WNET’s plan to address diversity and inclusion leaves some employees feeling shut out

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WNET's street-level studios in Manhattan.

An internal conflict over diversity, equity and inclusion at WNET reached a turning point this fall when management created a new employee advisory group to help address problems with the organization’s work environment.

Shapiro

The Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Advisory Council, known as the IDEA Council, includes 12 mid-level managers and producers who will advise Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Eugenia Harvey and CEO Neal Shapiro on reforms that have been in the works since last year. A Nov. 18 announcement of the council’s first members, a racially diverse group that will serve one- or two-year terms, follows through on recommendations developed by outside consultants after a workplace study. The IDEA Council also provides a “fresh start” for efforts to improve WNET’s DEI practices, Harvey told Current in an interview.

The new group supplants a larger, employee-led organization known as the Inclusion and Diversity Council that has taken a forceful stance in calling out problems since June. The IDC, which has worked through the human resources office to promote diversity initiatives for several years, lost recognition of its role and the limited funds that have supported its activities. In interviews with Current, some IDC members described the creation of the IDEA Council as a reprimand for their efforts and a way for senior management to silence their voices.

This summer, the IDC sharply rebuked Shapiro for his decisions in the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And in October, as management organized the IDEA Council, the IDC publicly called for Shapiro’s resignation.

In an Oct. 8 letter that described Shapiro as a “roadblock” to meaningful change, the council published critiques of senior managers and outlined its agenda for reform on its website, dearneal.com. The site had been password-protected since June, but restricted access was lifted with the IDC’s decision to go public with its campaign for change.

The IDC had pressed leadership to open a dialogue this summer; its members saw management’s decision to create a new council as the final straw. “Our sort of mantra is we want to be heard, not handled,” said an IDC-affiliated producer. “We feel we’ve been handled from a distance from the very start.”

The producer was one of 12 IDC-affiliated current employees who spoke with Current for this story. All but one current employee asked to speak anonymously because they feared retaliation or termination for publicly criticizing senior managers or the organization as a whole. Current also interviewed two former employees, one of whom spoke on the record.

In interviews with Current, Shapiro and Harvey described the conflict as mostly a “quarrel over process,” as Harvey also told a reporter for the New York Times. Both executives expect to have a better working relationship with the IDEA Council than the IDC, which collected employee signatures to demonstrate support for its agenda. In its letter calling for Shapiro’s resignation, the IDC withheld the identities of signatories.

Shapiro said the letter was “disheartening,” adding, “Having even one unhappy worker is one unhappy worker too many, even if they’re anonymous.”

Harvey

Harvey, an executive producer who took on the role of chief DEI officer in June, is eager to turn the page and enter the new year with fewer conflicts.

“I’m very optimistic,” Harvey told Current last month. “Life gave us a reset.”

WNET is among many media organizations whose leadership has been called to account for problems with diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplace practices, culture and coverage. Entry- and mid-level employees at all types of media companies — from daily newspapers to magazines, cable news networks, digital media conglomerates and public media organizations — have demanded elimination of pay gaps tied to race and gender, accountability for goals to achieve workforce diversity and a redefinition of standards for objectivity in journalism.

‘Racial makeup never seemed right’

By publicly sharing its agenda for change, the IDC provided a rare window into the conflict over racial and power dynamics within one of public media’s largest and most recognized institutions.

WNET/Thirteen, the PBS station and national producer serving New York City, is the flagship station within the WNET Group, a multichannel regional public broadcaster that includes WLIW television and radio in Long Island, N.Y., and NJTV in New Jersey. Its national production unit brings series such as PBS NewsHour Weekend, Great Performances, Nature and American Masters to PBS and the nation. WNET also oversees All Arts, a multimedia platform launched in 2019; regional news programs MetroFocus and NJTV Spotlight News; and Amanpour & Company, a PBS talk show co-produced with CNN.

Like most public media organizations, WNET’s workforce and leadership are predominantly white. One IDC member, a white producer, said some employees don’t have upward mobility or institutional power.

“I hear over and over again that this is so many people’s dream jobs,” the producer said. “But the environment makes it a nightmare. It feels very much top-down and divisive. That’s beyond the IDC issues.”

