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ABC News deals with fallout over exec comments on Robin Roberts and other Black journalists

ABC News executive Barbara Fedida at Variety's Salute to Service presented by History Channel in New York on Nov. 9, 2019.
(Clint Spaulding / Variety / Shutterstock)

ABC News personnel were reeling Monday over a report that one of its top executives used racist language in her discussions about Black on-air talent at the network.

Barbara Fedida, senior vice president of talent, editorial strategy and business affairs for the news division was put on administrative leave over the weekend as parent Walt Disney Co. conducts an investigation into allegations of abusive comments raised in a HuffPost report published Saturday.

Several ABC News insiders who were not authorized to comment publicly believe Fedida is likely negotiating an exit from the company. The controversy could also be problematic for the future of ABC News President James Goldston, who relied heavily on Fedida.

The report surfaced amid the country’s reckoning on race relations that has occurred since the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. Those discussions have already led to changes in several media organizations where management was found to be unresponsive to concerns about diversity and fair treatment in the workplace.

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Peter Rice, chairman of Walt Disney Television, told employees Monday that an investigation into Fedida’s alleged remarks will be overseen by the company’s general counsel.

“ABC News must be a place where all employees can thrive in a diverse and inclusive environment,” Rice wrote in a memo obtained by The Times. “Everyone has the right to feel fully respected and supported at work, with the opportunity to be heard and to contribute in meaningful ways. You can be assured that once this investigation is concluded, we will take whatever actions are necessary.”

An ABC News representative declined to comment on the status of the investigation.

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Based on conversations with anonymous sources, the HuffPost recounted a discussion on “Good Morning America” cohost Robin Roberts’ contract in which Fedida allegedly said the network was not asking Roberts to “pick cotton.”

Fedida also allegedly used the term “low rent” to describe Sunny Hostin, a Black cohost on “The View.” In discussing the value to the network of a former Black correspondent Kendis Gibson, she allegedly said ABC News would spend more money on toilet paper.

The HuffPost also said there have been settlements with former ABC News employees who complained about Fedida’s behavior.

Fedida, who has been in her current position at ABC News since 2011, is responsible for recruiting and developing talent at the network (she first joined the network as a news production assistant in 1989). She has long had a reputation for being a tough negotiator who expresses her views in coarse language.

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As an executive who has had to fire employees, cut salaries and deny raise requests, Fedida is not an overwhelmingly popular figure within the news division, according to many people who have worked with her.

But the racist terms described in the HuffPost report — which Fedida has denied — came as a shock to many ABC News staffers and other people in the industry familiar with her and were devastated by the claims. “It’s a gut punch to people,” said one former ABC News executive who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“I know Barbara Fedida, and I don’t think she’s a racist,” said Whoopi Goldberg on Monday’s edition of the ABC News daytime program “The View.” “Everything I know about her doesn’t say she has this in her. But I will say that one of the things that everyone should always make sure we say, and I say it all the time — let’s find out. If it’s true, she’s gone. If it’s not, let’s find out what’s going on.”

During a June 4 companywide conference call to address reporting and race in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, several Black ABC News on-air personalities — including “Nightline” co-anchor Byron Pitts and correspondents Pierre Thomas — acknowledged the efforts of Fedida and other executives to improve diversity in the division.

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Fedida cited her record for diversity in the company in her statement on the HuffPost report.

“Throughout my career, I have been a champion for increased diversity in network news,” the statement read. “Building a news division where everyone can thrive has been my life’s mission. I am proud of my decades of work of hiring, supporting and promoting talented journalists of color. And, unlike these heartbreaking and incredibly misleading claims about me, that track record is well-documented and undeniable.”

But Hostin, who has talked on “The View” about growing up in public housing, said she was “saddened and disturbed” about the “low rent” comment and the remarks made about her colleagues.

“[It] tells me that systemic racism touches everything and everyone in our society regardless of social stature,” Hostin said. “No one is immune. It’s the type of racism that Black people deal with every single day, and it has to stop.”

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While TV news divisions have tried to improve their diversity on-air, there have long been complaints that journalists of color are underrepresented in newsrooms and are often subjected to discriminatory practices.

In 2017, a judge dismissed a class action suit against CNN brought by former and current employees who alleged discrimination at the cable news channel over two decades.

In 2018, Fox News parent company agreed to a $10-million settlement to resolve a group of racial and gender discrimination lawsuits involving 18 current and former employees.


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