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NABJ boss says CNN essentially called him a liar in dispute over diversity

Bob Butler, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) is unhappy with CNN. Just last Friday, Butler and NABJ issued a press release indicating that CNN had “withdrawn support of NABJ for the 2015 Convention & Career Fair.” Founded in 1975,  NABJ is the largest group of journalists of color in the U.S., and their annual convention serves to help black media professionals with professional development and networking opportunities.

CNN responded with a statement of its own: “Following NABJ’s recent comments about CNN, we informed them we were reconsidering our relationship, but we were clear that we had not made a final decision. It’s surprising to us that they would choose to make such a statement.”

So: Butler says that the network had definitively withdrawn support; CNN says not quite. “They’re basically calling me a liar,” said Butler in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. “That’s very disturbing.”

The roots of this unpleasantness date back to last month, when Butler visited CNN’s New York offices to talk about partnering on the 2015 NABJ 40th Annual Convention and Career Fair, which will take place August 5-9 in Minneapolis. As the meeting concluded, CNN asked NABJ for a “request for support” outlining what they’d like to see from CNN at the convention. All fine and dandy!

In the meantime, news broke of a $5 million wrongful termination and discrimination lawsuit filed against CNN by an African-American producer with 17 years on the job. Stanley Wilson’s complaint alleges “denial of promotions, assignment to menial tasks, refusal to negotiate discrimination and retaliation, failure to remove or prevent discrimination and retaliation,” among other offenses — including promotional opportunities that went to white people with less experience.

NABJ’s Butler says that a civil suit alone wasn’t enough to raise his concerns. The sort of allegations in the complaint, however, were. “I have talked to people who’ve said the same exact thing to me,” says Butler. Using the lawsuit and the departure of other African-American talent from the network, NABJ issued a press release citing “concern” with the atmosphere for African-American journalists at CNN. “Several African Americans anchors have left the anchor desk or CNN altogether in the past few years including Soledad O’Brien, TJ Holmes and Suzanne Malveaux,” noted the release. In addition the latest examination of newsroom managers finds only two African American executive producers. A former writer/producer in CNN’s Los Angeles bureau filed a $5 million lawsuit against CNN on Monday that alleges discrimination and wrongful termination.”

Before that blast hit the NABJ website, Butler offered CNN an opportunity to comment. The network declined.

Here’s where the spat gets juicy. That critical press release and NABJ’s proposal to CNN for the 2015 annual convention hit CNN at about the same time, according to Butler. Therein lies a core conflict in what NABJ — and other journalism-diversity groups, for that matter — does from day to day. On the one hand, it monitors how well newsrooms embrace diversity; on the other, it pitches those same newsrooms to ante up for convention space and other stuff. Have a look at the 2014 convention program book with a nice full-page ad from CNN proclaiming, “CNN proudly supports the National Association of Black Journalists.” Says Butler: “They’re a corporate partner like many other companies are. We have relationships with CNN, with Fox News, CBS, NBC, ABC — those are all partners within NABJ.”

CNN apparently doesn’t appreciate that dual role. Two days after NABJ’s press release came out, Butler says he received a call from a CNN contact, whom he declines to identify. The CNN person, as Butler tells it, “expressed their great displeasure” with the recent events. As for NABJ’s request for support for the 2015 confab, Butler says the CNN staffer made clear that it was denied. Period. “As a reporter, I would never have put this out had it not been said,” says Butler, who is a reporter for KCBS Radio in San Francisco.

Slugfests over diversity come at a time of contraction at CNN. As every media-reporting outlet in the country has noted in recent weeks, this division of Turner Broadcasting is sustaining an approximately 8 percent cut in staff — about 300 positions — via layoffs and buyouts, with the ax falling on shows such as “Crossfire,” sports program “Unguarded,” “Sanjay Gupta MD” and “CNN Money.” CNN Northeast Bureau Chief and NABJ member Darius Walker is among those who’ve exited CNN in this round of reductions.

Combined with the departures of O’Brien, Holmes and Malveaux plus others in recent years, the exodus was too much for Butler to ignore. “When our members are affected dramatically, I gotta speak up,” says Butler, who is quick to note that in 2007, NABJ gave CNN an award for diversity.

Yet an important question for Butler & Co. relates to quantification. How does the organization know just how many African-Americans are on board at the network? Even with the departures it cites, is CNN any worse than other broadcasters? Butler on that question: “There are problems not just with CNN but with all companies,” says Butler. “I can’t say they’re worse off than all other companies. What I can say is that I haven’t gotten calls from people from other companies saying, ‘This is crazy.'”

Asked whether CNN is now estranged from NABJ, Butler responded, “That’s up to CNN.”

CNN refused an interview request to give its side of the story. To appreciate just how un-journalistically it has approached the news of its job cuts, it last week issued this chuckle-tickler of a statement: “The changes this week are difficult yet necessary. Out of respect for our colleagues directly impacted, we won’t be commenting on specific people or programs.”