The IDC was created in 2015 by a group of employees who wanted to promote diversity in hiring and other workplace initiatives, co-founders Julie Anderson and Jerry Godfrey recalled in interviews with Current.

Anderson

Anderson, EP of the 2017 PBS documentary The Talk: Race in America, joined WNET in 2012 after working at HBO, BET, ESPN and CNN. At the time, WNET did not have a diversity group, which made the station an anomaly among her previous employers, she said. Anderson, who left WNET in 2017, was also concerned that few people of color worked in upper management or held seats on the board of trustees.

“To have them serving public television with that kind of racial makeup just never seemed right to me and to us,” she said. “Had we been in Nebraska, maybe that would be OK, but in New York it just doesn’t seem like it’s OK. And … it didn’t feel like the company was really focused on changing that.”

After the co-founders first discussed their concerns with human resources staff, the IDC launched with about a dozen white and nonwhite participants. Its activities included a successful event series featuring panel discussions on diversity in the theatre, film and media; social events for staff; a fellowship program; and a mentorship system to support new hires.

“My intention was to demonstrate how a diverse group of people coming together across the company can create and accomplish great things,” said Godfrey, a production manager who spearheaded the speaker series in 2016. He later stepped back from the IDC but will serve on the new IDEA Council, which convenes its first monthly meeting in January.

All 12 of the IDC-affiliated employees told Current that the council’s membership spiked when staff came to meetings to discuss issues with senior managers on various teams, such as WLIW, All Arts and Great Performances. The council’s charter stipulates that its meetings provide a safe space for employees to discuss problems in the workplace.

In 2019, the IDC began speaking up about problems in recruitment and promotion. Council members advocated for internal reviews of WNET’s hiring and promotion practices and the lack of diversity in WNET’s content, from the producers and editors who hold key decision-making roles to the communities that are represented on the air. They set a goal to create benchmarks that would hold senior leaders accountable for DEI improvements, according to several IDC members.

Shapiro, a former president of NBC News who has served as WNET’s president and CEO since 2008, responded by committing to hiring a chief DEI officer and reserving money in the budget to do so, he told Current in an interview.

He also sought outside advice and selected Jennifer Brown Consulting to research current practices and recommend reforms. The firm, which specializes in guiding companies in creating inclusive and equitable workplaces, has consulted with media organizations such as the New York Times and New York Public Radio.

JBC’s work for WNET was to be informed by staff surveys and focus groups. Findings would be used as a baseline for tracking progress and for the firm’s recommendations on training and other initiatives, according to the station’s DEI report for fiscal 2019–20.

The report also described a goal for 2021: Management and the consultants intended to “reposition the current Inclusion and Diversity Council” to become an advisory group that assists with implementation of DEI initiatives.

Delivery of the JBC’s study and recommendations, which had been scheduled for February, was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. By the time the consultants presented their report in August, the idea of adapting the IDC for the next phase of DEI reform was no longer in play.

‘Wrong call’ on Black Lives Matter

The dispute between the IDC and senior management began in June, when leadership botched WNET’s response to the police killing of George Floyd, according to the IDC’s timeline of events.

After days of silence as protests for social justice and police accountability spread around the world, WNET released a June 1 statement from Shapiro describing racism as “a cancer in the soul of this nation.” The statement pointedly did not mention the Black Lives Matter movement, an omission that troubled Anderson and nearly all of the IDC members who spoke to Current.

Then, on June 3, WNET posted a 30-second video that was a positive and compassionate portrayal of police interacting with Black people. Shapiro had overseen production of the video, which was shared on social media accounts for Thirteen. It triggered an immediate outcry from staff and was deleted, according to IDC members and Shapiro.

Shapiro took responsibility for the police video during a virtual all-staff meeting the next day. According to an IDC transcript of the meeting, which Shapiro confirmed as accurate, he said that he saw the episode as an example of “how tricky this is to associate your image with something else. And how perilous it is.”

He also cited journalistic standards for objectivity in explaining his decision not to use the words “Black Lives Matter” in his June 1 statement. As a public media organization that produces news, WNET couldn’t express support for Black Lives Matter because the phrase is linked to a network of advocacy groups, he said. He saw such a statement as a violation of journalism standards.

