Life with Gracie: Lawsuits accuse CNN of racial discrimination

This month would have marked Omar Butcher’s seventh year at CNN, but instead of celebrating, he hopes he’ll soon be vindicated for speaking out against what he considers the network’s discriminatory practices.

He recently shared his story for the first time since filing suit against the network last October.

Butcher, 37, dreamed of becoming a journalist from the moment he saw Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes.” He wanted to use his voice to expose the good and bad in our society. He hoped to work one day at the New York Times or CNN, which in his mind were the pantheons of journalism.

Butcher, whose father was in the Army, grew up in Italy and Germany. After high school, he enrolled at Florida State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mass media studies in 2008.

When he was selected to intern at CNN, the entire Butcher clan celebrated.

“I’d made it,” Butcher said in an email interview.

Two years later, the network hired him full time as a video journalist.

“I praised God in my sister’s living room all by myself,” he remembered. “Just me and Jesus. I was pumped to get started.”

Butcher set his sights on becoming a writer. When positions were posted on the company website, he eagerly applied. But without even knowing interviews had been conducted, Butcher said he’d get a mass email from his manager congratulating the new newsroom writer.

“I was crushed,” he said. “I was expecting an interview, a writer’s test and then a promotion. Instead, I was overlooked, forgotten. I felt something was not right.”

When he inquired about the process, a woman in CNN’s human resources department walked him through the steps an applicant normally goes through.

“I told her none of those things are happening when I apply,” he said. “She encouraged me to keep applying. So I did.”

By then, Butcher had worked his way up to writer/segment producer and associate producer, and he said all indications were he was good at both.

When he didn’t get an interview for another position, Butcher said he asked his manager, who questioned Butcher’s level of training. When Butcher requested training opportunities, he said he was denied.

He was noticing an ugly trend.

Not only was he not afforded an opportunity to interview for writing positions, those positions were being filled by his white colleagues.

CNN vice president of communications Barbara Levin declined to comment.

In addition to the race discrimination claim, Butcher, a devout Christian, also accuses the network of religious discrimination. Specifically, Butcher’s attorney Ed Buckley said, the suit alleges Butcher was offended by repeated swearing in the workplace that took the Lord’s name in vain.

Then in July, anchor Ashley Banfield asked in an on-air segment about violence in the African-American community: “Have we lost a generation?” She questioned whether “there is an entire generation out there that cannot be changed, that cannot be reached, they just have to age and die.”

Butcher was troubled by Banfield’s remarks and sent her a private email explaining his concern and noting that she did not make similar queries in a previous segment addressing young white males who murder.

He said Banfield responded, questioning whether Butcher was suggesting she was “a racist” and that she would “take [it] up with our bosses.”

A day later, Butcher was terminated.

“I was deeply hurt,” he said.

Buckley said his client, who has since moved to Los Angeles to start his own production company, is asking for, among other things, reinstatement and/or promotion, as well as lost wages and benefits.

“We believe he engaged in protected speech when he expressed his concern,” Buckley said. “Sometimes protected speech makes people uncomfortable, but that’s why it is important. The fact that they are uncomfortable doesn’t mean they can lash out and seek retribution against the speaker.”

Buckley believes Butcher’s observations to Banfield could have been a teaching moment. Instead of lashing out, CNN could have sought to understand his client’s position.

That sadly didn’t happen.

A separate class action suit on behalf of African-American employees has also been filed against the Atlanta-based network, Turner Broadcasting System and New York-based parent company Time Warner Inc. complaining of racial discrimination.

That suit, filed in December in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia, asserts that blacks and black males in particular are discriminated against in evaluations, compensation and promotions.

The class-action identifies two plaintiffs by name but attorneys for the plaintiffs have said that at least 30 mid-level black CNN and Turner Broadcasting employees are impacted going back 20 years.

“This discrimination represents a company-wide pattern and practice, rather than a series of isolated incidents,” the suit states.

The claims are particularly egregious because they allegedly occurred within a news organization where diversity of opinion should not only be welcomed but considered a valuable commodity.

Buckley said an internal human resources document attached to the class-action suit indicates African-Americans don’t fare as well as non-blacks in personnel decisions. That dovetails with Butcher’s claims that he was passed over repeatedly for promotion.

The attorney said CNN has responded to the lawsuit, admitting some things, denying some others. Both sides are now in the discovery phase, examining the evidence.

“He was an ambitious employee who not only wanted to advance in the company and do well by the company but was shut down from that opportunity,” Buckley said.

He said that Butcher’s allegations are consistent with the overarching legal theories of the class action. Whether he will ultimately become part of that suit will depend on a number of factors, including whether or not the court permits the case to proceed as a class action.

“He can decide to pursue the case on his own or be a member of the class,” Buckley said. “We haven’t reached that point yet.”

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