The Media Today

In Canada, an anchor’s ousting sparks a debate on discrimination in media

August 30, 2022
Lisa LaFlamme. Screengrab via YouTube/CTV

Last week, the Canadian arm of Wendy’s, the fast-food chain, tweeted an image of the company’s iconic logo—a girl’s freckled face under a sweep of pigtailed red hair—only with the hair colored gray this time. (This wasn’t the first time that Wendy’s has played with its logo; it recently gave the girl an “emo” look as it opened a new outlet in the UK.) Explaining the gray-hair edit, the Wendy’s account wrote: “Because a ⭐️ is a ⭐️ regardless of hair colour. #LisaLaFlamme #NewProfilePic.” Wendy’s wasn’t the only Canadian company to launch a campaign around gray hair last week: the local branch of the personal-care brand Dove also did so, urging its social-media followers to apply a grayscale filter to their profile pictures. Dove also pledged a six-figure donation to a nonprofit that supports women in the workplace. The company did not hashtag #LisaLaFlamme in its rationale, stating, rather, that it wished to contribute to a “widespread national conversation about grey hair and ageism in the workplace.”

In reality, this conversation had been sparked by LaFlamme—or, rather, her bosses. Until recently, LaFlamme was the long-serving anchor of Canada’s highest-rated newscast, but things changed in June when Bell Media, the parent company of CTV, the network where LaFlamme worked, told her they would be terminating her contract. Two weeks ago, that news became public. In a video message posted to Twitter, LaFlamme said that she had been “blindsided” by Bell’s decision, which also “shocked and saddened” her. “At fifty-eight, I still thought that I’d have a lot more time to tell more of the stories that impact our daily lives,” LaFlamme said. “I guess this is my sign-off from CTV, so I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of you.” Bell, for its part, described LaFlamme’s ouster as a “business decision,” citing “changing viewer habits” and a desire to take its newscast—and the role of the anchor within it—in a “different direction.” At the same time, the company announced that Omar Sachedina, CTV’s forty-year-old national-affairs correspondent, would be LaFlamme’s replacement.

ICYMI: Jared Kushner bubbles up again

Stories in Canadian media soon speculated that there were darker reasons for LaFlamme’s ouster behind the corporate jargon; she was a trusted figure, after all, and her show’s ratings were still very competitive. Canadaland was quick to report that she had been removed after clashing with Michael Melling, a Bell news executive, over various matters, from CTV’s investment in covering the war in Ukraine (the Globe & Mail has since reported that LaFlamme wanted CTV staff to have hotel rooms in Poland should they need to flee Ukraine, and that Melling objected on cost grounds before the rooms were eventually booked) to the employment status of Rosa Hwang, LaFlamme’s executive producer. In this version of events, LaFlamme was the victim of broader tensions between Melling and CTV journalists who view him as a meddlesome company man who has overseen a toxic workplace environment.

There was also a suggestion of sexism in Canadaland’s report, with a source telling the outlet that Melling “doesn’t like it when women push back” against him. A few days later, the Globe & Mail threw ageism into the mix, too, reporting, in an incendiary article, that Melling had once asked who at CTV approved the decision to “let Lisa’s hair go grey.” LaFlamme used to dye her hair, but stopped after she was unable to visit her colorist during the pandemic. She called her new gray hair “liberating,” and kept it.