Days later, Shapiro acknowledged that he had made the “wrong call” regarding Black Lives Matter. In a June 7 memo to staff, he wrote: “It’s become clear that these words do not simply designate an advocacy group but stand for a fundamental and vital principle.”

By this time, IDC members had begun drafting their first letter expressing the frustrations of staff and supporters over all that had transpired. Released internally June 9 on the dearneal.com website and addressed to Shapiro, the letter described institutional racism as a “longstanding and unacknowledged problem inside WNET. We need to call it out at this organization, an institution we all care so deeply about.”

The letter was signed by 152 current and 102 former staffers along with 58 friends whose names were displayed while the site was password-protected. It demanded suspension of management’s DEI efforts, including the hiring of a chief diversity officer, “until we all have the opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue discussing the best way forward.” The number of signatures by current employees represented 40% of the 380 employees reported in the WNET Group’s 2019–20 DEI report.

But in a move that many IDC members saw as an escalation of the conflict, Shapiro appointed Harvey as chief DEI officer. “As we seek to make decisions and content that better reflects and serves our diverse communities internally and externally, the role of Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer is more important than ever,” Shapiro said in a June 18 news release announcing the promotion.

‘People have to speak plainly’

Twelve of the IDC members who spoke to Current felt management had sidestepped their “good faith” requests for dialogue. The IDC wanted WNET to conduct a national search for a human resources professional with expertise in DEI practices. It also sought a role in the recruitment process.

They were also concerned that Harvey, who is Black, had been set up to fail. IDC members expressed respect for her professionalism but said the work it will take to fix WNET’s culture can’t be accomplished as a side job.

Harvey is a veteran television news producer and programmer who has worked for ABC News, CBS News, CNN and BET. As an EP, Harvey leads two WNET content initiatives, Chasing the Dream: Poverty & Opportunity in America and Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.

“It’s insulting to assume that someone, just because they’re Black, can lead diversity at a media organization of this size. It’s ridiculous,” said a producer who described herself as a Black woman. “I’ve had similar experiences to Eugenia with racism. But I do not have the arrogance to think that I could lead diversity at an organization without years of training. It blows my mind.”

Shapiro refuted the criticisms in an interview with Current. He described Harvey as “incredibly qualified for this role” because of her production experience, knowledge of how WNET operates and lived experiences.

“In short order, she has hit the ground running, spearheading lots of innovation, in part because of who she is and in part because she knows our company so well,” he said. “There’s been a very small learning curve.”

Harvey pushed back against the IDC’s concerns that she won’t be able to devote adequate time to her new responsibilities. Her 60-hour workweeks demonstrate how committed she is to the organization, she said.

Some employees regarded the IDC’s reprimands of management as overly harsh or nitpicking. Its critique of Shapiro’s statement characterizing racism as a cancer reflected a “profound misunderstanding of our nation’s history and its current reality,” the IDC stated in its June 1 letter, adding: “Racism is not an anomaly separate from us, rather, it is woven into the fabric of this country and, in fact, our own institution.”

An IDC-affiliated employee who has worked for the WNET Group for more than a decade pointed to a PBS NewsHour interview with scholar Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, who has drawn parallels between racism and cancer. To this employee, it was clear that Shapiro meant no harm by the comparison.

But another IDC member and longtime employee pushed back on complaints about the tone of its letters. “There’s often this policing of other people’s language to make sure that it’s polite,” the employee said.

“In this context, when people have to speak plainly and are saying things that are often uncomfortable and sometimes painful, I don’t think that it is valid to prioritize civility over truth,” the employee said. “No one has been uncivil, but we have certainly been plainspoken.”

As the tensions grew over the summer, distrust deepened over each side’s tactics for gaining advantage. After a senior manager accessed the IDC’s digital working documents, several IDC members saw it as a violation of its safe-space principles. The IDC was also barred from providing content to the employee newsletter unless management approved its submissions.

The IDC developed back channels for communicating while protecting the identities of its 50 active members. It established a private Slack channel and an encrypted email account in addition to the “Dear Neal” website. The group appointed two spokespeople to communicate with senior leaders. Those who chose to participate in private videoconferences with Harvey turned their cameras off and blocked displays of their names.

