WTAE-TV’s Wendy Bell takes down controversial Facebook post, apologizes
March 24, 2016 12:26 AM
Wendy Bell, news anchor at WTAE-TV
Mourners stand in front of a make shift memorial on the steps of 1304 Franklin Ave. in Wilkinsburg where six people were shot and killed.
By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Following an escalating firestorm Wednesday over Facebook postings by WTAE-TV anchor Wendy Bell on what critics described as “racist” views following the mass shooting in Wilkinsburg on March 9, she has removed the posts and apologized.
“I have removed a post that I initially placed here on Monday,” she wrote late Wednesday on her official WTAE Wendy Bell Facebook page. “I sincerely apologize for that post about the Wilkinsburg mass shooting and the restaurant employee whom my husband and I encountered. I now understand that some of the words I chose were insensitive and could be viewed as racist. I regret offending anyone. I'm truly sorry.”
Ms. Bell’s postings had spawned a campaign titled “Demand WTAE Hold Wendy Bell Accountable,” in response to what some perceived as Ms. Bell's racially insensitive comments.
In the wake of the mass shooting the veteran news anchor posted her observation. She noted, in part, “You needn't be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday.... 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.”
Police have yet to announce arrests.
Ms. Bell went on to describe her family’s recent outing to a restaurant at the SouthSide Works. She described an employee there, a “young, African American teen” working hard, stacking glasses, picking up scraps from the floor. He worked with “a rhythm and a step that gushed positivity. He moved like a dancer with a satisfied smile on his face. And I couldn't take my eyes off him. He's going to Make it.”
Then she called the manager over to compliment the young man. As he beamed, she wrote "I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special."
Rachael Webster and some friends say they were stunned by what they call an insensitive, “White Privilege” view from a very public figure. They called the station to complain, but weren't satisfied with the station’s reaction. So Ms. Webster, who is white and a schoolteacher, created her own Facebook page: “Demand WTAE Hold Wendy Bell Accountable.”
A meme of Sandra Bullock from the 2009 movie “The Blind Side” sits on the left rail of the Facebook page, with the following: “Wendy posted a racist post as a representative of WTAE. The station remains silent. We will not.”
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, the conversation was joined — tempered with varying degrees of outrage and/or mockery — on reddit and verysmartbrothas.com.
Neither the station, nor Ms. Bell responded to the Post-Gazette's request for comment.
Ms. Bell’s official WTAE Facebook page has been liked by 61,000 Facebook users. She often comments on family, friends, news and life in general. Such social media branding is encouraged by local television stations.
But there are times when the line between professional and personal comments can become blurred. With the Wilkinsburg post, some readers said they felt her views on race were inappropriate.
"She blanket-ly paints African American men in such a degrading way when she was talking about the perpetrators," Ms. Webster said. "Unless I've missed a major news story, they are yet to be identified or given a description. She describes them as 'black' but when she is talking about the [restaurant] boy, she uses 'African American.' It's subtle racism, but it's there."
Ms. Bell later edited the post. One change was the removal of "multiple siblings from multiple fathers...."
One of the first responses on her Facebook page was from poster Casey James Cunniff: "I don't know how to unpack this much nuanced racism in one sitting."
To which Ms. Bell replied: "I'm sorry you read it that way. That is not the case. What I wrote is realism, not racism."
More than 7,000 readers "liked" Ms. Bell's post, compared to less than 100 who marked it "sad." Ms. Webster said she guesses many of them have read the edited version. She also said that someone she talked to when she initially phoned WTAE offered to put Ms. Bell on, but "I did not want to talk to Wendy; I did not feel that would be a productive conversation. I was more interested in WTAE's response to it."
"She has deleted two of my personal comments and blocked me from commenting on her page. I was not nasty, I was appropriate. I expressed my dismay and was not aggressive."
The “it's realism” comment particularly troubled Ms. Webster.
"I found it particularly striking as to her own blindness to her racism. I think she probably does have good intentions but there is such systemic and problematic racism in our society.... I think she is unwilling to use it to self-examine by looking at the comments she is getting from both African American and white people."
This is not the first time a WTAE reporter has drawn criticism for a social media post. In 2013, reporter Ashlie Hardway, who was once married to a police officer, put herself into a Facebook post story about covering a police killing.
Ms. Hardway’s post, however, was made on her personal Facebook page. It did not appear on her official WTAE page.
TV news figures' use of social media does not lend itself to hard and fast company policy. Stations want their on-air talent to be seen as approachable, with active accounts on the largest mass platforms of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
"It's tough to overestimate the power of social media," said WPXI news director Mike Oliveira. "We love that it helps our anchors and reporters connect directly with our viewers. you can't beat that two-way conversation. We also know that means a lot of responsibility, and we try to be proactive about that."
Mr. Oliveira said WPXI works one-on-one with reporters to discuss social media guidelines: "We remind our people that they're representing our station and what they say is forever."
This speaks directly to why the Facebook protest was created, Ms. Webster said.
"I feel if it were any other public face of any other corporate entity, this would be covered immediately.... If WTAE had acknowledged any of the posts and made a stand on it, then it would not have grown to the problem that it is."
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.
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