Then, in the middle of September, an approaching cold front was poised to drive off the heat and drop temperatures into the 70s. Local television station KATV decided to celebrate with wordplay in a “return to the 70s” segment in which on-air personalities sported looks popular in the 1970s. They might have chosen bell-bottoms, tie-dye T-shirts or a peace symbol to pull off the gag.
Instead, the two White journalists wore Afro-like wigs.
The fallout was swift and severe, exposing the TV station’s ongoing struggle to combat racism. Sinclair Broadcast Group executives apologized for the “poor judgment” that led to the segment, fired the station’s longtime news director, Nick Genty, and indefinitely suspended Chris May and Barry Brandt, the anchor and meteorologist who wore the wigs.
“It was just bad judgment,” John Seabers, a Sinclair vice president and group manager, told The Washington Post. “It was a spoof on the ’70s that just went wrong.”
Like KATV, newsrooms around the country are less diverse than the U.S. workforce as a whole and have been for decades, something journalism leaders have said they want to change. Pushes to diversify newsrooms have intensified in recent years, spurred in large part by the racial reckoning the country faced after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in May 2020.
“Just as protesters have been galvanized by Floyd’s death to demand reform, journalists have sought to do the same within their own workplaces,” The Post reported in the weeks after Floyd was killed. Months later in October 2020, less than half of global newsroom leaders surveyed by the Reuters Institute reported doing a good job with “ethnic diversity,” compared with 80 percent when it came to “gender diversity.”
In Little Rock, local activist Anika Whitfield “was not amused” by the 70s segment, saying that a White person wearing an “Afro wig” is a perpetuation of “systemic racism.” She then complained to KATV management, the Arkansas Times reported. When they did not respond, according to the paper, Whitfield went to Seabers, who got back to her quickly.
“We apologize to all viewers who were rightfully offended by the segment and we promise to enact and enforce new measures to prevent future incidents from occurring,” Seabers wrote in a statement.
Seabers — who oversees Sinclair stations in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma — followed up by meeting with the Central Arkansas Association of Black Journalists. He was joined by Sinclair regional news director Blaise Labbe, who is taking over at KATV for the ousted Genty while the company hunts for a permanent replacement. Genty declined to comment when contacted by The Post; May and Brandt declined to comment through Seabers.
During the meeting with the Black journalists, the Sinclair representatives offered no excuses and criticized what had happened, the Arkansas Times reported. Seabers called the wig segment “abhorrent” and “juvenile.” Labbe said it was “stupid,” adding that he was especially angry given that the KATV staff completed two racial-sensitivity training sessions in the six weeks preceding the wig segment.
“How in the hell could this happen?” he said at the meeting, according to the Times. Labbe acknowledged Sinclair has some critics after employees reported being ordered to air biased segments, according to the New Yorker, and being fed interview questions favoring Republicans.
KATV in particular, Seabers told The Post, recently responded to an employee’s report of a Mammy doll — a racist caricature of Black women — hanging in a cubicle shared by reporters and photographers.
The company investigated most of June but didn’t figure out who put the doll there or why. But, Seabers acknowledged, the doll was “racist and offensive.”
Because of the doll, managers in July made a formal presentation to all KATV employees, training them in inclusion and hidden bias, Seabers said.
The Afro incident brought further scrutiny to the news station. After the on-air display, Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, noted the station employs more than 40 people, only eight of whom are Black. That’s less than 20 percent of staff in a city with a population that’s 42 percent Black. And, she told The Post, all the managers at KATV are White, something Seabers confirmed.
Seabers said he’d like KATV to hire more Black journalists, and Sinclair recruits at 18 historically Black colleges and universities to try to make that happen. Some Black college students may not view journalism as a viable career path if they do not see people like them on their TV screens, Seabers said.
“We’re trying to encourage minorities to realize … that journalism is a career field for them,” he said.