Pitt dean to no longer appear on KDKA following claims of bias
March 8, 2017 12:00 AM
William M. Carter Jr., dean of Pitt's law school.
Haider Ala Hamoudi, University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The dean of the University of Pittsburgh law school said he will no longer appear on KDKA-TV programming because he believes the station failed to take appropriate action after an Iraqi-American faculty member said a producer discriminated against him.
Dean William M. Carter Jr. wrote to KDKA general manager Chris Pike in a March 1 letter that Mr. Pike’s response to a February incident involving professor Haider Ala Hamoudi was “unacceptable” and “inadequate.”
Mr. Hamoudi felt he was rejected as a guest on a news show because he is Iraqi-American, but KDKA’s news director, Anne Linaberger, said Tuesday that Mr. Hamoudi was not chosen for the program because the station was seeking experts in immigration law, which is not his area of expertise.
Shortly after the initial incident, Mr. Pike wrote Mr. Hamoudi, apologizing for what happened and explaining that he believed it was a misunderstanding.
The disagreement between the two sides has opened a rift between one of the region’s premier law schools and a venerable Pittsburgh television station, all playing out against the backdrop of a national conversation about immigration, bias and concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment. Mr. Carter has relayed his feelings on the events via email to the law school faculty. Mr. Hamoudi has alerted the American Civil Liberties Union and Council on American-Islamic Relations to the situation.
According to a chain of emails and letters obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a KDKA producer contacted Pitt’s law school on Feb. 9 to find a professor to appear as a guest on the “KD/PG Sunday Edition” show to air Feb. 12 addressing the Trump administration’s initial travel ban involving seven majority-Muslim countries.
The law school spokeswoman, Cori Begg-Parise, spoke to KDKA producer Aviva Radbord.
Neither of the two women returned calls from the Post-Gazette to discuss what happened, and both the station and law school have disputed the other’s characterization of the conversation in emails and letters.
Mr. Hamoudi, an expert on Islamic law and the intersection of state law and religion, said Ms. Begg-Parise relayed to him her conversation with Ms. Radbord later on the day it occurred.
Mr. Hamoudi wrote in a Feb. 11 email that the spokeswoman told him that when she gave his name to Ms. Radbord, Ms. Radbord “asked what (not ‘who,’ but ‘what’) I ‘was,’ and the communications director spouted out various titles, thinking the question related to substantive expertise. [The producer] then said, ‘I cannot have a Middle Eastern man on this panel.’”
Mr. Hamoudi’s email said the spokeswoman further explained Mr. Hamoudi’s expertise, but Ms. Radbord, who was apparently looking at the law school’s faculty web page at the time, asked for two specific professors, both of whom are white males and do not work in immigration, Mr. Hamoudi said.
“I can’t ascribe motives,” Mr. Hamoudi said in an interview. “There’s a willingness to talk about this being a religious ban. We can be paraded out to talk about the problems in the community, but when you need an expert, you turn to a white man? It’s hurtful.”
Mr. Hamoudi, who is Muslim, relayed the information to Mr. Carter, other Pitt officials and to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, he said, because he believes incidents like his are vastly underreported.
He also was in contact with Mr. Pike, KDKA’s general manager, after university vice chancellor of communications Susan Rogers on Feb. 11 submitted a complaint to the station.
Mr. Pike responded in an email that same day that he would investigate the matter, and two days later sent Mr. Hamoudi a letter of explanation. Mr. Pike said the information he received from Mr. Hamoudi was “very disturbing, completely in conflict with our newsroom standards and practice and out of character for the producer involved, a 42-year staff member.”
Haider Ala Hamoudi is an expert on Islamic law and the intersection of state law and religion. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)
Mr. Pike explained that the producer had been looking for guests to do a taping of a show, hosted by the Post-Gazette’s John Allison, on immigration and sanctuary cities. She first called Wasi Mohamed at the Islamic Center, but he was out of town. She then made several more calls, and a spokeswoman from Pitt called back late in the afternoon.
“At that point, our producer had filled a number of slots on the program and was only looking for an attorney with immigration expertise,” Mr. Pike wrote. “Although the producer does not have a specific recollection of her exact words, if she said she ‘doesn’t need someone like that’ or ‘can’t use someone like that,’ she was referring to what she thought the area of expertise was, and certainly not the individual or that individual’s country of origin or religion.”
Mr. Pike then listed the panel’s participants: Joel Pfeffer and Kristen Schneck, both immigration attorneys; Betty Cruz, a Cuban-American who is the director of Change Agency; and Monica Ruiz, a community organizer for Casa San Jose.
“When confronted with these disturbing allegations, the producer said that she felt horribly if her words were misinterpreted and, as a result, miscommunicated,” Mr. Pike wrote. “Given her long history, the number of shows she has produced, the subject matter of those shows and the diverse group of guests she has booked for those programs, it is hard for me to conclude anything but that this was an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
Mr. Pike closed the letter by inviting Mr. Hamoudi to the station to discuss the issue and their working relationship.
Mr. Hamoudi wrote back to Mr. Pike on Feb. 27 and said Mr. Pike’s information did not match what he was told by the Pitt spokeswoman.
“This is not consistent with the version of events as you have described them, and thus there is no possibility in my estimation of any sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding. Either there was an act of intentional discrimination on the basis of national origin on the part of your producer, or our communications director is engaged in an elaborate fabrication undertaken for no discernible reason,” Mr. Hamoudi wrote. “I do not accept the latter conclusion, and stand by our communications director’s account of events.”
Last week, Mr. Hamoudi reiterated his feelings, noting that Mr. Pike’s “investigation” did not even include a phone call to speak to the Pitt spokeswoman to hear her account.
Ms. Linaberger, KDKA’s news director, said in an emailed statement to the Post-Gazette that the station declined the offer to have Mr. Hamoudi on the program after learning he was not a specialist in immigration law.
“We instead arranged to have two lawyers from local firms who specialize in immigration law appear on our program,” she wrote. “We are surprised and disappointed that the Pitt Law School and Professor Hamoudi allege that we demonstrated religious bias when we declined to have him participate. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Mr. Carter, the law school dean, would not speak to the Post-Gazette about the matter. But he explained his feelings about the situation in an email to his faculty on Feb. 11.
“Speaking only for myself, I believe that these kind of ignorant, biased, identity-based assumptions and statements have no place in the operations of any reputable media organization — whether or not they were intend[ed] to offend — and I am appalled to hear of them,” he wrote. “ . . . Withholding my own interactions with this station is admittedly a very small drop in a very large ocean, but it is one small act of solidarity.”
Mr. Hamoudi, who was hired by the U.S. State Department under President George W. Bush to help Iraq draft its new constitution, said he has seen a greater willingness by people to openly express bias in recent months.
“This is the first time in my professional life where I’ve faced something this overt,” he said. “It does seem to me something has gone wrong when a producer feels that free to express that kind of animus so openly.”
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter: @PaulaReedWard.
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