To Harvey and Shapiro, the IDC’s decision to shield employees’ identities meant that they didn’t know how many employees the IDC truly represented.

‘What you can control is what matters’

Consultant Chelsea Williams presented findings and recommendations from the JBC study to staff in August. She described the IDC as a “wonderful group of people” but went on to say that the council wasn’t operating under best practices for workplace diversity groups, according to a video of her virtual presentation that an IDC member shared with Current. Her primary concern was that the IDC doesn’t work directly with or report to management.

JBC found that Black, Hispanic/Latino and LGBTQ staff feel marginalized within WNET and that many employees perceive white women as “the ‘in group’” with the most opportunities to advance. The study also identified problems with favoritism and nepotism.

Williams reported that employees and managers have very different views about the workplace climate and the dissimilarities lead to “confusion, discomfort, frustration and anger from all involved.” These feelings were shared by employees who aren’t IDC members as well as employees who are.

More than half of the staff — 253 of 400 working for WNET at the time of the JBC study — had completed the companywide survey. The researchers also convened six focus groups and conducted one-on-one interviews with 12 senior leaders and six IDC members, according to the presentation video.

In a written question posed to Williams, one unidentified staff member asked why employees should trust Jennifer Brown Consulting’s study and recommendations. Williams hesitated before replying, “We took the time to get to know your staff members, we had intimate conversations to hear you in a safe space and really took a lot of your thoughts and perceptions and shared them.”

“I can’t control how you feel about what we’ve offered, but what you can control is what matters,” she added. “DEI obviously matters at your organization.”

In September, Shapiro announced that management was moving ahead with a JBC recommendation to create the IDEA Council, which he described as a “reformalized version of the IDC.” He invited staff to apply to serve on the new council. The questionnaire would ask applicants to address their “positive commitment to diversity and experience with diversity efforts (work, community),” he wrote in a Sept. 25 memo.

IDC members had objected to the plan in an earlier meeting with Shapiro, Harvey and a senior JBC consultant; Harvey joined a separate meeting to hear them out. Their primary concern was that applicants for the IDEA Council would be selected by an anonymous review panel, whose members had been nominated by senior managers. Twelve of the IDC members told Current they believed their concerns about the IDEA Council made no difference, reinforcing their beliefs that the JBC study was being used to silence them.

When management later announced the staff selected for the IDEA Council, the list included IDC co-founders Jermaine Pinnock, director of media services, and Godfrey. Identities of the staff who served on the seven-member review panel were also announced.

In an interview, Harvey expressed appreciation for the IDC, though she disagreed with its decision to publish its criticisms. “The IDC really shed a lot of light on the pain points in the company,” she said. “For that, I’m certainly grateful, and Neal is as well.”

With the IDEA Council’s formation, management is offering a “functional path forward,” she said. “Let’s try to move in this way that these experts have assured us have worked for companies like ours. Let’s try it instead of not trying it. Let’s try to move forward together.”

WNET’s agenda moving forward includes antiracism training for the board and senior management team. Harvey also plans to examine the station’s procurement process with a goal to “build a supplier diversity program,” she said. 

Management will also work on improving diversity in its board structure and will revisit its policy for nondisclosure and separation agreements, which has prevented some former employees from being able to speak freely about issues they faced at the organization, Harvey said. And last month WNET initiated a search for a senior director for diversity, equity and inclusion who will work with Harvey on these priorities.

The board of trustees supports the approach that management has taken. In a statement to Current, Chair Edgar Wachenheim III said Shapiro and his leadership team “have been working hard to make diversity a priority at WNET. And while there have been some bumps in the road, they have continued to move forward in a positive way, with my complete support and the support of the entire Board.” 

IDC co-founders offered mixed assessments of the progress so far. Godfrey hopes that IDC members and senior managers can somehow settle their differences and work together “to create a better path forward,” he said.

Anderson, the EP who departed in 2017, has watched the conflict from outside. She shares concerns that management is attempting to silence IDC members, who have been courageous in speaking up about WNET’s problems, she said. 

“I think it’s important to have these uncomfortable conversations,” she said. “It’s the only way we can solve any of these problems.”

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