Earlier this month, an unusually warm day encouraged residents of a Pittsburgh suburb to hold a backyard barbecue. The party was going strong when several attackers appeared and opened fire.
One gunman shot at people behind the house. When they tried to take shelter inside, they ran straight into the path of another gunman who aimed a rifle at their heads.
By the end of the ambush, four people were injured and six were dead, including a woman who was eight months pregnant. The assailants fled the scene, leaving 48 shell casings behind.
“It was premeditated, it was calculated, it was planned,” Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. told reporters at a briefing. “It’s just a brutal murder. It’s one of the most brutal I’ve seen. I’ve been the D.A. for 18 years, I haven’t seen something like this during my tenure.”
The police department has yet to make any arrests related to the killings or release descriptions of suspects. But that didn’t stop one local broadcast journalist from drawing her own conclusions — ones that have since cost her her job.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Hearst Television, the parent station of WTAE-TV, said in a statement Wednesday that it had “ended its relationship” with Emmy-winning anchor Wendy Bell because her “recent comments on a WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
Two weeks after the attack, Bell wrote on her professional Facebook page, “You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts.”
They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested.
Bell said she was “tired of hurting,” but found “HOPE” in a “young, African American teen hustling like nobody’s business at a restaurant we took the boys to over at the Southside Works.”
“This child,” she said balanced 10 glasses in one hand and a pile of plates in another. He wiped the tables, tended to chairs and “got down on his hands and knees” to clean the floor.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” Bell concluded. “He’s going to Make It.” As she was leaving the restaurant, she praised the black teen to his manager, who then passed on the message.
Bell mused: “I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special. There’s someone in your life today — a stranger you’re going to come across — who could really use that…. That, my friends, can change someone’s course.”
The post immediately received a wide swath of responses, with some applauding Bell for her honesty, while others called her comments offensive.
“The irresponsible statements demonstrate a persistent problem with how African-Americans are negatively stereotyped by too many journalists and news organizations,” the Pittsburgh Black Media Foundation said in a statement.
The Pittsburgh-based editor in chief of VSB, a digital magazine for social commentary, accused Bell of being a generally “pleasant, kind, and professional woman” guilty of “tone deaf myopia in regards to race.”
“If that Black boy wouldn’t have met that back-pattingly well-meaning White lady, he might have ended up a murderer with a broke-ass Black mom hiding in a closet in the same house he just murdered eight people in,” Damon Young wrote, sarcastically mimicking Bell’s line of reasoning. “Now, though, he has a future.”
Bell’s post inspired the campaign “Demand WTAE Hold Wendy Bell Accountable,” as more than a thousand people called for the anchor to be disciplined in some way.
In another post on her professional Facebook page last Wednesday, Bell said she was “truly sorry.”
“I sincerely apologize for that post about the Wilkinsburg mass shooting and the restaurant employee whom my husband and I encountered,” Bell wrote, according to the Post-Gazette. “I now understand that some of the words I chose were insensitive and could be viewed as racist. I regret offending anyone.”
WTAE-TV’s president and general manager, Charles W. Wolfertz III, also apologized for the posts in a televised spot in which he said Bell’s words showed “an egregious lack of judgment.”
The station has not offered further comment since its statement Wednesday, but the former anchor stood her ground in an interview with the Associated Press.
Bell told the AP that the station didn’t give her a “fair shake,” noting that the story was not about her, but rather about “African-Americans being killed by other African-Americans.”
“It makes me sick,” Bell said. “What matters is what’s going on in America, and it is the death of black people in this country…. I live next to three war-torn communities in the city of Pittsburgh, that I love dearly. My stories, they struck a nerve. They touched people, but it’s not enough. More needs to be done. The problem needs to be addressed.”
She had been with WTAE-TV since 1998 and is the recipient of 21 Emmy Awards.
After Bell’s separation from the TV station was announced, the station’s Facebook page was bombarded with complaints and memes in protest. These dominated the comment sections of recent posts.
On a news item about frozen meat mysteriously appearing on New Hampshire roads, someone commented: “WTAE has planted packaged meat on the side of the road in an attempt to draw attention away from the firing of Wendy Bell?”
On a story about shampoos with microbial contamination, a commenter wrote: “I’d tell your Executives to check their shampoos and body washes WTAE-TV Pittsburgh! Maybe it seeped into their brains and caused them to fire Wendy Bell!”
Users also posted a still of Wolfertz with the words: “I fired Wendy Bell. Perhaps I should be fired!!”
Nearly 5,000 people have joined a group calling for a boycott of WTAE.
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