Prominent CBS Execs Suspended After Allegations Of Bigotry, Telling Black Reporters They Didn't Like How They Looked, Spoke
For years, Peter Dunn had full control of who appeared on-air and Black journalists said it was common for him to criticize their appearance and how they spoke.
January 27, 2021 at 2:12 pm
CBS has suspended television stations president Peter Dunn and senior vice president of news for TV stations David Friend after The Los Angeles Times released a shocking report about Dunn's long history of open bigotry toward Black journalists.
It has been widely known within Black journalist circles that Dunn had spent years routinely making racist comments toward Black journalists and denying them opportunities, but The Los Angeles Times story marks the first time the allegations have been aired publicly.
CBS was forced to start a company-wide investigation after sexual misconduct allegations prompted the firing of longtime host Charlie Rose at the height of the #MeToo movement. The investigation also led to the resignation of the CEO and chairman of the CBS corporation Les Moonves.
After the two incidents with Moonves and Rose, CBS asked employees to come forward with any allegations against others in the company.
Journalists of all races immediately aired allegations against Dunn, one of the most powerful news television executives in the industry.
The internal investigation, done by two law firms, ended last year and nothing was done about Dunn or Friend despite the complaints raised about their racism toward Black broadcast journalists.
Journalists who spoke to The Los Angeles Times said they were enraged that Dunn had been allowed to stay and said it highlighted the pointlessness of the investigation.
“What was that whole investigation about? Was it just for show? The culture starts and stops with Peter Dunn,” former general manager of CBS’ Chicago TV station Marty Wilke told the newspaper.
The Los Angeles Times combed through court documents, internal conversations at CBS, and testimony from dozens of journalists and executives at the company, finding a longstanding pattern of Dunn making horrifically racist comments toward some of CBS's most beloved Black journalists.
The 61-year-old Dunn has run the lucrative TV news arm of the company since 2009 and was in charge of the 28 TV stations CBS owns across the company, leading a workforce of 2,800 people. The newspaper reported that the TV news arm of the company brought in about $1.6 billion each year in revenue.
For years, Dunn had full control of who appeared on-air and Black journalists said it was common for him to criticize their appearance and how they spoke, with multiple instances of either Friend or Dunn firing Black employees because they "did not like" someone's face.
Much of The Los Angeles Times story focused on Dunn's actions with Philadelphia's KYW-TV Channel 3. Multiple emails and testimony shared by executives at the station said Dunn was heavily involved in the station's operations and would routinely make bigoted comments about and toward legendary Black news anchor Ukee Washington, a beloved figure in the city.
Despite the city's racial demographics being 44% Black, The Los Angeles Times reported that residents would often tell Black journalists at the station that it was called the "White-Witness News” because the station would not put Black people on air.
Dunn was personally in charge of the station from 2002 to 2004 before ascending the ranks at CBS.
Washington had been at KYW-TV since 1986 and had built incredibly close ties with the community in the city. Yet it took him decades to finally be named lead evening anchor.
According to emails and testimony from other executives, Dunn would repeatedly disparage Washington, calling him “just a jive guy” and routinely say he was "dancing" for the audience akin to a slave.
“Peter would say: ‘All he does is dance … dancing, dancing,’” said Brien Kennedy, who was hired by Dunn in 2015 to overhaul the station after lackluster ratings, due in no small part to the station having two white journalists from Arkansas as lead anchors.
Washington is nationally known for his decades of groundbreaking work and is extremely popular in Philadelphia for his journalism in the city. As a lead anchor, he kickstarted a segment that he called "Brotherly Love" where he would cover a positive story. One of the segments involved Washington playing video games with a 5-year-old boy who had cancer.
When the station would run promotional ads highlighting Washington's move to lead evening anchor using the clip of him playing with the 5-year-old, Kennedy said Dunn would email him with just one word, "DANCING."
"He’s not doing that ‘jive-talking’ anymore? Sometimes, he’s just not speaking my language,” Dunn said according to Margaret Cronan, a former executive at the station who spoke to The Los Angeles Times.
“I was shocked that a corporate head would use words like that to describe an African American. Besides, Ukee was such a valuable asset to viewers and internally to our team. I couldn’t believe Peter Dunn would even be questioning his performance,” Cronan added.
