THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Union says age is issue at WHDH

With contract talks at an impasse, Channel 7 says bias not a problem

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / April 12, 2011

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Viewers know WHDH-TV (Channel 7) for its flashy graphics, spot news, and a crew dominated by fresh faces including the youngest anchor team on Boston television: morning hosts Adam Williams, 30, and Anne Allred, 29.

As the station continued to add young talent last year, its parent company, Sunbeam Television of Miami, was fighting charges of age discrimination. In August, a jury awarded nearly $1 million to a former health reporter at Channel 7’s Miami sister station who said she was fired for being too old.

The lawsuit and the new hires raised an alarm at the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or AFTRA, the union that represents many of Boston’s on-air personalities. AFTRA was locked in difficult contract talks with WHDH management, talks that broke down, partly over the sensitive issue of age discrimination.

“You have to wonder whether they are looking to try to do to the talent here in Boston what a jury convicted them of doing to the talent in Miami, which was fire you on the basis of your age,’’ said Tom Higgins, AFTRA’s assistant executive director.

AFTRA had proposed adding training and creating a WHDH employee committee to deal with age discrimination in the workplace.

Age discrimination is “the dirty little secret of this business,’’ Higgins said.

The union represents 400 TV and radio broadcasters in New England, including on-air personalities at Boston TV stations WHDH, WCVB-TV (Channel 5), and WBZ-TV (Channel 4).

WHDH personalities have been working without a contract since last year. Officials at both the station and Sunbeam said on Thursday that they have reached an impasse in contract talks with AFTRA. WHDH denied any age discrimination at the station, and said it already provides enough training.

“WHDH does not discriminate in its employment practices, and provides training to its employees by a highly credentialed national trainer,’’ said Chris Wayland, general manager and vice president at WHDH, in a statement.

Wayland’s statement added that another point of contention in contract talks centered on compensation for on-air personalities. He declined to comment further, but AFTRA officials said that following the declaration of an impasse, the station implemented the terms of its own contract proposal. The union has filed an unfair-labor-practice charge against WHDH with the National Labor Relations Board.

Last August, a jury awarded $937,000 in damages to Marilyn Mitzel, the former Miami health reporter who sued Sunbeam for age discrimination. Sunbeam, which has filed an appeal, owns Boston’s WHDH and WLVI-TV (Channel 56).

A similar suit filed three years ago by former WHDH freelance reporter Mike Macklin was settled out of court in 2009.

Alan Schroeder, a broadcast professor at Northeastern University, said age-discrimination lawsuits are uncommon in a big media market like Boston, a career destination for TV reporters; once they’re hired, newscasters generally work here for many years.

“It’s a place where careers have more longevity,’’ Schroeder said.

The Boston airwaves feature such veterans as anchor Jack Williams at WBZ and WCVB reporter and anchor Susan Wornick, who have each been at their stations for more than 30 years.

Last year, WHDH hired a new weekend meteorologist and two general assignment reporters, all in their 30s. But Channel 7 also has some veteran reporters and anchors, including anchor Kim Khazei. Also on Channel 7 are political reporter Andy Hiller, general assignment reporters Victoria Block and Jonathan Hall, and lead investigator Hank Phillippi Ryan, who are all over 50.

In Boston, “Channel 7 is more unusual in its hiring of younger reporters,’’ said Schroeder. “To some extent, the hiring of younger reporters is a business decision. . . . You can pay them less.’’

AFTRA represents about 30 on-air personalities at WHDH, including lead news anchors Khazei and Frances Rivera. The union proposed that the station create a 10-member employee committee to produce a report on age discrimination at Sunbeam, and bring in an expert on age discrimination once a year.

Age-discrimination cases in broadcast are more common among women than men, who are often allowed to age on camera, said Northeastern’s Schroeder. But such cases are difficult to win, he added, because “you have to prove what was in the heads of management when they decided to get rid of the person in question.’’

In 1999, in one of the largest cases in New England, a jury ruled in favor of former Hartford anchor Janet Peckinpaugh, awarding her $3.7 million after she claimed she was fired because of her age.

Three years ago, former CNN anchor Marina Kolbe lost an age-discrimination suit against the cable news outlet. Jurors attributed the job loss to performance, and not age.

Mitzel, the Miami health reporter who sued Sunbeam, was 52 when she was fired in 2006.

In a Miami court last summer, Alice Jacobs, vice president of news for both the Miami station and WHDH, said Mitzel’s dismissal had nothing to do with age discrimination, but was part of a strategy to reduce health-related stories and focus more on breaking news.

“What happened with Marilyn is one more manifestation of, ‘Young and pretty is what we want,’ ’’ argued William Amlong, Mitzel’s attorney in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “She is lovely, but she is not 20 anymore.’’

Amlong also noted that as people live longer, they are also looking to work longer, and that includes broadcasters.

“There are so many older workers who are staying in the workplace, and I think that goes for TV folks, too,’’ said Amlong.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.