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2012-12-20

Louisiana TV Station Fires Black Meteorologist for Responding to Viewer’s Barb About Her Hair

Guests

Rhonda Lee, former meteorologist for KTBS in Shreveport, Louisiana. She was recently fired for responding to Facebook comments, including one that criticized her hair.

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Rhonda Lee, an African-American TV meteorologist, was fired by Louisiana’s KTBS last month after responding to a viewer’s criticism of her short, natural hairstyle on Facebook. Lee had written: "I am the 'black lady' to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer. ... I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair ... 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." Lee joins us to discuss her firing and the remarkable show of support she’s received from around the nation after her story went viral. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to our next segment.

CHRIS ROCK: Just yesterday, my daughter came into the house and said, "Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?" I wonder how she came up with that idea.

NIA LONG: Within the black community, if you have good hair, you’re prettier or better than. The lighter, the brighter, the better.

ANDRE HARRELL: They want to go like this, like Farrah Fawcett.

TRACIE THOMS: There are so many pressures to straighten your hair.

CHRIS ROCK: Look at my ring, still there. Relaxer is the chemical that will take a black woman’s hair from this and change it into this.

ICE-T: It’s kind of like a torture session.

CHRIS ROCK: Could you tell us how dangerous relaxer is?

PROFESSOR BERRY: Sodium hydroxide will burn through your skin.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a clip of the 2009 documentary Good Hair, starring and narrated by comedian Chris Rock.

Well, African-American hairstyles are in the news this month after a TV station in Shreveport, Louisiana, KTBS, fired a meteorologist named Rhonda Lee after she defended her short, natural hairstyle on Facebook.

In October, a viewer named Emmitt Vascocu wrote on the station’s page, quote, "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. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news.what about that? [sic]."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lee responded to the comment at length on the Facebook thread, saying, quote, "Hello Emmitt-I am the [quote] 'black lady' to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer...I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair... 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," she wrote.

Rhonda Lee was fired by KTBS late last month. The station claimed she repeatedly violated company policy about responding to criticism from viewers. We invited a representative from KTBS to join us on the show; they declined. Instead, they provided us with the following recording.

GEORGE SIRVEN: Unfortunately, television personalities have long been the subject of harsh criticism and negative viewer comments about their appearance and performance. If harsh viewer comments are posted on the station’s official website, there is a specific procedure to follow. Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued. Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now by Democracy Now! video stream, Rhonda Lee herself.

Rhonda Lee, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you respond to your bosses at the TV station and tell us about why you responded to the critics on Facebook? Again, Rhonda Lee, former meteorologist for KTBS. She’s in Shreveport, Louisiana.

RHONDA LEE: Hi. Well, there really is no policy. There was never anything ever written down. We received the memo, I believe—George Sirven, that was our general manager—received a memo, he says, in August. I’ll be honest with you: I do not recall seeing that particular memo. I’ve been locked out of the email system since I was terminated. And to say multiple times, I’ve only responded to two Facebook posts that weren’t weather-related, so I’m not real clear on where multiple times ever came into play.

And I’ll be honest with you: There have been so few criticisms of what I did, it really is difficult for me to respond to criticism. It seems like there are a lot of people, more so siding with my plight than I would have ever dreamed, frankly. And it’s been such a wild ride, and I appreciate all of those reports from people coming back with, you know, inspiring messages and things like that.

But to say that there was a policy in place, there really is not, even to this day. But I don’t think I would ever change a keystroke as to what it was that I said. To me, it was a message that kind of needed to get out. Of course, black female hair has always been a point of contention, since probably biblical times. And unfortunately, we haven’t moved quite to where I think we should be as far as the level of beauty that’s displayed and compared to with African-American women’s hair. But I think we’re making very important strides today, despite my circumstance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn back to KTBS’s official statement. The station maintains that you and another white male reporter were fired over violations of station policy about posting on Facebook, not because of your hair.

GEORGE SIRVEN: On November 28th, 2012, KTBS dismissed two employees for repeated violation of the station’s written procedure. We can confirm that Rhonda Lee was one of the employees. Another employee was a white male reporter who was an eight-year veteran of the station. The policy they violated provided a specific procedure for responding to viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page. On August 30th, 2012, an email was sent to all news department employees informing them of this procedure. This procedure is based on advice from national experts and commonly used by national broadcast and cable networks and local television stations across the country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to get your response. And also, what they told you, I guess, when they called you in to notify you that they were letting you go?

