Tuesday, August 17, 2010

17 AUG 10: Dee-militarized Zone

It was a dispute which made front-page news, and raised eyebrows across Columbus. It probably led to awkward moments at one of the city's newsrooms. Now the matter is resolved, but most local news media apparently didn't know for months. Maybe the critics are right when they say the media can only cover one "crisis" at a time -- and they've been too focused on the Parks Department.

BLOG EXCLUSIVE: Dee Armstrong has settled her race discrimination lawsuit against WTVM. Federal court records reviewed by your blog Monday show the case was resolved without going to trial. Yet for some reason, Armstrong has yet to mention out-of-court settlements on WLTZ as a way of "Fixing It."

Attorneys on both sides of the discrimination suit don't want to say much about it. But a source close to the case tells me things were settled "amicably." That's a fancy way of saying Dee Armstrong and WTVM General Manager Lee Brantley will NOT debate each other at an upcoming "Call to Talk" meeting.

"Will Lee Brantley stop treating his people like....?" That's what one man said Monday night, when I told a blog focus group about this settlement. I'd finish the man's question - but he used one of those words they'd bleep on the air at WTVM, and I don't think even Dee Armstrong uses.

People in two different groups brought up the same thing when I mentioned the settlement. How much money did Dee Armstrong get? The federal court documents don't say - and the answer actually could be nothing, because both sides in the case agreed to pay their own legal costs. That'll teach Armstrong to hire someone other than Ken Nugent.

(Armstrong hired Columbus attorney Neal Callahan to represent her. WTVM hired the King & Spalding law firm of Atlanta. I'm tempted to call it a "high-powered" law firm - but would a lawsuit against WYBU call for a low-power firm?)

The federal court documents indicate Dee Armstrong and WTVM held an arbitration hearing in April, and had a "proposed binding agreement" as far back as February. So quiet negotiations sometimes can bring results - a lesson some local activist groups haven't learned after all these years.

But do you notice the dates of those events? That's the other amazing aspect of this story. The out-of-court settlement was signed by attorneys 27 May - yet it's only now becoming public knowledge here, almost three months later. A lot of local reporters either forgot about the case, or waited for Lee Brantley to declare victory in a WTVM editorial.

Two sources close to WTVM tell your blog the news team knew about the Dee Armstrong settlement in May. But the staff had orders NOT to talk about it. In fact, some station employees didn't even know about it. And then people think journalists don't know how to keep their mouths shut....

It was February 2008 when Dee Armstrong's complaints of race discrimination against WTVM went public. She claims she was under contract through the end of the year, but agreed to cut things short and leave the air at the end of June (left; 1 Jul 08). No, Wayne Bennett did NOT demand Armstrong's cubicle be combined with his.

A civil suit against WTVM was filed in Muscogee County Court in September 2009, then moved to federal court in October. But the documents I reviewed Monday showed some serious flaws. When Dee Armstrong's attorneys put the station's address as the Aflac Tower on the wrong side of Wynnton Road, that's a bad sign. [True!]

The civil suit claimed as of 2006, WTVM lacked "any people of color in management positions...." First of all, I'm reminded of the British pastor who asked one day in a sermon: "White's not a color?"

But anyway: Dee Armstrong's point about WTVM management was valid in 2006. In fact, I raised it years before at a staff meeting when all the managers were lined up in the studio. One African-American reporter seemed stunned that I brought it up -- but I'm not sure things improved for her, when she moved to South Carolina.

The civil suit also claimed WTVM never had "a black news director or 'real' assignment editor...." The first part of that is accurate. The second part is baffling - because current Synovus corporate spokesperson Greg Hudgison was the Assignment Editor for years. He's African-American, as are his wife and sportscaster son. Is it because that son likes hockey and formula one racing?!

WTVM's reply to the civil suit last October claimed Dee Armstrong "had no damages," and the station's decision not to renew her contract in 2008 was based on "legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons." The managers have yet to take this to the extreme - you know, like using news anchors who sit in Iowa.

