CORE proposed that Disney hire the civil rights group to conduct diversity training and sensitivity classes at its radio stations.

Soon after, Disney pledged to pay CORE about $5,000 to hold a single two-hour diversity training seminar at the CORE headquarters that was attended by a handful of station executives, sources at the meeting said. Disney also invited CORE Vice President Sandra Moore to speak once on an early-morning community affairs program on its KABC radio station.

CORE has been silent since. So have other civil rights organizations--even though Disney ignored their demands to fire KLOS-FM talk-show hosts Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps and extended the duo's contract to keep them on the air until August 2001.

Disney also rejected demands by CORE and other critics to fire the executives involved in the promotion. Several of those executives were promoted at the station, which generates an estimated $30 million per year in advertising revenue for Disney. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission declined to challenge KLOS-FM's license.

"Nobody can buy CORE," Moore said Monday. "I am shocked and appalled that Disney extended Mark and Brian's contract. They lied to us, and I didn't find out until right now."

During the period in which Disney was trying to avert a boycott, sources involved in the dispute said the corporation refused to bargain with Goodwin, the KLOS-FM employee, or her attorney, James R. DeBose--neither of whom had any contact with CORE or other critics throughout the ordeal.

Disney initially took a hard-line stance against Goodwin, telling The Times in September that her suit was without merit and that the corporation intended to "vigorously defend itself in this litigation."

Goodwin's suit accused KLOS-FM executives of undertaking the promotion with the "conscious aim and intent of providing racially offensive, sexually charged entertainment for its primarily white male listening audience and advertising clients."

Her suit also contended that KLOS-FM forced female African American employees to pack and ship "Black Hoe" gadgets to advertising clients over Goodwin's objections. In addition, Goodwin's suit alleged that she suffered daily harassment and retaliation by managers and co-workers after complaining about the promotion.

Not long after the suit was filed, sources at Disney said the company conducted an internal review that uncovered a decade of complaints about barbs against Jews, Asians and African Americans aired on its top-rated "Mark & Brian Show." Disney also discovered that Thompson and Phelps had been sued before arriving at KLOS-FM by a black sportscaster on an Alabama radio station over alleged disparaging racial remarks made in 1987 on their show.

Meanwhile, two other African American employees, Carla Woodson and Leslie Childs, also filed racial discrimination and harassment suits against Disney in Los Angeles Superior Court. Both women alleged that they had been forced out of their jobs after complaining about the promotion.

Disney first approached attorneys representing the three plaintiffs in November and entered a series of mediations trying to quietly settle the cases out of court, sources involved in the negotiations said. Disney initially offered Goodwin $100,000 and a lower figure to the other plaintiffs, those sources said.

This year, Goodwin and Woodson hired Los Angeles attorney Johnnie L. Cochran to join their legal team. Cochran's legal firm participated in two of the mediation sessions, but was dropped by Goodwin in March, those sources said.

As Goodwin's case edged closer to its January trial date, attorneys for Disney grew concerned that a Los Angeles jury might be sympathetic to the plight of a black employee with an unblemished 20-year work record, the sources said.

On Aug. 5, nearly one year to the day after she filed her lawsuit, Disney offered Goodwin $2 million, sources said.

Goodwin notified Disney last week that she intends to accept the settlement, sources said. Childs, a former KABC account executive, who is represented by attorney Dwight M. Bolden, may also accept Disney's $250,000 settlement offer in her case, sources said.

Woodson, a former KLOS account executive, has rejected Disney's $750,000 settlement offer in her suit, sources said. A hearing in Woodson's case is scheduled today.

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Times staff writer Denise Gellene contributed to this report.

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