In 2016, Dunn emailed Kennedy again bashing Washington.
“Guys Your late news retention is the worst in the [CBS station] group. Maybe it’s the dancing!” he wrote about Washington.
In addition to his comments about Washington, Dunn and Friend berated and belittled multiple Black women who were hired as anchors.
"It was just immediate screaming on the phone, not constructive criticism — just venom and profanity,” Cronan said, describing Dunn's reaction to recently hired Black journalist Brooke Thomas.
“He screamed: ‘Tell her to shut the [expletive] up.’ I was flabbergasted. I’ve never witnessed that type of behavior in the workplace,” Cronan added.
“Can you please tell her to stop shouting, stop talking in a fake southern accent and stop sucking the air out of the show,” Friend wrote in an email seen by The Los Angeles Times.
After just two days on-air and despite rave reviews from fans and co-workers, Dunn and Friend called Thomas "unwatchable" and demanded that she be fired.
“Literally two minutes into the meeting, David said that Brooke had to be terminated as soon as possible. He said to stop all of the promotions for the morning show… After all that time, energy and money — we had to pull all of it,” Cronan said.
Cronan also accused Dunn and Friend of stopping her from hiring Emmy-nominated journalist Evan Lambert and NBC reporter Frank Holland. Multiple Black reporters at the station who were seen as rising stars, like Steve Patterson and Justin Finch, left the station in 2015 and 2016.
The Black woman who replaced Thomas, Rahel Solomon, was widely adored at the station but Friend made multiple bigoted comments about her, telling Kennedy in one email, “I hate her face.” She left the station in 2019.
In addition to all of these allegations, The Los Angeles Times spoke with four Black journalists anonymously because they said they still feared backlash from Dunn, who at the time managed to keep his job despite all of the complaints against him.
“It’s like they have no idea who should be telling the stories. They thought I was disposable, and in that kind of environment, you become an ornament. That happens a lot in the industry — but especially at KYW,” one journalist said.
CBS initially defended its decision to keep Dunn and Friend, shockingly telling the newspaper that they kept Dunn because no one had complained about him in the last year.
CBS Entertainment Group chief George Cheeks then met with leaders of the National Association of Black Journalists after the story, who bashed the decision to keep Dunn.
"In order for the company's culture to be transformed, it must begin with the firing of Dunn and Friend," NABJ said in a statement to CBS This Morning.
CBS This Morning aired a segment about The Los Angeles Times story once the backlash had grown too large, announcing that both Dunn and Friend had been suspended.
Two longtime CBS executives are on administrative leave while the company looks into alleged racist and sexist behavior, first reported by the @LATimes.@Jerickaduncan has the latest. pic.twitter.com/riAoPJroT5
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) January 26, 2021
"I'm glad that we are talking about it, we're not running away from it. But we haven't handled it well. We have to own up to that. CBS hasn't handled it well and hopefully, now things will change," CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King said. "It's very upsetting to me. We can do better and we are better than this. Actions speak louder than words."
Washington himself addressed the controversy on his show this week, giving a tearful response to the allegations raised against Dunn and his longstanding fight to gain the respect he deserved at the station.
"I wanted to thank everyone for the love and support over the past couple of days. From you at home, social media, people in the street, all my coworkers here at the station, as well as colleagues at other stations, radio stations and newspapers here in town," Washington said.
"I'm good, keeping the faith and staying strong, and I want all of you to do the same. We all feel the pain of the subject matter. Clearly, these past few days have been difficult for everyone including my teammates. The details in the story you just watched are painful for all of us but we cannot and will not tolerate the type of behavior that's been alleged," he added.
CBS3's @UkeeWashington gets emotional while thanking viewers and co-workers for all their support. "I do believe we shall overcome. We must." #FAMILY
— CBS Philly (@CBSPhilly) January 26, 2021
"There is no room for it anywhere, any time. And I'm so happy to see the leadership of this station and our parent company are supporting efforts to create and maintain a fair and inclusive workplace here and across our nation of stations," Washington told the audience as he began to cry.
"My mom told me as a kid that there is strength in numbers and it's still true. We all have the power to create change and we can do it together. I love to use the word family and that, in my opinion, is what we all are. Children of God. So do me a favor, if you have young children, give them a hug and tell them it's going to be alright because deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. We must," he said.