Since the Globe & Mail’s story, backlash against LaFlamme’s ouster has intensified, and not just in the shape of an edited Wendy’s logo. The incident has attracted international media attention; domestically, leading figures from the worlds of music, politics, business, and other fields have joined the outcry, with more than seventy prominent Canadians signing an open letter against “unacceptable” sexism and ageism, and placing it as a two-page ad in the Globe & Mail. Staffers at CTV, meanwhile, pressed bosses to explain their decision. At an internal town-hall meeting with Melling and Karine Moses, another Bell executive, on August 18, Hwang reportedly asked outright whether age, gender, or hair color had anything to do with it.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Moses responded that it did not. “I’m a woman,” she reportedly said. “Do you really think that I would fire a woman because she’s a woman?” In setting up the town hall, Bell had told staffers that media reporting on LaFlamme’s exit was “filled with false narratives,” but, to that point, the company had declined to say much more about it publicly. The day after the meeting, Bell did put out a further statement about LaFlamme, regretting, in more conciliatory language, that “the way in which the news of her departure has been communicated” may have given a “wrong impression,” before committing to an independent review of CTV’s newsroom culture. Late last week, with the uproar still not quelled, it emerged that Melling had gone on leave, a decision that executives variously framed as voluntary and pending the outcome of the review. Yesterday, Mirko Bibic, the president and CEO of Bell’s parent company, weighed in via a post on LinkedIn, in which he stated that he is “satisfied” that age, gender, and hair color played no role in LaFlamme’s ouster. He said that he couldn’t say much more, for legal reasons, before gesturing again to changing viewer habits. “We can’t keep relying on traditional broadcasting,” Bibic wrote. “The days when viewers wait until 11 PM to get their news are gone.”

The reasons for LaFlamme’s ouster could well be messy and multifarious. It’s worth noting for now, though, that no other theory for her exit—not least Bell’s own statements about its need for a multi-platform strategy pivot—excludes the possibility that sexism and ageism played into it. It’s also worth noting that both sexism and ageism, and the toxic place where those prejudices collide, are well-known problems in the media business more broadly, particularly in the world of TV news. As the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus wrote in a recent column on LaFlamme—citing a 2017 analysis, from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US, that found “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women”—double standards operate “at all corporate levels,” but in industries “such as acting or television, where—let’s face it—looks matter even more, that gender gap becomes cavernous.”

The problem is not limited to Canada: in the UK, for instance, the BBC was sucked into a major scandal in the early 2010s after a tribunal ruled that the broadcaster had discriminated against the former host of a rural-affairs show based on her age (though not her gender). (She was in her early fifties at the time.) In the US, meanwhile, a cursory Google throws up at least a dozen examples of female TV journalists who have sued their employers on similar grounds since 1983, when Christine Craft, a journalist at a station in Kansas City, said she was told she would be demoted because viewers found she was “too old, too unattractive and wouldn’t defer to men”; she won a sizable payout, but the legal wrangling didn’t stop there and her award was later overturned. In 2015, a different Kansas City station fired Karen Fuller, then forty-seven, and replaced her with a younger anchor who, a senior manager reportedly said, “can be cute and young but also able to dress up and be more serious and respectable”; the station said Fuller had been fired for poor performance, before settling out of court. In 2019, five anchors at New York’s NY1—Amanda Farinacci, Vivian Lee, Roma Torre, Jeanine Ramirez, and Kristen Shaughnessy, all aged between forty and sixty-one years—sued their network for age and sex discrimination. They, too, settled, then left NY1.

These, of course, are not the only types of discrimination claim that news networks have fielded: in addition to ageism allegations, the BBC has been held liable for gender-based pay discrimination (though it has denied this); various local stations in the US, meanwhile, have faced claims of racism as well as claims of misogyny, with Megan Murphy, a former anchor at (yet another) Kansas City station, for example, claiming in a recent lawsuit that bosses denied her a promotion because she was “the wrong minority.” (Murphy is Asian American.) Underpinning individual claims are much broader concerns about a lack of gender and ethnic and racial diversity on the airwaves, and in the industry as a whole. Last year, researchers at the Radio Television Digital News Association found that the representation of both people of color and women in local TV news continues to lag the diversity of the US population as a whole.

Also last year, the Canadian Association of Journalists for the first time conducted an in-house survey of diversity in that country’s media industry. It found, among the two hundred or so newsrooms that participated—many more, including, apparently, CTV, did not—that a slender majority of news staffers who replied identify as women, but painted a far bleaker picture on racial and ethnic diversity, finding that almost half of responding newsrooms have only white people on staff, while eighty percent lacked a single Black or Indigenous journalist.