Yet there may have been signs of reconciliation months before May. An interview with Dee Armstrong appeared on WTVM last December [10 Dec 09]. But then again, any suspensions for airing that interview may have been kept as quiet as the settling of the lawsuit.

The civil suit complaint and response are simply a matter of court history now. Dee Armstrong and WTVM have settled their differences - and if you watch Armstrong fixing things on WLTZ, she doesn't seem to pound nails through any pictures of Lee Brantley.

WTVM has other things to worry about these days. WLTZ is preparing a new one-hour midday news-talk show. And WRBL revealed Monday it's bringing back "Midday" with Tammy Terry next week. I'm not sure where the station found money to add a newscast - unless a staff member actually follows the Georgia Lottery drawings, and donated a big jackpot.

Some people online are suspicious about WRBL and fellow Media General stations adding newscasts right now. They think it's a corporate ploy to make money from election-year political ads. Once the meaningful races are settled, the Meaningful Beauty infomercials could be back.

BLOG UPDATE: We actually began Monday with another court case in mind concerning WTVM's General Manager. Municipal Court records show Lee Brantley indeed was taken to court in 2006 by local National Alliance leader Michael Weaver -- and Weaver's complaint was dismissed. If Weaver had known what we've disclosed today, he might have hugged Brantley and called him a hero.

We were given a one-page printout on the 2006 case, which does NOT explain what Michael Weaver's complaint involved. The attorney for Lee Brantley was away on vacation Monday, so we couldn't get an answer from him. But we know Weaver sued for $15,000 - which may be how much the NuWave Oven pays for a half-hour on Sunday afternoons.

But there's a twist in this civil suit as well. The judge who dismissed Michael Weaver's complaint in 2006 was Haywood Turner - whom we discovered last year may have been deeply involved with the National Alliance for decades [9-10 Mar 09]. If Weaver hoped to find a friendly judge, he clearly didn't. In fact, he may have found a judge more unbiased and impartial than anyone realized.

Let's dig our noses out of the court files now, and check what everyone else was following Monday:

+ The Muscogee County School Board voted to build a new middle school in the Garrett Road area. It would be only fitting and historically appropriate if the music room was named after Leif Garrett....

+ Goodwill Industries announced its Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop will close 3 September. It isn't even staying open through Labor Day weekend?! It actually lost money this summer? More people must be adjusting to global warming than we thought....

(I have a theory about why Ben & Jerry's failed - the location, near Columbus Park Crossing. You simply don't put an ice cream shop founded by Democrats in an area loaded with Republicans.)

+ Harris County Sheriff's Officers reported two horses were stolen from Begin Again Farms in Ellerslie. The farm takes care of abused and neglected horses - so whoever took those two probably can forget about winning any Breeder's Cup races this fall.

+ In what would have been our main topic any other day, an online rumor spread about a shark being spotted in the Chattahoochee River. No witnesses came forward to say they saw the shark - so maybe it answers to the name of Photoshop.

+ The Columbus Northern All-Stars flew to Pennsylvania for the Little League World Series. Did you notice the team traveled to the Atlanta Airport in a shuttle bus provided by Evangel Temple? It only supports the old argument that God likes baseball - because "In the big inning, God created the heavens and the earth."

(One Little League parent expects 40 adults to head to Williamsport, Pennsylvania for the games this weekend. That number could jump to 100 if Northern plays well - proving once again that Columbus sports fans refuse to jump on a bandwagon until it's 20 yards from the station.)

The Blog of Columbus had nearly 25,000 unique visitors in the first half of 2010! To advertise to them, make a PayPal donation, offer a story tip or comment, write me - but be warned, I may post your e-mail comment and offer a reply.

BURKARD BULK MAIL INDEX: 562 (- 18, 3.1%)

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author -- not necessarily those of anyone else in Columbus living or dead, and perhaps not even you.

© 2003-10 Richard Burkard, all rights reserved.

site stats