RHONDA LEE: What I was told was, initially, that I was going to be able to have a meeting with George Sirven, the voice you heard there, from my direct supervisor, news director Randy Bain. And this was right after I posted the other message about the "Three Minute Smile" with the little kids. And I was at that—before that, back in—I guess it would be November, with the Three Minute Smile Facebook post, I said I was very confused as to what it is I’m supposed to be doing. We had also recently received a Face—or, excuse me, an email from the person who helps monitor the Facebook page, saying that we should maybe try to start to monitor the page a little bit better. There have been viewer questions; you know, if you can answer something, go ahead and do so. And so, I told my director supervisor this. I said, "Well, now I’m confused. Now you’re telling me not to reply on one end, but then I get an email saying to reply on the other. Can you help me? Because I really need some clarity." And he said, "You know what? You’re right. This is rather ambiguous. Let’s call George," the general manager you just heard, "into the conversation and get some clarity." I said, "Great, and if I can help form a policy, I would love to do it." I said that.

And fast-forward about two weeks later. I was called in on my day off, and I was told, "We’re going to talk about Facebook." I thought, "Well, I don’t know why this can’t wait until I come in tomorrow, but OK, that’s fine. I’ll be there in a little bit." And then I was fired. This second conversation never happened. So, that’s why it’s very frustrating. I was also told in a second meeting—as I went back the following Friday to try to get my job back, I was told by our general manager at that time, the voice you just heard, that he didn’t really find the messages to be all that racist anyway. And he did not see a problem with it, and so that’s why he was sticking to his guns and was not going to rehire myself back.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the November 14th incident, in which a viewer objected to the segment on the station called "Three Minute Smile," the other one you responded to on Facebook? What was their concern?

RHONDA LEE: Right. The Three Minute—oh, I’m sorry. The Three Minute Smile was—it’s a contest that we have—we’ve had for a couple years now—and it’s where the randomly selected kids from the community, they enter on our website, and they’re selected, and they get to run through Wal-Mart for three minutes and grab all of the toys they can. This year all of the kids were black; all of them were African American. And the viewer took issue with that, and he felt that the fix was in, and he felt that the contest itself was racist. And, of course, he was just saying. And he said he wanted to see the kids happy, but he felt that perhaps it could have been less black, if you will; there should have been other races involved.

But I responded by saying that the kids are selected at random, and if he really just wanted to see the kids happy, he kind of had a funny way of showing it. And I told him "Happy Holidays." And that was the last I heard about it—for about an hour and a half, which is funny, because the message itself was up on our webpage—or, our Facebook page for over a day, and my response was up for about an hour and a half, before I was called in. So, with that, my manager said, "Well, why do you feel you need to engage?" And I said, "Well, if we don’t engage, we’re endorsing, and our image suffers because of that. Just by not saying anything, we’re saying that it’s OK to beat up on black kids." And I said, "I don’t think that that’s a good image that we want to portray in the community."

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has been the response to your firing, Rhonda Lee, as you gain more and more national attention?

RHONDA LEE: I think it has been such a blessing. It’s been a blessing in disguise, that’s for certain. I really had no idea that this story would go around the globe. I mean, I still continue to be overwhelmed and just so grateful for the support. I mean, the first day after the story broke, by Richard Prince with the Maynard Institute, it was phenomenal. I mean, I logged onto my fan page, and I had maybe about 600 likes, I think, and then it said new fans, 800-and-something. And I said, "That can’t be right." And then, as the day went on, I suddenly had a thousand fans, 2,000 fans, 5,000 fans. I think I’m up to 7,000-and-something now. I mean, the support has been overwhelming. I really didn’t expect this to go any further than maybe Texarkana, maybe into Dallas, a couple hours away. But it has opened eyes, most importantly. And I feel that perhaps that’s what this was supposed to do. I really thought it was just a labor dispute, but it turned into something bigger than myself, I feel. And it’s become a good talking point and a good catalyst for perhaps moving the conversation of black women and our hair forward into the 21st century and beyond.

AMY GOODMAN: As the former meteorologist for KTBS, what is your forecast? Do you think they’re going to offer you your job back? Have you been offered other jobs?

RHONDA LEE: I would love to have my job back. Even to this day, I maintain I had a great work environment. I really did. My co-workers were great. I loved what I did. I loved my hours. I loved everything about it. I haven’t had any other job offers as of yet. Where do I go from here? Right now I’m just going to try to get through the holidays and see what happens. But I really—like I said, more than anything, I hope that the conversation for race issues, particularly here in the South, is furthered a little bit further than what it—what I think it has been nowadays. But my forecast is: It’s looking pretty sunny, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhonda Lee, I want to thank you for being with this, former meteorologist for KTBS in Shreveport, Louisiana, recently fired for responding to Facebook comments, including one criticizing her hair.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Barstow on Wal-Mart bribes and Mexico. Stay with us.

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