Sachedina, LaFlamme’s replacement on CTV’s newscast, was born to Ugandan parents of Indian descent and was raised as a Muslim. Various Canadian journalists have argued that his promotion should have been cause for celebration when it comes to representation—and even seen as historic—only to be overshadowed by the way Bell ousted LaFlamme, and the different representation problem that that highlighted; indeed, Sachedina himself has been a target for some of the blowback. “For communities sometimes underserved or stereotyped by mainstream media, it’s a good day when a racialized journalist steps into a leadership role,” Amira Elghawaby, a columnist at the Toronto Star, wrote last week. “Except when it happens under circumstances like the one both Sachedina and LaFlamme found themselves in. That’s on Bell Media.”

Below, more on Lisa LaFlamme, Canadian media, and representation:

Other notable stories:

  • After Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, announced that his state had arrested twenty so-called “election criminals,” Judd Legum laid out the flimsiness of that claim and ran down what is emerging as DeSantis’s “textbook” strategy for manipulating the media: “(1) make a splashy announcement with a simple, misleading narrative, (2) generate heaps of media coverage based on that misleading narrative that benefits him politically, (3) count on the media (and the public) to lose interest as the truth slowly trickles out.” The media critic Dan Froomkin also recently criticized press coverage of DeSantis, arguing that “he is gaming political journalists just like Trump did in 2016.”
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo went deep on the Post’s deal, earlier this year, with Imagine Entertainment and Creative Artists Agency to mine the paper’s archives and current work for stories to turn into film and TV projects; four such projects are in development already, Pompeo reports, including “something related to the fall of Afghanistan” and a documentary based on an investigation that hasn’t come out yet. Fred Ryan, the paper’s publisher, said that the deal is more about boosting the Post’s brand than making a profit. (CJR’s Feven Merid wrote about the journalism-to-Hollywood pipeline last year.)
  • The Christian Science Monitor’s Grant Stringer explored the broader ethical questions that arose after a crew from ABC News courted controversy—and possible criminal exposure—by driving a resident to the scene of a California wildfire to look for a missing relative. Journalists in California have unusually extensive access rights in cordoned-off burn zones, but “those privileges also carry considerable responsibility,” Stringer writes. (Lauren Markham profiled Lizzie Johnson, a fire reporter in California, for CJR in 2020.)
  • The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright reports on a staffing shakeup at NBC’s Meet the Press, where the executive producer was recently “pushed out amid the Sunday politics show’s ratings woes.” (NBC disputes this characterization.) The changes, per Cartwright, have raised questions as to the future of Chuck Todd, the show’s host, who recently signed a new contract but has been widely criticized—including, apparently, inside NBC.
  • The federal Department of Labor filed suit against the Killeen Daily Herald, a newspaper in Texas, after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration accused the paper of unlawfully retaliating against a journalist who complained to bosses of an insect infestation in its offices. The journalist was fired after reporting bites to management, the Labor Department says. It is now asking a court to order that the journalist be reinstated.
  • Over the weekend, Leiner Montero Ortega and Dilia Contreras Cantillo, two journalists in northern Colombia, were killed on a highway by unknown gunmen traveling on a motorcycle. Local police suggested that Montero had been involved in a fight during a celebration in a nearby village, but a press-freedom group demanded that authorities probe whether there was any link between the attack and the pair’s journalistic work.
  • Journalists in Sudan voted to form an independent professional union—reestablishing such a body after decades without one, according to Reuters. Omar al-Bashir, the former Sudanese dictator, once packed unions with friendly members; he was deposed in 2019, leading to civilian representation in government, but a military coup last year put paid to that and ushered in new threats to the press, as I documented at the time.
  • Police chiefs in the UK have secretly ordered officers to disclose whether they know any journalists—part of a broader set of guidelines that also cover officers’ relationships with convicted criminals and extremists, in the name of fighting corruption. Press-freedom advocates have condemned the measure, which they fear could dissuade officers from reporting police wrongdoing to the press. The Guardian’s Vikram Dodd has more.
  • And, also in the UK, Liz Truss, the clear frontrunner to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, pulled out of a prime-time BBC interview at the eleventh hour, with the broadcaster claiming that Truss said she could “no longer spare the time” to participate. Truss, The Guardian reports, is now “likely to become prime minister without undergoing a single set-piece broadcast quizzing.” (I wrote about Truss’s press-bashing on Friday.)

ICYMI: A week in British media, and what it says about inequality and journalism

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.