A local Pittsburgh news outlet, WTAE-TV, announced Wednesday that it has cut ties with award-winning anchor Wendy Bell after she posted a confusing, racially-charged post on Facebook. Bell's firing is the culmination of weeks of controversy.
On March 9, six people were killed during a backyard barbecue in Wilkinsburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The suspects remain at large, though officials say they are close to making arrests. No information has been disclosed about the suspects.
A week and a half after the shooting, Bell, who is white, wrote a speculative post on Facebook (the post, and her account, has since been deleted).
"You needn't be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday," she wrote, adding (emphasis mine):
I will tell you they live within 5 miles of Franklin Avenue and Ardmore Boulevard and have been hiding out since in a home likely much closer to that backyard patio than anyone thinks. 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. They've made the circuit and nothing has scared them enough.
Bell then segued into an anecdote about seeing a young, motivated black man working in a restaurant.
A young, African American teen hustling like nobody's business… this child stacked heavy glass glasses 10 high and and carried three teetering towers of them in one hand with plates piled high in the other. He wiped off the tables. Tended to the chairs. Got down on his hands and knees to pick up the scraps that had fallen to the floor. And he did all this with a rhythm and a step that gushed positivity… He's going to Make It.
Bell said that she told the restaurant manager that the "young man was the best thing his restaurant had going." She added, "I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special," and concluded, "Give part of You to someone else. That, my friends, can change someone's course."
Bell's post raised eyebrows, for a number of reasons. Pittsburgh Black Media Federation (PBMF) released a statement calling the Bell's words "irresponsible." PBMF added that Bell's Facebook post "demonstrate a persistent problem with how African-Americans are negatively stereotyped by too many journalists and news organizations… there is also the issue of a reporter completely trampling on journalistic ethics by inserting her opinions publicly into an important issue."
Others have pointed out that Bell's juxtaposition of the fictional killers with the restaurant employee is problematic—especially the speculative import she gave her own role in the employee's life.
A few days after she published the post, Bell apologized on Twitter. She linked to a post that has since been deleted.
The Associated Press reported that in an apology, Bell admitted that the post was insensitive, adding that her words "could be viewed as racist." WTAE apologized as well.
On Wednesday, Hearst Television, owner of WTAE, said, "WTAE has ended its relationship with anchor Wendy Bell. Wendy’s recent comments on a WTAE Facebook page were inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
Bell thinks the company treated her unfairly. She told the AP: "What matters is what's going on in America, and it is the death of black people in this country," adding that WTAE didn't give her a "fair shake." Bell had been with the station since 1998.
Now, people are protesting her dismissal. One commenter wrote, "Rehire Wendy Bell. You people are in the business of communication, yet you punish someone for communicating truthfully!" Another posted a meme that states, "I support Wendy Bell not WTAE." Others posted memes making fun of her supporters.
And some groups that called Bell out for the post insisted that their goal was never to get her fired.
In a Very Smart Brothas article reflecting on the incident, Damon Young wrote, "after learning [Bell] was let go… I don’t feel particularly happy about it." He added, "I’m just tired of the fatiguing but necessary task of exposing Wendy Bells."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.