Rhonda Lee ( KTBS )

The firing of this small market meteorologist has turned into a national story - provoking questions about race, beauty and gender in television, what social media interactions cross the line, and whether the station’s actions were out of proportion.

The blog Richard Prince’s Journal-isms reported the news of Lee’s firing and subsequent controversy Monday. It said Emmitt Vascocu, a viewer, wrote on the KTBS Facebook page:

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 (cq).

Lee posted this reply:

Hello Emmitt--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’m a non-smoking, 5’3, 121 lbs, 25 mile a week running, 37.5 year old woman, and I’m in perfectly healthy physical condition.

I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. 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. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.

Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.

Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.

A more recent exchange with a viewer who posted an offensive comment on Facebook (which has been removed) may have been the last straw for Lee says Tommy Christopher of the media commentary website Medialite . Christopher published the transcript of the exchange and asserts Lee’s response to the offensive comment was “admirably measured.”

But Randy Bain, KTBS News Director told Journal-isms that Lee “repeatedly” violated social media policy which had been emailed to staff. He added she was not let go for “for her appearance or defending her appearance.”

This excerpt of station’s social media policy email was posted on Media Bistro:

When we see complaints from viewers, it’s best not to respond at all. Responding to these complaints is a very sensitive situation and sometimes our off-the-cuff response will be the wrong response … if you choose to respond to these complaints, there is only one proper response: provide them with [redacted]‘s contact information, and tell them that he would be glad to speak with them about their concerns. Once again, this is the only proper response.

But Lee’s account of the circumstances surrounding her firing, which she provided to Journal-isms, presents an alternative view.

I had a meeting with my ND [news director] and GM [general manager] Friday trying to get my job back. They told me the policy I violated isn’t written down, but was mentioned in a newsroom meeting about a month-and-a-half prior. A meeting I didn’t attend. So when I asked what rule did I break there isn’t anything to point to.

In a CNN interview Wednesday morning, Lee repeated this account.

A number of media commentators and one leader in the meteorological community have weighed in on this matter, siding with Lee.

The Root DC’s Lauren McEwen expressed a sympathetic view, explaining she too has lost patience with narrow-minded views on race, beauty and gender issues:

I’m fed up with explaining why diversity is good and beautiful and natural. I’m bored of being forced to listen to antiquated ideas about race and beauty and gender. I’m sick of calmly responding to Internet trolls who throw hatred out into the world, and expect calm responses in return.

Marshall Shepherd, President-elect of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) said he was “appalled” by the Lee situation.

“There is no pre-set formula for beauty or professional style,” Shepherd said. “As our society diversifies, we must accept all presentations.”

But the reality as seen by TV viewers may be something different. As a striking contrast to Shepherd’s sentiment, consider the Mother Nature’s Network web presentation of “America’s hottest weather forecasters”. Of the women profiled, all had long hair, none were black.

In postings on Twitter, Shepherd suggested Lee’s defense of herself was understandable, stressing broadcasters are “human” and that he was “[s]upporting colleague [R]honda [L]ee.”

On the question of Lee’s social media conduct, Philadelphia Inquirer Style writer Jenice Armstrong argued Lee’s station might have been more lenient under the circumstances:

C’mon now. Even if Lee violated her company’s social media policy, an exception should be made in this instance. As someone who’s been there, it’s hard to sit back and let people criticize you because of what grows out of your head naturally.

Medialite’s Tommy Christopher concludes the station’s actions - to leave offensive comments up on its Facebook page while terminating Lee - say little about its sensitivity to racial issues.

“It appears the station is more comfortable with racism than they are with a meteorologist who is (politely) not comfortable with it,” Christopher opines.

Outraged viewers have peppered KTBS’ Facebook page with comments condemning Lee’s firing. Supporters have established an online petition to “rehire” Lee.

Controversy seems to have followed Lee to Shreveport from Austin where she was fired by the NBC affiliate and sued the station for racial discrimination.

“Race has been the issue with me since I started. That much is VERY true,” Lee told Journalisms. “Weather is an older white boy business and arms have been less than open for a young black girl — a polar opposite.”

African Americans have historically been an minority in meteorology. A 2008 American Meteorological Society survey revealed less than 2 percent of its members were black (that breakdown is for the entire meteorology industry; statistics regarding race/ethnicity in the broadcast industry were not provided in that survey)

Lee completed her weather coursework at Mississippi State University and has lived in Winchester, Herndon and Ashburn, Va. among many other locations according to her biography.